On the eve of setting off to 2019 Monterey Car Week in her 1962 Mercedes-Benz 220S Fintail, Belinda Clontz’s home flooded on all three floors. But that was just the beginning of the roadblocks.
As she prepared her Fintail for a week of festivities at Pebble Beach, Clontz discovered it had a leak from a split differential. In full-swing panic mode, she backed out of the garage to take the 220S to its mechanic and crashed into the side of a retaining wall. The incident called for an emergency re-chrome of the rear bumper that had to be completed within 24 hours.
On her way to Monterey, Clontz hit a thick wave of fog as she drove through a deteriorating road under construction. And just when she thought life could not get any worse, a giant piece of wood flew off the back of a truck, only missing her car by a few inches. When she finally arrived in Monterey, the garage to the house she rented was not available on the first night. Her car had to be parked outside under the swampy ocean mist, causing her to not get much sleep all night.
Clontz describes the experience as “going through hell” to make sure her Fintail got onto the lawn at Legends of the Autobahn, where she was the only woman showing off a vehicle; interestingly, it also happened to be the 60th anniversary of the Mercedes-Benz Fintail. Clontz entered her 220S into the Class 2 and 4 categories and won first place, which made going through hell worth it. We sat down with her to talk about her passion for Mercedes, and more.
Your devotion to Mercedes-Benz is quite remarkable. What prompted your loyalty to the marque?
Belinda Clontz: I have a passion for anything that has to do with women behind the wheel, and Mercedes-Benz is the embodiment of that. When Karl Benz invented the Benz Patent-Motorwagen, his wife Bertha Benz took it out on the road to introduce it to the world. With her two children on board, Bertha drove the Motorwagen for 65 miles to her parent’s house and made history as the first person to drive a car for a long-distance. Imagine seeing a woman driving this thing on wheels through the countryside by herself–and with kids in tow.
I admire any woman who is willing to do something that no one else has done. Bertha Benz was ahead of her time and I consider her a significant pioneer in the creation of the automobile.
How did you first become interested in cars?
BC: I grew up in a rural part of North Carolina and we didn’t have a lot of entertainment, so my dad cleared off some land and built a go-kart track for me and the neighbors. I was the only girl racing all of the boys in the neighborhood. My uncle Jerry, who lived across the street, worked at a dealership and came home with a different car every day. He’d always be driving the latest cars and I remember being so excited to see them. From an early age, I knew that driving new cars meant that you had to work hard and that one day I’d be driving one, too.
Why did you purchase your Mercedes-Benz Fintail, and what condition was it in?
BC: I purchased the Mercedes-Benz 220S for my 40th birthday sort of as my midlife crisis car. Years before I acquired this 220S, I had a very scary accident in a two-seater vintage car. After that car accident, I wanted a vintage car that I would feel protected in while driving through Los Angeles traffic. When I took delivery of the Fintail, it was in semi-restored shape, and in fairly good overall condition. Though it was not in the immaculate condition it is now, I could tell that it was well taken care of and loved by the previous owner.
Did the seller include anything cool with the Fintail?
BC: The original owner was so meticulous about the maintenance and record keeping that he saved about a two-foot stack of documents and receipts, which were included with the car.
Who was the original owner?
BC: My Mercedes-Benz Fintail was previously owned by a gentleman that served in the U.S. Army. Before he was released from service, he pre-ordered this 220S while he was stationed in Europe. I have the letters of correspondence and shipping documents from when the car was being built in the Stuttgart factory, to its delivery at the Port of Long Beach. This car has spent its entire life in Southern California, and I am the second owner.
Tell us about the engine and transmission.
BC: The engine was completely rebuilt, and it has a four-speed manual transmission with a shifter they call “four on the tree.” I can tell you that no valet in Los Angeles can park the car because they don’t know how to operate this style of shifter. And let’s face it, most people here don’t drive manuals. As of right now, the engine has 266,000 miles and is going strong.
That gorgeous all-red interior though…
BC: The interior was done by the previous owner, but I’ve done some upgrades. I bought an entire car just to pull out the factory A/C and have it installed in my car. I added period correct headrests to the seats, which only come in the limousines and took me more than three years to find.
The front grille sports a number of interesting badges. Is there one that is more special than the others?
BC: There is a 250,000-kilometer badge that was awarded by Mercedes for high mileage. They award these badges to cars that have the miles documented. I had the paperwork and obtained the badge in honor of the original owner. It’s my connection to him, and being that he put the miles on the car, I think he’d be proud to see the high-mileage badge on the Fintail’s grille.
Your Fintail has a set of fog lights that are rare. How did you find a pair in such decent condition?
BC: Those fog lights found me. If you put it out in the universe that you are looking for something, things have a way of finding you. I acquired this set of Marchal 660 Fantastic fog lights from a very dear friend who only deals in Marchal lights, and they are period correct for rallying a car. The set on my Fintail is rare in terms of rather than just being fog lights that clip on, these are installed with plates that become a part of the car’s structure.
Have you given your 220S a nickname?
BC: His name is “Finny the Fintail,” and everyone knows him by “Finny.” People talk to me like Finny is my child and it humors me.
The whitewalls on Finny are super clean. Is your Fintail a garage queen?
BC: It certainly isn’t a daily driver; however, it does get some sunlight once or twice a week. If I am feeling really enthusiastic, I drive it five days a week and will go anywhere in Los Angeles.
Owning any classic car requires serious dedication. What does it take to own a vintage Mercedes?
BC: It takes a flexible sense of humor, lots of patience, and finding the right person who works on the particular model you own. Having connections to people who can help you is an integral part of ownership and upkeep of a vintage car.
When I was getting ready for Monterey Car Week, I faced one of my worst fears and stood underneath the car while it was on a lift. I was standing there for over an hour looking for the leak and it turned out to be the differential. That’s the kind of patience it takes to own an old car.
Do you ever get your hands dirty and work on your car?
BC: The last time I did, I took the engine bay apart and polished everything by hand.
You’ve recently acquired an estate of 20 vintage Mercedes cars and a warehouse full of car parts …
BC: This particular estate kind of fell into my lap and I couldn’t turn it down. It’s given me an opportunity to do research and learn more about vintage Mercedes cars. I’ve been meeting new people through the sales from this estate and it’s been a really fun experience.
What does the Mercedes-Benz Fintail mean to you?
BC: When the Fintail initially came into my possession, it meant so much to me because I knew that I bought a car that was loved and well taken care of. But then I did some research on the history of Fintails and discovered Ewy Rosqvist and Ursula Wirth. They won the 1962 Grand Prix of Argentina in a Mercedes-Benz 220SE Fintail and were the first women to ever win that grueling race.
I also learned that Mercedes-Benz modeled all of its safety engineering after the W111 chassis, which the Fintail was built on. The Fintail means more to me now than when I first bought it. That car is priceless to me.
Who is, to you, the most inspiring figure in the history of Mercedes-Benz?
BC: My love for Mercedes-Benz stems from the fact that it was helped to be founded by a woman. Bertha Benz believed so much in her husband’s Motorwagen that she invested her inheritance money in his business. Although she was not allowed to be named as one of the inventors at the time, Bertha also contributed to the design and engineering of the Motorwagen. She took the Motorwagen on its first test drive and helped put Karl Benz on the map as the inventor of the first automobile. Her role in the history of Mercedes-Benz is influential and inspires me every time I get out on the road with my Fintail.