The forgotten Australian-built cars: Mercedes-Benz

A look back at some of the surprising cars built right here in Australia that time has forgotten. First up, Mercedes-Benz.

When we think of car manufacturing in Australia, we think of Ford and Holden. Throw in Toyota and Nissan, Chrysler and Mitsubishi and to most people, you have the sum parts of our history of local car manufacturing.

But, our car-building heritage runs far deeper than just the Big Two. And a lot of it is thanks to just one firm, Australian Motor Industries, which in order to circumvent cost-prohibitive import taxes on fully imported vehicles, assembled cars from complete knock down (CKD) kits from a host of international brands right here in Australia including variously Triumph Standard, American Motors Corporation (AMC), Toyota and Mercedes-Benz.

Say what? That bastion of German prestige was once built in Australia? Yes indeed.

The story starts in 1953 when the then Australian government levied big taxes, as much as 65 per cent, in the form of an ‘import licence’, on fully-imported cars (sound familiar?).

However, cars manufactured in Australia, and using some locally-sourced components, were exempt from this ‘import licence’, making them much more affordable for Aussie buyers.

The Australian-built Merc story starts in 1958 when what was previously the Standard Motor Company, found itself in a spot of financial bother. Needing to diversify, the company rebranded itself to Australian Motor Industries (AMI) and entered into an agreement with Mercedes-Benz to not only build, but also distribute cars in Australia.

The first car to roll off the Port Melbourne production line in February 1959 was a W180 series Mercedes-Benz 220s, informally known as the ‘Ponton’ (pictured above). It was one of just 354 W180 Series cars made in Australia before AMI switched its focus to the new W111 Series, colloquially and famously known as Heckflosse, German for ‘Fintail’.

The S-Class of its day, the W111 Series Mercedes-Benz remains a classic today, revered for its Friedrich Geiger-designed bodywork and levels of luxury and comfort rarely seen in 1959 when it entered series production.

AMI built several variants of the W111, the most popular the Mercedes-Benz 220Sb (3216 assembled) which featured Merc’s venerable fuel-injected 2.2-litre M127 inline six-cylinder good for 88kW.

A further 2076 Mercedes-Benz 220SE models were made in Port Melbourne before head office back in Germany took over Australian distribution rights and became a fully-fledged importer. The last Australian-built Merc drove out of Port Melbourne in 1965.

Total production numbers remained vague, although in the 1980s, then Group Manager, National Car Sales, Mercedes-Benz (Australia) Dietmar Haug revealed some 6390 Mercs had been made in Australia from 1959-65.

But while the three-pointed star on the bonnet spoke of German quality, the reality was that Aussie-assembled Mercs – with bodies welded together locally before also being painted here – weren’t completed to the same exacting standard as their German counterparts.

Still, it’s hard to imagine today, but for a brief few and glorious years, the pinnacle of German motoring was built right here in Australia, even if they were prone to rust.

Rob Margeit

Rob Margeit has been an automotive journalist for over 20 years, covering both motorsport and the car industry. Rob joined CarAdvice in 2016 after a long career at Australian Consolidated Press. Rob covers automotive news and car reviews while also writing in-depth feature articles on historically significant cars and auto manufacturers. He also loves discovering obscure models and researching their genesis and history.

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