Justice Geoffrey Kirywabwire’s Mercedes Benz 200 that falls under the manufacturer’s classification as a W123 is was registered in Uganda on March 23, 1978 with UWJ 419 number plate series.
Bought from Spear Motors Limited, the 44-year old black car was first owned by the late Jovan Kiryabwire, who, in his will, gave it to his son, Geoffrey Kiryabwire, who is the second and current owner. It is one of the cars in which Geoffrey learnt to drive as a teenager, before he fully owned it at 21. It was one of the cars that were selected, though not used in the movie The Last King of Scotland.
Running on a 2000cc four-speed, petrol manual transmission engine, with a maximum speed of 240km/hr, the Benz’s decker radio is still functional. The engine is started by turning the ignition key from the left hand side of the steering wheel, while the handbrake is on the right hand side, a few centimetres to the steering wheel.
Justice Kirywabwire has also kept the car’s original service and maintenance book that shows you where each car part is located and how it is replaced or serviced, and its original logbook. Any car enthusiast will know how to dismantle and reassemble this car using the detailed illustrations in the maintenance manual. For instance, for an engine overhaul, it shows which parts are critical and how to go about the process.
Much as the Benz W123 was released in the 1970s, Geoffrey recalls it became popular in the 1980s and early 1990s especially since many people wanted to use it as a bridal car.
“On September 19, 1992, I chauffeured Justice George and Catherine Bamugemereire to their wedding. Medical superintendents at Mulago National referral Hospital at the time such as Lawrence Kaggwa and Edward Naddumba also used it as their bridal car and I was their driver,” Geoffrey recalls.
As Jovan aged, the Benz W123 was no longer his car of choice. He parked it in the garage for a long time from where it significantly deteriorated before Geoffrey picked it up in 2005 to start its restoration. At the time, the seats were rotten due to rat waste. While the electronic system had also not been spared by the rats, the Benz W123 had also rusted. At the restoration garage, the car had to undergo complete striping. The restoration process started in 2005.
“It was a phase with no timetable. Whenever I got some money, I worked on a part or two. I started with the body, followed by the electrical system, the engine and the seats before spraying. What surprised me was that even before the restoration could start, when I connected the battery, the engine started. It proved the engineering strength of this brand,” Geoffrey recalls.
Restoration took eight years. It eventually came out of the garage in a roadworthy condition in 2015, the year in which it became popular. In 2018, the Benz W123 won an award, (car with the most intriguing history) during the vintage and classic auto show at Sheraton.
During the restoration process, Geoffrey sourced for parts such as the gearlever from Spear Motors Limited, open markets and from old Mercedes brands no longer in use.
A few parts such as the windscreen were imported from Germany because the original one had cracked. Because the alternator could not charge the battery, he acquired one for a left hand drive model that was then changed to be a right hand drive. The new seats with fresh sponge material were locally sourced.
“If you want to restore any car, throw away the receipts since it is hard to put a price to it. When you start, it becomes a passion and hobby,” Geoffrey says.
John Burrows Lumu, a mechanic, says with the exception of sourcing for spare parts, vintage cars are easier to restore since they were manufactured with strong and durable steel compared to modern cars.
“Most vintage cars, including the Mercedes Benz W123 and the many I have had a chance to restore, were abandoned and left to rot away in bushes. Most parts may be outdated but the body is always intact. The challenge is that mechanics who understand such cars few and hard to find. Their spare parts are also costly and most are not sourced locally,” Lumu explains.
Geoffrey drives his Benz only during the weekends. He services it once or twice a year and replaces parts such as oil filters, engine oil and fuel filters and other few key parts, which all costs not more than Shs250,000.