Mercedes-Benz Club Sri Lanka: Tropical Festival

A beach full of stars, when the Mercedes-Benz Club Sri Lanka drives by, classic cars get the spotlight.

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On the bustling streets of Sri Lanka, nothing can get these people flustered. The traffic huffs and puffs bumper to bumper, busses and trucks come within a whisker of the coconut stalls as they go by. Tuk-tuks honk their way through the chaos. Cows and water buffaloes lumber in the middle of it all, and sometimes even the occasional elephant can be spotted by the side of the road. All perfectly normal for these environs.

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But at noon on this particular day, people stop, pull out their mobile phones and point in wondrous amazement at what is rolling past before their very eyes. Even during the home team’s cricket match against the West Indies, the image is briefly shown on TV – someone must have sent it to the station from their mobile phone: three classic Mercedes-Benz cars gliding sublimely through the crowded traffic.

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They are beguilingly beautiful cars, so immaculately spruced up as if they had just come off the production line: a 220 SE coupé of the 111 “Fintail” series, a 190 SL and a 170 S saloon, back then called “sedan”. Flashing chrome trim, sparkling bumper horns, and majestic bonnets reflect the palm trees.

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Driving fun is the order of the day.

Sidath Fernando, 61, is behind the wheel of the 190 SL. He is incorrigible when it comes to falling in love with classic cars bearing the three-pointed star, restoring them to the best possible condition and then cruising the strips of Sri Lanka in them himself. Today he wants to pay a visit some of the most beautiful places on the island with his family and friends. Sidath Fernando has served three terms as president of the club, one of the most active in all of Asia. But until the meeting gets underway, pure driving fun is the order of the day. Sidath and the others step on the gas, the engines sound strong and rich – southward to the coast of Bentota!

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The wind blows a velvety breeze through the open cockpit as we cruise at 60 kilometres per hour past coconut palms, the golden beaches of the Indian Ocean, and the blue waves behind them.

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The three classics become the stuff of dreams – at least for pale Western Europeans. You’ll not find as stunning a setting as this in Germany. Conversely, the fact that the historic cars look so brilliant against the exotic backdrop is mainly due to a special trait of Sidath. Some call it obsession. But with him it’s probably more than that.

“I can’t help it,” says Sidath. “I’m a perfectionist. It starts with my shoes. I don’t leave the house without polished shoes.” And only the finest of the finest
shoe polish is suitable for him; he also shines his shoes himself every morning. The biscuit mogul, entrepreneur and real-estate investor from Colombo certainly wouldn’t need to do that. But Sidath is something of a grandmaster when it comes to exactitude. And as such, it’s best to tackle things yourself. Shoes – and cars even more so!

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He owns a total of 38 Mercedes-Benz classic cars, mostly in their original condition, the majority of them in tip-top shape. No easy task in tropical Sri Lanka, where the humid climate even causes safes to rust. It takes sophisticated sacrifice to maintain such a fine collection of classics here. “It started with me when I was 16: I had just bought my first car and started learning tricks from mechanics. Soon I bought my first Mercedes-Benz, a 190 diesel. From then on, there was no turning back.”

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Happy enthusiast: Sidath Fernando

In Sri Lanka, Mercedes-Benz cars have always been considered status symbols. Politicians drive them, as do businessmen and local celebrities. But since they achieved independence in 1948, the import of old foreign cars has been prohibited on the island – and remains so to this day. Over the years, Sidath has therefore acquired more and more remaining originals from days gone by.

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Many of the vehicles were neglected, and some owners had simply left them to the heat and humidity for years: poison for every car. But Sidath travelled to Europe on business, including to Germany – and always had a few large, empty suitcases with him.

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“As soon as I landed,” he says, “I drove to the nearest junkyard to get parts for my cars.” Soon he was driving across the Federal Republic, attending auctions, building up a network of car-loving friends who had what he was looking for: fog lamps, cigarette lighters, chrome and engine parts, valves, antennas or even the rare grab ropes for the 170 S. At home in his warehouse, the lucky discoveries piled up until they filled the shelves several metres high.

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Sidath needed all these parts to restore every single one of his fleet and bring it back into top shape: “It’s in my blood. Sheer madness, but I just can’t help it.”

In Sri Lanka, he had long since begun to do his own wrenching, and at some point knew the name of every head gasket along with every whitewall tyre and its serial number. His collection grew. He even began leading workshops, gave tips on where to get ahold of old original parts abroad, and how best to restore the classics. Soon, with his unbridled enthusiasm, he had gathered a classic car scene in Sri Lanka around him, whereas the club was founded in 1990 – and has existed continuously ever since.

On his excursions into the vastness of the Mercedes-Benz cosmos, Sidath dug up more and more supplies: Becker radios, windscreen wipers, high-volume horns, untouched original handles for the glove compartment of his roadster. Because the import of spare parts was always allowed. Not only did his collection grow, but he was also able to constantly improve the condition of his gems, screw by screw, trim strip by trim strip. A multimillionaire who to this day prefers to dive headfirst under his bonnets or contemplatively mount a padded sun visor that he unearthed somewhere in even better condition. What can you say? Sidath Fernando is a man with a certain drive.

He parks his 190 SL under a palm tree at the famous Dondra Head Lighthouse in the afternoon, gets out and stands in the hot tropical sun right next to the car. One man, one car. That’s how the scene could be titled – if there weren’t 37 more starred dreams at home in his garage.

“I started when I was 16. I had just bought my first car and started learning tricks from mechanics. Soon I bought my first Mercedes-Benz. From then on, there was no turning back.”

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Enthusiastic: The young generation

The group continues the next morning. The other cars are driven by Sidath’s daughter Kushali and Amrit Alles, a family friend whose father was one of the original co-founders of the club. Kushali is 21, Amrit 27. They belong to the young generation of classic aficionados. Amrit studied in Australia, where he financed his first own Mercedes-Benz and to this end drove thousands of kilometres through Down Under.

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Wrenching, sanding, grinding, painting… Amrit also knows how to do all that. Today, he and his brother look after his father’s cars. He himself owns three Mercedes-Benz models in Sri Lanka, including a 190 SL from 1957 and a 230 TE from 1985. “Rosie” he calls the first of his favourites, “Hendricks” the second. “The third one doesn’t have a name yet,” says Amrit. “It won’t get it until I finish restoring it.” At noon, the three Mercedes-Benz vehicles wind their way through the historic Galle Fort, a Unesco World Heritage Site because of its colonial architecture. Time-honoured buildings, chic boutique hotels and hip cafes have turned the former trade district into a hotspot on Sri Lanka. Wearing dark sunglasses, Kushali, Sidath’s younger daughter, steers the Fintail coupé through the narrow streets, past the lighthouse and rocks. “The classics are very close to my heart, especially the blue ones,” she says. When she was a little girl, she used to wash the cars by hand with her father.

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And then she fondly remembers the trips to her grandmother’s. “For over 17 years, we drove one of the cars to my grandma’s house every Sunday to visit her. Often my sister and I got to sit in the front, which was always magical and exciting.” The next day they drive out of the city and up into the cooler Hill Country, where green tea terraces shine, the jungle becomes denser and cheeky macaques pop up again and again. The cars make a stop at Sri Dalada Maligawa, the temple where, according to tradition, Buddha’s left canine tooth is kept. Next, the group winds its away through the legendary 18 Bends, serpentines that twist through the mountains like a cobra many kilometres long. At Sigiriya, an old friend of Sidath’s joins the group: Nigel Austin, 76, another founder of the brand club and a diamond manufacturer. His custom-cut gems are sold to the famous watchmaking brands in Switzerland, but nothing sparkles as beautifully for Nigel as “the stars on the bonnets”.

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“I love these cars,” he says, “and I love driving my 1997 CL 600 and my 2010 S 63 AMG even more.” But he too knows that the classics will have to be placed in the hands of the younger generation at some point. “And for that, it’s not enough to want to drive them,” Nigel knows. “What you need is real passion.” He now climbs into the Fintail coupé and presses down on the accelerator. In convoy, they drive the three cars back south: two generations, one passion and above all the tropical, mild magic of Sri Lanka. An elephant stands at the roadside next to the rice fields on the Mahaweli River. It waves its trunk, turns its head. Until the tail lamps disappear behind the next bend towards the capital Colombo. It’s time for the showdown at sunset on the Indian Ocean.

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No coincidence: 20 stars on the beach

As we make our way through Colombo, more and more cars join up with Sidath’s group. They all drive together to Port City, right up to the edge of the sea. The time is just before sunset when exactly 20 stars line up in perfect formation on the beach. And it is no coincidence that there are exactly 20 vehicles: there are this many because this issue celebrates the 20th anniversary of Mercedes-Benz Classic magazine. Thank you for the very charming visit, dear Mercedes-Benz Club Sri Lanka! The owners and friends of the automotive precious objects, of these cultural heritages on four wheels that have brought them all together, view the imposing picture of the gathering from the outside – from a kind of gallery.

Around six o’clock, the sun sinks down into the sea. Sidath Fernando, his daughter Kushali, Amrit Alles, Nigel Austin and all the others in attendance simply enjoy this moment down here by the ocean. And tonight, the stars in this evening’s sky, on this beach, are shining bright.

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Mercdes-Benz Club Sri Lanka.

On 3 May 1990, twelve men met at the Ramada Renaissance Hotel in Colombo and founded the club. Since then, the brand club (currently 150 members owning around 300 cars) has become one of the oldest in Asia. Membership is open to anyone who has owned a Mercedes-Benz for two years, is nominated by a committee member and finally accepted by a majority. This applies to drivers of all ages. The highlight of the club’s history was its 30th anniversary in 2020, which the members duly celebrated and specifically for this occasion commissioned the production of an elegant, 200-page coffee table book. Gathered in it are those objects that are at the heart of everything: dream cars from many different decades – plus the proud owners and their very personal stories under the sign of the star.

Find out more

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Text: Marc Bielefeld
Photos: Amy Shore, Amrit Alles, Marc Bielefeld