- Jack Hubbell
Across Europe in a 1959 Mercedes Benz
Updated: Feb 22
I was walking to the Magnolia Film shop on a sunny afternoon when I came across a vintage Mercedes parked in front of the Fabrika Hostel. Could see that it was from the 1950s. I've typically only seen cars like this at shows, where every detail is perfectly restored and cared for. On the other hand, this specimen was covered in dust and grime, and the interior was packed with travel gear. I chuckled at the mere thought that someone in this city was just casually using a vintage Mercedes Benz as a daily driver. It was then that I noticed the car had tags from Germany, which increased my curiosity.
Finding vehicles with foreign plates is not entirely abnormal in Tbilisi, but Germany is a 44-hour drive away, fraught with dangerous roads that would be difficult in a modern car with all sorts of electronic creature comforts and driving assist modes.
There is a particular type of crazy that I admire, and driving a beat-up classic car through nearly a dozen countries with horrible traffic and worse roads is the exact kind of crazy I'm crazy about.
I knew I needed to hear the story that brought this relic of history to stand before me. I snapped a picture and posted it to a tourist page on Facebook, asking if anyone had information on the car. I walked into the courtyard behind Fabrika, where the shops are, and began to question every shop clerk and passerby if they knew the driver of this strange vehicle.
After numerous strange looks, I obtained a phone number to whom I hoped to be the car's owner. I fired off a text hoping that the recipient wouldn't find it too insane that I had tracked him down in such a manner.
Patrick, the owner, got back to me shortly after, and while he was initially very skeptical as to how I had procured his number, we arranged to meet near the car for some beers.
For some reason, I was expecting Patrick to be older, but I found a young man sitting at a table in front of the bar with long dark brown hair and a beard that made him resemble a german version of Dave Grohl. I sat down with him and another traveler he had met on a recent train ride to Armenia.
We sipped our pilsners in the dimly lit courtyard, and I listened in fascination to him recount the trip, which went through Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Montenegro, Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia, Greece, and finally, Turkey before crossing the border to Georgia.
Along the way, Patrick shipped spare parts to his hotel rooms. He'd install the parts on the road unless a local mechanic let him use their shop for a few hours.
Kosovo seemed to be his favorite stop along the way. He met a man who had moved back to his hometown from Germany. The town was poor but had an abundance of apple orchards. He had learned to make good liquor during his time in Germany and brought the knowledge back to his hometown.
"He started a business of making liquor out of all the apples there. So I think when I make my long journey back, I'll spend a month or maybe longer helping to make some apple vodka with the guy," he said.
The next day, we took a drive out to the countryside. Unfortunately, the film lab was out of color stock, so I picked up a small disposable camera with a lovely Lomography film inside. I figured I could break it open and put the film in my camera instead.
Patrick drove like he had lived in Tbilisi his whole life.
"I love the chaos of this city," He exclaimed while slamming the car into second gear to overtake a beat-up BMW.
The car had a stick shift on the steering wheel column, which is not something many people know how to drive anymore, but Patrick clearly had a lot of experience.
"To me, it's now just as easy as driving anything. It's somewhat like a normal car, just like that Toyota... whatever the hell it is, in front of us." He said, waving his hand in the direction of the compact car in question. "However, it's a lot more fun... I think anyway."
He continued to tell me more stories about the people he had met along the way. His tales of partying with locals and drinking strange nameless booze in towns I hadn't yet heard of reminded me again of why I initially wanted to move to this part of the world. It's infectious to those who find the straight lines of modernity suffocating. It's an escape from the ever-encroaching walls of safety and security. Watching Patrick grin as he split lanes between two semi-trucks on the highway was a vast departure from overhearing ex-pats in cafes bitch and moan about what they would change about this country if they could.
"I love the people in this part of the world," he said. "They really understand life on a fundamentally different level than they do in the west. In some ways, they are more free."
Patrick seemed to have a knack for finding people to talk to with great stories. Of course, I'm sure the car helped to some degree.
"Unfortunately, it's not a chick magnet by any means," Patrick stated. "However, it does attract a lot of attention from the male portion of the population."
"I think it could be a chick magnet if you talked about it in a more romantic way, it's a beautiful little car."
"You're probably right," he said, "but that just wouldn't feel right to me. It's not some accessory for a trendy vintage aesthetic. I drive it because I like it and the feeling that it gives me."
What I liked most about the short trip was witnessing Patrick's lack of fear of losing a car he loved so much. He drove it through snow, ice, and in every condition imaginable. Someone eventually replied to the original post I had made on Facebook. It was something along the lines of "I can't believe someone would disrespect such a classic." However, Patrick had spoken about the new laws possibly coming into effect in Germany that would place harsher restrictions on cars like this.
"They already have one in a museum somewhere," Patrick stated. "We really don't have much time left to enjoy these things; they don't last forever anyway. I'm going to enjoy this one the best way I know how, by driving the hell out of it."
In a small town in the mountains outside Tbilisi, we attempted to change the film from the disposable to the Olympus SLR. Unfortunately, I realized too late that disposable cameras wind film backward, which meant that we had just ruined a large portion of the film upon opening the small camera. Patrick quickly grabbed a screwdriver from his collection of tools in the trunk.
"You aren't concerned if we destroy the winding mechanism on this little thing are you?" Patrick asked.
"Not at all," I responded.
I placed the lid back on, and Patrick jammed the screwdriver into the soft plastic of the winding knob and began twisting the film back into the canister.
I had little faith that we would get any usable shots, but I was delighted when I returned to the photo lab a few days later to find that we had several great shots. Though some have burnt edges, I think I prefer it that way. I guess it adds something to the story, which is all I ever cared about anyway.