Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Mercedes Benz 1213 ‘War Horse’

 Backbone is precious. Whether you’re fighting a war, or getting married, or running a business – having someone in your corner with backbone, and a heart of gold – is a treasure. In 1990 Welkom’s Jake Jacobs bought a feisty Mercedes Benz 1213 truck from its owner at HL&H Timbers. By then anyone could be forgiven for thinking the 12 year old 1213, which already had 1.8 million kilometres on the clock, was scrap on wheels. After paying R18 000 for it (a 1984 model 1013 is currently selling for R35 000 on Gumtree) and putting in a new engine, Jacobs put the beige little-truck-that-could to work.
If the 1213 worked hard for HL&H Timbers, its new boss, Mr. Jacobs, drove it through hell and back. Jacobs himself sat behind the wide black steering wheel for the first two years, guiding his charge far and wide, his heart determined to grow his new business come hell or high-water. Since Jacobs was (and still is) the director of A&S Mining, the truck had to convey upwards of 25 tons every day – towards far flung mining sites in Rustenburg, Durban and Cape Town. While the truck had averaged 410 kilometres a day making timber deliveries, that shot up to 600 kilometres a day delivering heavy metal generators and spine crushing steel cables – endless coils of the stuff mines use to brace or otherwise reinforce subterranean tunnels of rock. The truck was such a consistent performer she soon took on the name ‘Old Faithful’.
Over the next thirty years the Mercedes’ engine was rebuilt four times, saw four different radiators and brake drums replaced five times. Eight new sets of clutches were fitted, and the front axles replaced on two occasions. The gearbox was redone once. It just kept on going.
If the L-series cab-after-engine Mercedes Benz truck Jacobs purchased for his business seems idiosyncratic in its wire-hard toughness, don’t be fooled. The Germans had hard-wired these 4 speed merchants to be long-distance, heavy load specialists. As an export product, the Kurzhauber (“short bonnet” as the Germans called it) was leaving the Gaggenau plants and nailing the markets of South America, the Middle East and Africa. The first two numbers of the model designation reflected the tonnage (12 in this case) and horsepower (13) respectively, a convention that started in the 60’s and survives to this day.
And while similar iterations to the 1213 had been fanning out all over Saudi Arabia since the 60’s (and well into the 80’s), what makes this truck’s legacy unique was that in Saudi – and in Africa – the sheer spread of dirt roads (which have no weight limits on haulage) meant these trucks could be driven into the ground – literally. Their popularity sprang from their endurance, their reliability and best of all, their sheer indestructibility. The trucks seemed to be able to carry far heavier loads than they were designed to...which meant that entrepreneurs like Jake Jacobs had hit the jackpot by purchasing this truck. Nothing, it seems, could kill it.
Over the next 2.3 million kilometres, which saw 20 upholstery makeovers and 6 paint jobs, and day-night trips reaching 1200km, the 1213 remained “the hardest working truck in the yard, bar none.” A&S Mining grew and grew, and Jacobs was soon able to acquire a small fleet of trucks, but his 1213 remained the star.
“That truck,” Jacobs explains over a steaming coffee, his gaze steely and steady, “never stood along the side of the road. We always used it to rescue other trucks.” Jacobs calculates his six drivers took the truck’s total distance up to 4.7-4.8 million kilometres. Whilst “Old Faithful” is currently hauling less weight (8 tons) and driving less (just 200km per day on average), Jacobs remains committed to her. He says parts for the 1978 production vehicle remain plentiful. Marinus de Korte, who has spent the last 4 years working for A&S Mining, says the truck “grows on you.”
“The steering wheel,” de Korte adds in Afrikaans, “has a bit of play – but for its age it still drives very well.” Another driver, David Malefane – who has worked with A&S since 1988, describes a harrowing adventure with the 1213 through Hluluwe in Kwa-Zulu Natal. Steep, wet, curvy roads made for a tough spell conveying 300 tons of steel cables through snake infested jungle. It was one adventure among many that the truck pulled through without complaint. Malefane sums up the truck with this: “Sy’s lekker sterk en sy breek nie.” (She’s strong and unbreakable).
“That’s why we keep her around still,” Jacobs adds. “This is an irreplaceable machine.” Today A&S Mining has contracts with all South Africa’s main mines. In the same way that miners in South Africa built up this country, and oil men in Saudi got that country rigged and ready to provide liquid energy to the world, the nuts and bolts underlining the labours of those hard men came from well-built German machines like the Mercedes Benz 1213.

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