It is 1990, and word of the imminent release of Nelson Mandela is spreading through the factory at the Mercedes-Benz plant in East London, South Africa. One can only imagine that the excitement is overwhelming, and the idea of a gift for Madiba is decided.
The gift is perhaps less of a surprise when the company’s culture is better understood. In the late 80s, Mercedes-Benz South Africa was the first of the local automotive companies to formally recognise a black labour organisation. The union later became the now formidable NUMSA – National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa.
When Nelson Mandela’s release was announced, the story goes that the NUMSA heads sat down and tried to find a way to honour him. They decided to build a top of the range Mercedes-Benz, built in their spare time for no pay. The union bosses approached the company who donated the parts, and the workers put in extra hours to put the car together quickly, over just four days.
The Nelson Mandela Mercedes-Benz comes to life
The chassis was inscribed with the South African flag (I assume it would have been the old flag) and Nelson Mandela’s name. According to those there at the time, the attention given to this particular car was unparalleled. The car left the factory “blemish free” – many agree that this was the best Mercedes-Benz S Class ever built by the plant.
The car is a Mercedes Benz S500, the W126 model of the late ‘80s, early ‘90s. I’m almost stunned to say I can’t be sure whether it was a V8 or straight-six, but I’m pretty sure that for Nelson Mandela they would have fitted the V8, either the 5.0 litre or bigger 5.6 litre.
The W126 was a groundbreaking car, as so many generations of S Classes have become. The model introduced the modern airbag, patented by Mercedes Benz in 1971. This particular model had passenger side airbags, seat belt pre-tensioners and traction control and heated seats. A car fit for a future icon.
The Handover and the friendship
The Madiba car was presented to then Dr Nelson Mandela on 22 July 1990 at the Sisa Dukasha Stadium in Mdantsane, near East London.
Mercedes Benz employee to this day, Philip Groom, recalls how he was asked to hand over the key to Mr Mandela. He says he was so nervous, he asked his father to help with the speech. He was of course to meet the newly free struggle leader, and handover the car in front of 30 000 people.
The car sparked a friendship between Nelson Mandela and Mercedes Benz South Africa. In 1998, when then DaimlerChrysler AG chairman Prof Jurgen Shrempp announced a billion-rand investment in the plant, Nelson Mandela was standing next to him. At that ceremony, a brand new S Class was given to Mandela, and the red S500 was retired to take up a proud spot in the Mercedes-Benz collection in East London.
On display today
Excitingly, the car is publically viewable today. The red Mercedes-Benz S500 is on display at the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, as part of a larger exhibition on the life of Nelson Mandela. The car has been registered with a brilliant personalised number plate: 999 NRM GP – standing for Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela.