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On Top of the World

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Tags: Motorsport, Heritage
Janine Vogler, November 28, 2019
Janine Vogler Vintage cars related to ZF-products have been at the heart of the journalist. Outside of work, she enjoys to ride motor bike or to be accompanied in nature by her dog.
Driving a Mercedes-Benz Pagoda on the New Silk Road Rallye from Hamburg to Hong Kong – a Swiss couple made this dream come true while putting their trust in ZF technology: Shortly before taking off on their trip around the world, Kurt and Susi Infanger had a 5-speed transmission that had been built as a replica for their Pagoda installed at ZF Tradition. Nothing then stood in the way of the New Silk Road Rallye becoming the journey of a lifetime.

To travel more than 14,000 kilometers over the steppes of Kazakhstan and the Tibetan Plateau in 60 days in a classic car – that is something that presents a major challenge for both man and machine. But when the Swiss do something, they do it right: Kurt Infanger bought his Mercedes-Benz 230 SL (W113) just one year before the rally, making two dreams a reality at once: In addition to participating in the dream route that took them over the “Roof of the World”, he had his Pagoda rebuilt to be almost identical to the one driven by racing legend Eugen Böhringer.

In the early 1960s, Böhringer achieved spectacular, still unforgotten long-distance successes in his Pagoda – such as that of Liège-Sofia-Liège. Even the vehicle’s interior was adapted in the style of the original to feature checkered upholstery fabric between black leather. Kurt Infanger, who describes himself as an enthusiastic driver and passionate connoisseur of the mountains, was fascinated by long-distance racing even as a child and wanted to enjoy this experience himself.

An extreme rally like the New Silk Road Rallye with its 14,000 kilometers came just in time to serve as an adventure at the beginning of retirement for him and his wife Susi. The Mercedes-Benz Pagoda, generally regarded as reliable and rugged, with spacious driving comfort and a sporty chassis, seemed to him to be the ideal vehicle for this adventure – but it was also clear to Kurt Infanger that the S5-20 5-speed transmission from ZF, which was originally offered as an option, should also be on board: The S5-20 provides more driving comfort and fun through lower rpm, and also guarantees economical fuel consumption.

A few years ago, ZF had responded to customer requests and started to offer the possibility of converting from 4-speed to 5-speed with original spare parts built as replicas. The ZF 5-speed transmission was originally offered as an option for the 230 SL, 250 SL, and 280 SL, as well as for the 300 SE, SEb, and SEL, but only a few owners made use of this when purchasing a vehicle. Today, however, drivers are reluctant to sacrifice comfort, so there is more demand than ever for the 5-speed transmission. In the area of hard-to-get or even unavailable wear and spare parts, ZF offers repair kits with synchronizer sets as well as bearing and seal sets in each case.

This replica project also made it possible for Kurt Infanger to have his Pagoda retrofitted at ZF Tradition in Friedrichshafen. It was an investment that was absolutely worth it, because with power steering and the ZF S5-20, his Pagoda can be steered almost like a new car. After all, some mountain passes took the 14 participating teams up to 5,380 meters high, and such altitudes always mean loss of performance – not only for humans. “The speed limit in Tibet is 80 km/h, but we turned the cars loose on the mountain passes,” explains the congenial native of Switzerland.

When the air became very thin, the participants used oxygen cylinders for a short time…

When the air became very thin, the participants used oxygen cylinders for a short time…

The extraordinary tour took them through eight countries and a lot of deserted, unknown terrain as well as formerly closed and restricted areas: over gravel roads in Uzbekistan, across the Tibetan Plateau with herds of cows, sheep, and yaks blocking the way along the northern side of the Himalayas – and with the trip crowned by a breathtaking sojourn at over 5,000 meters above sea level on Mount Everest in Tibet. When the air became very thin, the participants used oxygen cylinders for a short time: the cylinders were connected to two small hoses, which were then put to the nose. However, more of their breath was taken away by the magnificent natural wonders and the encounters with people along the route.

Throughout the trip, the participants were accompanied by a crew of mechanics, and a doctor was sometimes also along for the ride. After two months, the Infangers arrived at the end of their dream trip safely and happily in the destination city of Hong Kong. While their cars were shipped in containers, the participants flew back home – the Infangers were not able to take delivery of their Pagoda until two months later. Sand and dust from half the world still testified to this unique adventure.

Many unforgettable impressions, but also the engagement with the respective conditions of each region and the challenge of doing without their accustomed domestic standards, made the New Silk Road Rallye the journey of a lifetime for the Infangers. They maintain their enthusiasm – both for their Pagoda, to which the Infangers have now established a personal bond, and for the journey itself. It likely won’t be the last one for them ...