A few days ago, I flew to the city of Cali, Colombia where I found an eclectic trio of German vehicles. Together they constitute something like an eighties utility sampler pack, but their owner, Daniel, simply refers to his collection as ”The White Fleet.”
His garage includes three very intriguing cars, even when considered separate from one another. On one side we have a 1988 Mercedes-Benz 300GD with its steering wheel on the right, an unusual configuration to come across in Colombia. Then a 1982 Mercedes-Benz S123 280TE from 1982 in exceptional condition, with just enough period-correct AMG accessories to stand out. And finally, we have the most radical of the lot, and the least stock: A 1986 BMW E30 325es that’s been converted into a Ute layout, mimicking the E30 pickup concept that BMW built in 1986. Together these three make up a very unique garage, but let’s look at each on its own.
Daniel acquired his example of the famous Geländewagen back in 2014, and although on paper it did not sound that attractive—a five-cylinder three-liter engine with only 88 horses is nothing exceptional—Daniel was happy to buy it. Besides the righthand drive config, the most interesting aspect of this truck is its history: This G-Wagen was originally exported to Kenya as a diplomatic vehicle for the German ambassador, who had it in his service for several years in different cities of the world, first in Nairobi, Kenya then in Lima, Peru, until finally in 1996 he and arrived in Bogotá, Colombia with the truck as part of the ambassador’s household effects.
It still has all the maintenance records from Nairobi, Lima, and Bogotá, and despite all the places it’s been, the odometer only shows 70,000km. According to Daniel, it is the most reliable member of his garage, and mechanically it is a very capable truck for the demanding terrain that can be found all over Colombia. As a further curious fact and a testament to how reliable this model is, this is the same truck used by the Germans Gunther and Christine Holtorf, who traveled more than 900,000km in theirs, across 215 countries for 26 years!
Mercedes-Benz 280TE “AMG look”
This 280TE was ordered in 1982 with full equipment: sunroof, seven seats, automatic transmission, the works. It was bought by Daniel’s father a few years ago for the purpose of a restoration project. He dedicated himself to the car for years, working on it when he could and finally getting the car to qualify for Colombian blue plates (given to classic cars that are original or are restorations that meet a certain standard).
After some time enjoying it as it was, Daniel began to see the potential of his father’s wagon as something to lightly modify. He’d been a fan of the AMG styling from the period, and thanks to his friend Michel—an avid connoisseur of vintage cars himself—Daniel sourced 16-inch AMG “Penta” wheels to start building his dad’s car into a light tribute.
As time went on, Daniel was able to source more parts for the wagon, like an original AMG body kit that includes the front, side, and rear skirts. Then came the roof spoiler and the four-spoke steering wheel. Finally, the exhaust system was modified following the characteristics that AMG offered at the time. Daniel also added extra details like coco mat carpets that combine very well with the upholstery, while the surfboard up top makes use of the long roof.
BMW E30 325es “Ute Tribute”
Back in 2012, Daniel saw a video featuring a unique pickup truck built out of an E92 M3 running laps on the Nürburgring. That conversion captured his attention, but it wasn’t the first time somebody had chopped a cargo bed into the back of a 3-Series. In 1986, BMW itself converted a 325es into a pickup truck or “ute,” wherein it was used as a utility vehicle inside the factory. The original featured a two-liter M10 engine, but later on BMW swapped an S14 in from the E30 M3.
Daniel was delighted by the idea of making his own 3-Series ute, albeit with a more humble motor, and he shared his desire to make one with Juan Carlos Leyton from a well-known local workshop Leyton’s Restoration Cali. They began looking for a candidate, and in the summer of 2017, after years of looking on and off, a 325es coupe appeared for sale that looked like the right car. It had been in a state of relative abandonment and was offered at a good price, and coincidentally it was a 1986 car, the same model year that BMW used for its original.
The car needed work, and a year passed before the first cuts were made. For a while they deliberated on whether to start the project at all, what with the costs and time and custom work involved, but after seeing BMW’s Christmas commercial with a red E30 pickup hauling a tree Daniel decided it was time to get on with it.
They started the conversion in 2018 in Leyton’s workshop with the goal of making it as accurate as possible to the original car. Once the interior of the E30 was removed, they studied the structure to start planning the necessary reinforcements. The floor was strengthened, and a framework of chassis support was built for the back to replace the support no longer generated the B and C pillars and rear roof. Finally, the roof was cut, and despite the general skepticism of the people involved in doing so, the project was moving along nicely.
In the process they found a few surprises, such as a limited slip differential, many more mechanical parts in exceptional condition. Since it was a North American version, bumpers for the European model had to be sourced, as well as the 15-inch BBS wheels that BMW used on its car, painted in the same Nogaro Silver color. The seats were upholstered in red, and finally the bodywork was painted in Alpine White. What remained of the roof was covered with the same Cabrio canvas as used on the factory’s example. To keep consistent with the original, Daniel’s E30 also has a no-slip diamond plate metal floor in the bed area. About eight months after they’d begun, they completed their ute tribute.
Despite the radical affront to purists who believe in the E30’s myth, it is still a project inspired by what BMW itself built in the past, and it is certainly a reproduction with appropriate attention paid to detail at the very least. Together with the SUV and wagon wearing three-pointed stars, the BMW helps make up a very cool group of automobiles that prove you don’t need a warehouse or a few million bucks to put together a themed car collection.