California’s star-studded treasure trove is hard to find. For the most exclusive Mercedes-Benz classic cars in the USA are well hidden away in an industrial park some 45 minutes south of Los Angeles. Behind the unprepossessing gates lie automotive gems that make any visitor’s eyes pop.
The grey Mercedes-Benz 300, one of the rare “Adenauer cabriolets”, is the most spectacular model to have paid a visit to the Classic Center in recent months. The grey specimen is probably the finest of its kind to be found anywhere in the world. “In the last four years, we’ve painstakingly restored the vehicle,” says Michael Kunz, General Manager of the Mercedes-Benz Classic Center in Irvine.
In the late 1950s, the sales brochure for the closed-top 300 model used such slogans as “mirror image of progress” and “island of safety and comfort”. None of that appears an exaggeration even by today’s standards, because the open-top 300 “Adenauer” is a flying carpet, the like of which has scarcely existed even in the history of the automobile. “The owner wishes to remain anonymous,” says Michael Kunz, adding even more suspense to the story. “He has many cars, including a gullwing.”
The 300 d Cabriolet originates from 1960 and was in a truly pitiable state prior to its restoration. As the original moss green was not to the liking of the present owner, the open-top four-door vehicle was painted grey. “The entire restoration was highly complex. During that time, we learned a great deal about the car and its technology,” admits Kunz.
The location of the star-studded treasure trove is hardly a surprise, because southern California is home to more expensive classic cars worthy of preservation than anywhere else. That was also the thinking of the Daimler management when, in 2005, the decision was made to set up a Classic Center on US soil. Since 2006, wealthy customers have been lining up to bring their historic cars to Irvine for inspection, repair or complete restoration. The showroom itself is enough to send a mild tingle down the spine of most automotive fans.
On the immediate left behind the entrance stands a white 560 SL of the R 107 model series from 1987. An absolute gem – in its original condition, of course. The white sun worshipper with beige leather seats is resplendent with its full equipment specification. Welcome to a treasure trove of classic cars! That much becomes apparent to the visitor upon setting eyes on a dark grey Mercedes-Benz 300 S. The mighty cabriolet from 1956 is one of just 49 produced units of the Sc variant with petrol injection. Its key attributes include 175 hp, perfectly restored condition and rare graphite grey paint finish, as well as the grey interior.
The lady behind the decorative reception counter initially leaves the visitor in peace. This is probably not the first time she has seen a visitor's eyes pop on entering the Classic Center. At the rear right of the showroom stands a gleaming white Mercedes-Benz 450 SEL 6.9. The windscreen wiper is adorned with a handwritten label: 229 miles – with none of the expected zeros behind the number. The interior is in dark blue leather. Luxury radio, heated seats in front and rear, automatic air conditioning – 'fully loaded', as the Americans say.
Unless one is a true automotive aficionado, it is advisable to stay well clear of the Classic Center in Irvine. For the showroom itself boasts only a few vehicles, just those that are for sale. The jewels currently in the process of being restored are parked in the workshops at the back. Michael Kunz has been in charge of the Classic Center since its official opening almost 11 years ago: 'Everything has developed marvellously. Of course, we ourselves weren't sure initially whether customers would take up our offer.'
They did – since then, vehicles from all over the USA have been making their way to Orange County, to the south of Los Angeles. Some customers bring in a 'gullwing' for servicing, while others want a dent repairing on their 107 model. Yet others are in search of a suitable retro roadster as a birthday present for their wife. 'We do all the same things that our colleagues at the Classic Center in Fellbach can do,' explains Michael Kunz, 'just on a slightly smaller scale.'
The yard at the back of the building is home to the odd Mercedes-Benz 300 TD Turbodiesel of the 123 model series. 'The customer, who lives close to San Francisco, brought the car to us a while ago because he wants to continue using it as an everyday vehicle and it needs a few faults ironing out. The vehicle is still with its first owner and has 230,000 miles on the clock,' adds Kunz. 'The complete repair job, inside and out, with new paintwork and everything finally came to over 40,000 dollars. A lot of money for a car that's actually worth a lot less. Yet the vehicle is quite simply a memento. We have many such customers.'
The Classic Center makes half of its money from the sale of parts. Located in Whatney Avenue in Irvine, the Classic Center currently employs around 20 people, no fewer than eight of them in the workshop. The technicians there can look forward every day to working on gems such as rare 'gullwings' or even racing versions of the 300 SL. 'Most customers come to us with major repairs. The kind of jobs Mercedes-Benz dealers can no longer do,' explains Classic manager Kunz. Just like the vehicles for sale in the showroom, the services of the specialists in the workshop at the Classic Center are nothing for bargain-hunters.
Such a one is car collector Aaron Weiss, who owns arguably the largest collection of 16-cylinder models in the USA. The fleet of the soon-to-be retiree is currently undergoing a transformation – with help from the Classic Center. The building adjacent to his private collection houses not only majestic 16-cylinder battleships from Marmon and Cadillac from the early 1930s, but also specimens bearing the three-pointed star.
Here a Mercedes-Benz 380 SLC, there a 'Pagoda' and, on the stage, the Californian's new love: a Mercedes-Benz 290 Cabriolet A from 1936. 'We're in the process of restoring it to its original condition. It comes from Wiesbaden. The previous owner even opted for heated seats because of the cool temperatures there,' says Weiss, shaking his head. The green beauty will soon be finished. At that point, the wife of Aaron Weiss will probably switch to a different Mercedes than her beloved E 320 from 1995.
The blue 190 SL might be the appropriate everyday family runabout; it has just returned from an inspection at the Classic Center. Aaron Weiss intends to take it out for a run this very moment – because, in the Californian's opinion, a classic car is not just there to be looked at. So it's fortunate that his five children, too, have slowly acquired a taste for their father's passion. All their first names begin with A – which explains why, when the Weiss family hits the road on a classic trip, they simply call themselves the 'Flying A Garage'.