Inside Mercedes’ workshop for restoring its classics
Depending on your automotive allegiances, the Mercedes-Benz Classic Center in Irvine, Calif., is either merely impressive or downright Valhalla. Established in 2006, the Classic Center is the U.S. branch of Mercedes’ 20-year-old facility north of Stuttgart dedicated to factory-quality restoration of the marque’s classic machines, which by the company’s definition means being out of production for at least two decades.
What makes the Classic Center, located just off the busy I-5 thoroughfare, particularly unique is that it offers a U.S.-based option for either someone wanting a top-flight ground-up resto job on their vehicle or those in the market for a rare bird with an HQ seal of approval. In contrast, Prancing Horse aficionados wanting to take advantage of that company’s vaunted Ferrari Classiche program need to plan a trip to Maranello, Italy.
“Opening here was a natural for us,” says Classic Center spokesman and bonafide car geek Constantin von Kageneck, the lone German among 22 staffers. “If you look at the concentration of both wealth and surviving classic Mercedes cars, both are here in southern California.”
The center’s combination showroom-garage sprawls over some 18,000 square feet and is set amid a rather anonymous array of car dealerships and automotive-aftermarket companies. During a recent visit, the showroom brimmed with a range of Mercedes triumphs, including a recreation of Karl Benz’s revolutionary 1886 Motor Wagen and a special touring machine from 1905.
“This is something,” says von Kageneck with considerable understatement. “In the early part of the last century, Daimler wanted to make inroads into the U.S. market, so they made a partnership with Steinway, the piano company, to produce what was called the American Mercedes. But in 1907, the factory burned with 60 cars in it and all the records. We’ve never seen another one, though if anyone out there has one we’d certainly like to know about it.”
Those century-old classics aside, the real meat of the operation here revolves around an iconic Mercedes-Benz sports car whose values have soared in recent years: the 300 SL.
Produced between 1954 and 1957 in both convertible (1,800 examples) and vaunted Gullwing coupe (1,400) configurations, the SL made such racing and pop culture headlines in its day that it continues to serve as both company icon and styling guide (just look at the tribute that is Mercedes’ current SLS Gullwing). Less than a decade ago, Gullwings could trade hands for around $500,000. Today?