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Inside Mercedes’ workshop for restoring its classics

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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?

“Well, we have this one available right now if someone is interested, and it’s priced at $1.9 million,” says von Kageneck, walking up to a silver-over-red-leather 1955 example. He explains that the roughly 20% premium over current Gullwing values is the result of this car having been converted to an all-aluminum body by the factory a few decades back.

“It’s not one of the original Gullwings that were made in aluminum,” he concedes. “But then again, there were only 29 of those and they’re worth around $4.6 million. So this you could say is a good deal.”

Another so-called good deal, depending on which percentage group your income places you, sits a few feet away. Lacking a body, this 1954 Gullwing’s running gear awaits a full restoration by anyone with $1.4 million.

“It’s the 44th Gullwing ever made, back when most of the parts were still hand-tooled and hand-welded,” says von Kageneck. “Whoever buys it can pick not only from the original six colors it was offered in, but nearly 40 others. It’s an opportunity to create a new classic Gullwing to your specifications.”

The tour continues, past a small selection of Mercedes-Benz souvenirs for sale (from picnic blankets to cufflinks) and into a small room with high ceilings. Cars are stacked two-high along both walls, while posters of famous Mercedes racing wins line the walls. This is a combination museum (each car has a small display plaque) and hangout area for customers who aren’t quite sure they know what they’re doing with their rare vehicles.

Over here, there’s a 1972 Mercedes-Benz 600 limousine that served at the Germany embassy in Paris, while on a lift nearby is Porsche-nut Jerry Seinfeld’s monstrous 1997 E60 supersedan (“It’s so wide we can barely get it on the lift”).

One of the more intriguing cars in this area is in body-only form: a former SL convertible whose new owner is having it transformed into a rare vintage-SLS racing beast. The car was purchased for around $1 million, which will include the cost of the full build.

“We have the advantage of having access to all company blueprints and information from back in the day,” says von Kageneck, who notes that the wait for a completed Classic Center restoration is about five years. “A few years ago, we had a 1963 230SL in and I wound up having to translate 13 pages of documents for our mechanics. Some (restoration) shops may be willing to go to those lengths, but not many.”

There are unquestionably a number of top auto restorers around the country who can bring a Gullwing back to vibrant life. But what you do get here at the Classic Center is a guaranteed focus on one marque, as well as considerable nerd-level expertise on the topic at hand. As if to prove the point, von Kageneck hovers over a delicious chocolate brown 190SL cabriolet whose owner ponied nearly $300,000 for the bragging rights.

“It’s a stunning car, no question,” he says. “But the paint is actually just a touch too shiny as compared to what it would have been originally. It’s tough today because all of today’s paints are water-based, but that’s where the skill of a craftsman comes in.”

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Leaving this display area, von Kageneck weaves through the shop floor, where nearly a dozen workers - many trained by the Mercedes factory in Germany - wet-sand fenders and hover over engine wiring.

In one bay sits a jet-black 1961 300, a pillarless wonder often referred to as an Adenauer, after Konrad Adenauer, the first chancellor of West Germany. “It is by far the most difficult post-war car for us to work on,” sighs von Kageneck. “You’ve got the lack of roof support to start with, which makes the panel gaps just so tough to get right.”

Two mechanics push a Gullwing into another bay, a pristine machine in an odd but factory-correct strawberry metallic hue (the car had been vandalized with a hammer). Not far away is a 1911 Benz that had sustained fire damage and needs considerable work on its wood-packed body.

“What’s amazing about working here is you are always stumbling into history,” says von Kageneck, urging a visitor to consider the story of the 1910 Mercedes Simplex that sits on the top row of the Classic Center’s showroom. With its wooden frame and engine hand-crank, it is a vestige of an era when a Tesla Model S would have been deemed a spaceship from another planet.

He walks over to yet another gem, this a 1938 Type 230 Cabriolet, recently purchased at auction in Pebble Beach. The beige car with beige top looks like a solid driver, and in fact its octogenarian new owner just wants the folks here to make sure it’s safe to drive daily — if also slowly considering its blinkers are wooden semaphores that pop out of the windscreen.

“What’s amazing is that the car came with boxes of documents, and in going through them all we discovered that it had been with the same family for 70 years,” he says. “And they’d kept everything.”

The paperwork in question included not only every service receipt for the car over some 80 years, but also its story, which included a flight from Germany into Czechoslovakia during the height of World War II, and eventually a trip to the United States.

“It’s incredible what lengths some people go to to keep a special car, and that right there is a justification for what we do,” says von Kageneck. “For some, these are more than just automobiles. And we exist to keep them alive.”

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