Last summer Mercedes-Benz opened up its wonderful new Classic Center, located in a massive converted airline hangar in Long Beach, California. While most of the space is used to process new Mercedes before they are sent off to dealers, more than 40,000 square feet is reserved for the restoration, upkeep, storage and display of classics. We got to spend a Friday afternoon at the new space with Mike Kunz, the manager of the Classic Center, where he gave us a tour of the overhauled facility and picked out a special car to take for a spin.
After being greeted by a C-Class DTM race car next to the reception desk and making our way past the gift shop filled with very enticing merch, walking into the main lobby is instant SL sensory overload. There are two 300SL roadsters and three 300SL gullwings, and each car has a unique, wild story. One is chassis number 51, which Kunz describes as a “milestone car” as it has features like a straight shifter and knock-off rudge wheels that would become common on subsequent cars. The original owner of another Gullwing, upon arriving at the factory to take delivery of the black options-less car he ordered, decided he wanted all the options after all, and he wanted the car painted white with a custom black interior. So Mercedes told him to come back in a week, plucked another Gullwing off the assembly line and outfitted it how he wanted. Also loaned to the Classic Center by the owner is a huge display case filled with basically every single piece of W198 memorabilia you could possibly have, from brochures and info booklets to a kilo of original paint and full tool kits and spare parts, all of which would be valued at well over $100,000.
Entering the workshop itself, one of the biggest improvements to the Classic Center’s new facility is immediately apparent: There’s just way more usable space, about double what the old building had, and it’s all much more optimized. Kunz says it used to take hours to move cars around the old workshop, but that’s no longer an issue. Higher ceilings make the space feel less claustrophobic, the lighting is way nicer and able to be adjusted for perfect analysis of paint and bodywork, and there’s better organization for tools and parts. Separate rooms surrounding the main workshop floor are used for welding, component testing, metal work, upholstery and other sections of the restoration process. The whole place is kept super clean and quiet, with only the occasional power tool noise or dirty glove permeating the space.
An automatically opening garage door leads out of the pristine workshop and into the rest of the hangar, most of which is taken up by hundreds of new SLs, S-Classes, electric EQ models and G-Classes awaiting delivery. But in a corner just outside the workshop, next to the newly constructed paint booth, sit a handful of strange, rare and wonderful Benzes. There’s a pristine, beige W123 300D sedan with just 27,000 miles, all of which were done on a dyno – the car was used as an emissions calibration test vehicle. A lovely dark teal 500E came from Japan, and it has a number of modifications that the Classic Center is undoing. An armored ex-United Nations W221 S-Class is being refurbished and prepped for display at Mercedes’ Manhattan dealership, hopefully with working gadgets. One of the most famous cars is Jerry Seinfeld’s E60 AMG, complete with custom Seinfeld badges and sill plates. Seinfeld never actually owned the car; it was given to him for a year-long loan and then retained
At our potential disposal for the day are a European-spec W126 560SEC with a factory blue velour interior, a bright red CLK63 Black Series, an ultra-rare R63 AMG, a lovely 300SEL 6.3 and fantastic examples of other ‘80s and ‘90s icons. But today Kunz opts to take us out in a less extravagant car that he describes as the foundation and core of the company: a W110 “Fintail” 230 sedan, the predecessor to today’s E-Class. (The Fintail moniker was also used on the larger W111 and W112 lineups, which preceded the S-Class.) “Mercedes made special cars all along, but we made normal cars too that had the same qualitative virtues and durability to them,” says Kunz. “People that bought a Fintail bought into that image and that panache, they bought into a bit of a higher grade car.” When lined up at a dealership next to contemporaries like the Pagoda SL and 280SE the much cheaper Fintails didn’t seem like a downgrade, and for every one of those cars built, Mercedes sold dozens of Fintails. They saw widespread use as taxis across Europe, as well as being the movie car of choice for main characters and villainous henchmen alike.
Finished in Dark Olive over Cream MB-Tex, this particular 230 was originally sold on November 15, 1966 by Foreign Motors in Boston, Massachusetts. Equipped with an M180 inline-six engine mated to a four-on-the-floor manual transmission, the 230 is the rarest version of the W110 and is still relatively spartan as far as six-cylinder Benzes go. Having been a one-family car since new, this one was sold to the Classic Center at Amelia Island a few years ago by the original owner’s son for $1, with the promise that the car would have a life after him. Mercedes put some mechanical work into the car, but otherwise it’s in the same condition as it was given. “It’s something we probably never would have searched for and bought for ourselves,” says Kunz, “but when you get in you realize how charming the car is.” The 230 is regularly taken for drives by Classic Center employees, as its plainness and affordability is endearing to all.
Riding in the passenger seat of the 230 it’s apparent why the car is so popular. The straight-six makes a lovely noise and operates smoothly, and ride quality is supple without too much body roll. The seats are super comfortable, the interior is spacious and stylish, and build quality is excellent. Kunz points out some of his favorite quirks with the car, like its gorgeous (and still working) Becker stereo that has buttons to increase the treble and bass next to another pair of buttons to turn the enhancement back off. The barrel-style vertical speedometer is hilarious to watch in motion, and all of the controls have satisfying action to them. An ashtray slides out on a track above the rectangular clock, and little knobs on the door panels open the vent windows. The car even still has its original wiring diagram booklet, so owners could fix issues when on the road.
While American cars in the 1960’s would completely change their look every year or two, Mercedes stuck with its styling for a decade or longer. The W110’s design was an evolution of the previous Ponton models, and despite most other cars moving away from large tail fins, Mercedes embraced a more subtle fin motif. “It’s timeless, not trying to be overly fashionable,” explains Kunz, “if you bought an earlier one you didn’t think ‘God, I’m driving this totally outdated car,’ you had a car that was still very contemporary.” Kunz says he prefers the look of the US-spec W110 to the European models, as American versions got an amber marker lamp below the headlights that makes the front end look
The Fintail was one of the first cars to be comprehensively designed with crashworthiness in mind, which was a huge deal for a mainstream vehicle at the time. While most American cars were still body-on-frame, the Fintail had a unibody construction with a safety cell and crumple zones, along with a padded, flexible dashboard and other interior components designed to break away in a crash. Mercedes’ archive is full of entertaining crash test videos that show the sedans slamming into buses, doing 360-degree spins off of ramps and getting t-boned by other vehicles, all without resulting in serious injury to the occupants. That makes the car even more appealing in a modern context, as it’s a much safer option to regularly drive than many other classics.
Another reason Kunz chose to take out the Fintail is to preview a new project the Classic Center has been working on. Sitting in the paint booth is a Mercedes 300, one of the larger W111 Fintail models, which is being built as a tribute to famed Swedish rally driver Ewy Rosqvist. In 1962 Rosqvist not only became the first woman to enter the Argentinian Grand Prix, but she won every stage of the three-day rally in a virtually standard Mercedes 220SE, setting a new speed record in the process with her co-driver Ursula Wirth. The Classic Center had to buy two different Fintails for the tribute project: Manual-equipped cars are structurally different, but the manual car they found had a sunroof, which no rally car would have. A second, slicktop car was bought, and the roof was sliced off and swapped over. Both cars were in bad shape, but crucially neither were rusty.
The modifications don’t end there. All the original rally cars have been lost to time, and while Mercedes already has a Rosqvist tribute car, it doesn’t have the right engine. The engine used by her rally 300 was a derivative of the straight-six from the 300SL, and the Classic Center had to source one. Unlike the stock motor, the racing engines had direct injection from the factory, and making one correctly would cost about $60k. In a real stroke of luck, a friend of the Classic Center bought a legit racing engine that was in perfect shape (albeit disassembled) on eBay for $1,800, and he knew Mercedes was working on the tribute car and offered it up. He’s in the 300SL restoration business, so he traded the Classic Center the engine for ten 300SL brake drums, which are worth about $3k a piece.
“It’s not a concours restoration, but for this project we don’t care about authenticity, we’re just gonna make it accurate and correct to period,” says Kunz. The real goal is to make the tribute car not just drivable, but able to be beat on hard. “The car will go like stink,” he adds with a smile, “we’re gonna take it on the Colorado Grand and pass the Ferraris.” Mercedes is also hoping to bring the 300 to Europe for a celebration event with Rosqvist later this year.
As our visit concludes, it’s obvious that the real star of the show is Otto, the gorgeous golden dachshund who has been coming to the Classic Center since he was a puppy with his owner Nate Lander, Workshop Manager. Otto greets everyone with excited wiggles and kisses, and he loves riding in cars. In fact, as we’re prepping the Fintail for our photoshoot, Otto hopped into the back seat and cuddled up to the Mercedes-Benz teddy bear that never leaves the car. In a way, Otto is just like the Fintail: Cute, small and loved by everyone he comes into contact with.