A look inside the Mercedes-Benz Classic Center in Southern California, where vintage cars are given new life and Benz lovers are treated to a museum-like look at the automobile’s history.
Mercedes-Benz lays claim to having invented the automobile more than 125 years ago. Given the brand’s well-earned reputation for longevity, this means that there is a huge number of vintage Benzes still in existence. Fortunately for the owners (and admirers) of these surviving cars, there is also the Mercedes-Benz Classic Center.
Located in an innocuous straked concrete building in Irvine, California, the Classic Center exists to support any Mercedes-Benz vehicle that has been out of production for 20 years or more. It provides parts to individuals and dealers. It buys, repairs, sells, and collects significant vehicles from the marque’s history. But, perhaps most notably, its 10-member workshop performs meticulous mechanical and cosmetic repairs.
“Right now we have about 25 ongoing projects,” says Michael Kunz, who has been the Center’s affable manager since its inception in 2003. “But you have to divvy that up into two groups. Many cars come in here for heavy renovation. They’re coming in to make them functional, drivable, fix any obvious flaws. But even jobs like that can be six-figure jobs. And then we have cars that are full restorations. To restore a 300 SL [the brand’s iconic, racing-inspired, space-age sports car] soup-to-nuts costs somewhere between $450,000 and $500,000.”
This may seem like a shocking repair bill, but these cars were extremely complex and advanced when built, and they often arrive after sitting idle for decades or suffering devastating wrecks or even more devastating amateur repairs. “We are archaeologists,” Kunz says. “We often have to reverse everything that someone else did. That’s the challenge: taking something that’s terrible and making it something that’s beautiful.”
In executing this transformation, Kunz and his colleagues have a distinct advantage over other high-end restoration shops. As a department within Mercedes-Benz USA, they not only have access to detailed corporate sales and service records, they have the original engineering diagrams on every model, digitized and in a database, allowing them to source, reproduce, or replicate almost any part. “So, with challenging, run-down cars — cars that other people would not be able to correct — we have the means,” says Kunz.