RESTORING A WORK OF ART: The complete restoration can turn into a six-figure endeavor.

All of this effort and expense seems logical when the outcome is a highly collectible vehicle like a 300 SL, which can readily fetch more than $1 million at auction. But automotive adoration often transcends the rational, inducing owners to lavish similar treatment on cars that will never recoup their restoration costs. Kunz tells the story of a client who brought in a stately 1954 Adenauer 300b sedan for some drive-train work, and ended up requesting a half-million-dollar overhaul. “Often, it doesn’t matter what it costs, even at this scale,” Kunz says. “There’s a passion and a connection to the car that people are trying to re-live — or live for the first time.” 

One surprising challenge in executing a no-holds-barred restoration is not to overdo it — not to make the car better than it was when it left the factory. “It’s much like restoring a work of art,” Kunz says. “In the end, it should look like it never happened.” The objective is thus to bring the car back to its origins — even if that means replicating some intrinsic imperfection.

Kunz describes just such a flaw in the handsome Pagoda Top 280 SL roadsters of the 1960s and ’70s. Before these cars were painted at the factory, they were dipped in primer, and the primer often dribbled down the inside of the hood. “Though we may strip a car down to the bare metal,” Kunz says, “our objective is to put the runs back in.” (To accomplish this, Kunz says, the technician holds the paint gun really close, and just “spritzes away until it starts running.”)

Despite this perfectionism, not every vehicle in the Classic Center costs six figures to restore and seven figures to purchase. And some are not for sale at all. It is part of Kunz’s mission to locate and collect rare and significant vehicles from Mercedes’ history — for use at customer events, to loan to journalists for stories, or simply to preserve. The Center houses many of these on site, in double-tiered racks lining a high-ceilinged space between the showroom and the workroom. A Benz-lover might stop in, stroll through the hoard, and spot a Brobdingnagian 600 limousine, the vehicle of choice for movie stars, international playboys, and dictators of the 1960s and ’70s. Or an under-stated 1990s 500E sedan, a discreet high-performance collaboration between Mercedes and Porsche that was nicknamed “The Hammer” for its sledge-like acceleration. Or an experimental 1935 130, an advanced and aerodynamic rear-engined outlier that resembles a VW Beetle. 

Kunz also prides himself on offering entry-level accessibility for new fans and collectors, such as a recently sold white 1990s E-Class wagon that had a price tag of just $29,000. (Of course, at the other end of the price spectrum is a 1954 300 SL Gullwing, currently being restored, that is available for $1.4 million.)

But while Kunz is excited about the interest in these newer collectibles, he remains uncertain about the future of car collecting as a hobby, musing on whether any contemporary vehicle will ever be considered a true “classic.” “Is it just an era of cars that will be considered classics, and will others just be things that you use and don’t restore? We don’t have a full idea, because we can’t predict the future.” He pauses. “We may all just be driving bicycles. Or hovering over everything in hovercraft.”