A decade ago, Mercedes-Benz decided to open a facility dedicated to the preservation and restoration of its cars. As the first and so far only manufacturer-owned and operated facility of its type in North America, I was excited when I heard about it years ago and even more so when I realized it was only a couple of miles from my in-laws. I had always intended to visit and finally accomplished that a few weeks ago. As always, you are invited to join me but put on your good walking shoes and bring a bottle of water as it’ll take a bit of time…
Located in Irvine, CA it is a perfect place for people such as ourselves to spend a spare hour or two if we find ourselves in Orange County and need something to do the morning before a flight or after Disneyland overload with the kids.
Upon entering and looking to my left, I realized that not much says you’ve arrived like a glorious 1971 300SEL 6.3, of which this brown example pictured above is a stunning example. In November 1968, Road & Track proclaimed it “merely the greatest sedan in the world”.
This is one of the few older cars that my wife and I absolutely agree on, and while I don’t foresee a 6.3 in my future, a 280SE 4.5 of the same or similar vintage is certainly on my bucket list. Something about the shape just works for us. This particular car is one of 6526 6.3’s produced between 1967 and 1972 and easily could hold its own against most sports cars of the late 60’s and early 70’s.
Not a huge facility (at least the public part), the Classic Center nonetheless houses a rotating collection of about a dozen cars, some of which are for sale, some for display only, but all in flawless condition. Behind a large see-through roll-up door are a large workspace with lifts that house another couple of dozen or so vehicles, some owned by Mercedes, some owned by private individuals, all in various states of restoration or merely there for service.
Behind the 6.3 was a beautiful little 1969 280SL, one of almost 24,000 produced between 1967 and 1971. The 280SL took over from the 250SL which superceded the 230SL (all the same body). I never realized it before but a small minority of Mercedes apparently had the contrasting color hubcaps from the factory, I thought they were always body color (as on the 6.3 above). Perhaps on a two-tone or a convertible one had a choice?
I tried to get this shot fully in frame but figured that climbing on the rear bumper of the 6.3 to do so would be frowned upon by the staff. Hence this one is a bit cut off. Anyway, why can’t they make cars that look this good and just so right anymore?
This facility focuses mainly on the cars of the 50’s through the 70’s, but can source, work on, or recreate anything from any era (and had representative samples of many eras). In the way back behind completely closed doors are further facilities and parts storage as well as presumably more vehicle storage. In short, during my visit I felt like the kid in the proverbial candy store.
Behind the 280SL was this 1963 220SEb Rally car. This facility rebuilt a standard 220SEb to authentic rally specs of the day but added some modern safety items so that it could presumably be used for promotional purposes. But Mercedes has a bit of a rally history and had some successes. Seeing something like this pass by on a dirt road at full chat must be quite a sight.
Powered by a 2195cc I-6 I’d imagine this is a wonderfully smooth engine, with an output of 120hp not the most powerful but then again the whole car as is only weighs 2900 pounds so it seems adequate, and probably VERY adequate for a 1963 model!
Yes, I’d been eyeing this spicy little number since I walked in the door, finally I got to be up close with it. This 1963 230SL actually ran from Belgium to Bulgaria and back, 5500km’s in 90 hours through narrow mountain passes and distant motorways from August 27 to 31, 1963.
Mercedes-Benz driver Eugen Bohringer drove it day and night along with co-driver Klaus Kaiser, they secured overall victory in the “Marathon de la Route”. I love the placement of the cyclops light, all of a sudden the optional if (to my eyes) tacky lit up grille star on modern Mercedes’ makes more sense, but I doubt this was the inspiration for that.
I could spend all day looking at the rear of ’60’s and early ’70’s MB’s…What a great look.
Sorry about the reflections, but just look at the style inside what is a racing machine that would happily run at over 125mph all day (and night) long, roads permitting. The plaid seat covers, the body color dash. I love the spindly little shifter as well. THIS is the way to do a 5500km race!
Time to slow it down a bit; here’s a replica of the first automobile produced by Carl Benz in 1886, the Benz Patent-Motorwagen. There is one original one (obviously) and then there exist 175 replicas, this one is on display but there was a second one across the room that was available for sale of anyone is interested.
Just 60 miles away from Carl’s place, Gottlieb Daimler patented an internal-combustion engine later in the same year and started construction of a four-wheeled horseless carriage. Neither man knew the other at the time, but eventually, just like chocolate and peanut butter, the two would meet and life would never be the same again.
Where to begin, to many the W111 coupes and convertibles are simply the finest cars ever made. They certainly stand out, even in this room. This one is a 1971 280SE 3.5 fitted with the 3.5l V8 producing 200hp, enabling a top speed of 130mph.
While obviously capable of great speed, I’d think it far more appropriate to drop the top on a summer evening and cruise down Sunset Boulevard or up the Champs, depending on the continent…Only 1232 of this model were produced between 1969 and 1971, which largely explains their stratospheric current values.
Front and center when entering this building is this marvelous 1934 Maybach Zeppelin DS8, powered by a 7922cc V-12 engine producing 200hp.
The “DS8” part of the name refers to “Double Six” (or “Doppel Sechs”) and the eight liter displacement.
This car (as with many Maybachs) was delivered as a chassis to German coachbuilder Hermann Spohn in Ravensburg. He was the main supplier for Maybach bodywork in the 1930’s. As a point of reference, we saw some very fine cars at the Auburn meetup a few years back, this is easily the equal of many of those, if not even better.
On the outside, these are almost identical to the “lesser” six-cylinder cars, the main external differences are the gold plated laurel wreath with the figure “12” in the hood ornament, the word “Zeppelin” on a connecting strut ahead of the grille (look back at the first picture above), and the two exhaust pipes.
During my visit I was the only person there besides the receptionist and several employees that were on the phone discussing parts with (presumably) clients, housed in cubicles thick with reference and parts manuals. Since it was during the holidays nobody was working on the cars in the back room and the roll-up door was closed. After I looked at everything in front, the receptionist noticed I was taking pictures and offered to open the door so I could look in back as well, which certainly made my day! But first there are a few more things to see in the front of the building.
This may be the Niedermeyer Sr. special of the bunch, the 1968 230 (no suffix), although theirs would probably have been the 190 variant with the 4-cylinder as opposed to the 2.3l six pictured here. This one hails from the very end of the production run (1965-1968 for the 230, the 190 since 1961).
Over 600,000 of the W110 series were produced, but with only about 39,000 of them being the gasoline powered 230 version. These somehow look like a frightened guppy to me when viewed from the front, the W114/115 successor to these and the W108 of course has always been more my style. But they certainly were built to the same high standard as all the others, and I couldn’t find anything to object to on this particular example.
Compare this car, a 1964 220SEb, to the gray rally car from the beginning, this is pretty much what it would have looked like stock. The W111 “Fintail” (“Heckflosse”) was launched in 1959 and were obviously nicknamed due to the fintails on the rear fender. Duh. This one is privately owned and beautiful. A total of over 66,000 were produced between 1959 and 1965.
Of bigger import than the fintails though was the fact that this new sedan was the first car to be created with a “safety body” containing crumple zones. Thus heralding the beginning of much progress on the safety front. The fintails, by the way, are supposedly visible when reversing, this helping to place the car when parking.
The most powerful car here was this one, the 1994 Penske-Mercedes PC23 developed for the IndyCars series. This car won the Indianapolis 500 as well as taking the overall series title. Not bad for a car that was developed in just 26 weeks.
The engine displaces 3429cc, is a turbocharged V8 and produces 1024hp at 9800rpm. Top speed is around 245mph. This car represents Mercedes’ first victory at Indianapolis since 1915 (Who knew? Not me!).
I’m generally more familiar with F1 cars which are usually smaller in real life than I envision them. This car though was enormous, visually lining it up with the E-class next to it, it was easily a foot longer and with a longer wheelbase.
As with the cockpit of most single seat race cars, I am always astounded at how tiny they are and how small the drivers must be. My back started hurting just looking at this. And my knee. It’d be enough of a victory just to be able to sit in this thing, let alone drive and win a race.
My first thought upon looking at this car is that is was an AMG E55, however that is not the case. This started life as an E420 purchased by Jerry Seinfeld, then sent to RENNtech and built into an E60 RS. The stock 4.2 liter V8 was bored and stroked to 6.0 (!!!) liters and power went from 275hp to 424hp with 525 lb-ft of torque. Not bad for a now 20 year old car, being a 1997 model. I should have done that with my 1992 400E, basically the same engine.
The top speed of this car was 202mph, 0-60mph was accomplished in 4.5 seconds. This was the most powerful E-Class until the 2005 AMG E55 was introduced by the factory. Curiously Mr. Seinfeld only kept the car for a few years, covered 10,000 miles in it and now it is part of this collection.
One day I’d like to have an engine from a Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren just sitting around on a stand. Until that happens I will have to content myself with ogling this one.
5.4 liters with a supercharger, 617 hp. Not too shabby. At the time, Mercedes owned 40 percent of McLaren and the cars were built at McLaren in England. Most of the cast parts of the engines carry the AMG logo.
We’ll head to something more Curbside-appropriate in a minute but this is worth a mention. What we have here is a 2008 Mercedes-Benz CLK63 AMG Black Series. This car was designed after the Official Formula 1 Safety Car and contains the first V8 engine designed autonomously by Mercedes-AMG (Mercedes bought all of AMG some time ago, but until this engine modified existing engines rather than designing new ones). The “Black Series” badge denotes that it is much more than just a typical everyday AMG model. The creme de la creme de la creme if you will.
A C-Class with a 6.3liter engine producing 507hp is something special but obviously has little in common with your neighbor’s mother’s C230. Big engine, little car, the whole world seems to come across that magic formula for fun. At least it’s red and not the typical silver…
The receptionist sits right in front of this wall. She is not in the picture because she is opening the back roll-up door for me! Halleluja, Halleluja, Halleluja!
What’s this? Oh, just a freshly painted bodyshell for a 1954 300SL Gullwing, 1 of 1400 produced (along with 1858 roadsters)! This would look so great next to my own McLaren SLR engine that I was talking about a minute ago.
Sitting right above it and hopefully not dripping onto the 300SL body is this 1910 Mercedes-Simplex. It’s a woody! Actually it has a 2.6l I-4 producing all of 25hp with a 4-speed manual gearbox. See, they do work on anything with the 3-pointed star.
Here’s an engine shot of an SL to show the level of care used when rebuilding a car from the ground up. This car still needs pretty much everything else but likely runs at this point.
The story behind this one is that is belongs to someone on the US East Coast who purchased the car out here on the West Coast. It is a 1990 EVOII model that was never sold in North America. Now it is over 25 years old and fully legal to import into the US (as this one was). The new owner has asked the Center to go over the car and correct any deficiencies before he lays eyes on it. Our overseas readers may be somewhat more familiar with this one, it’s the ultimate evolution of the regular 190E 2.3-16 Cosworth that we did receive in the mid-80’s and a very rare sight indeed. The front bumper may be having surgery or perhaps was removed to access something behind it. Check out the rear wing, it’s taller than that of a Subaru WRX STI and almost Daytona-esque. That was stock on this version.
I’m not sure why I don’t have a picture but parked above it was a 1979 300D sedan in average CC condition. With 80hp, it’s here for a reason unknown to me, either someone’s cherished vehicle or a candidate for restoration.
Another 300SL, this time a roadster that apparently took part in the Colorado Grand classic car rally.
Above it, a view of yet another 300SL roadster that we rarely see, sort of the “upskirt” angle…Drivetrain completely out, getting prepped for metalwork it appears. The 300D I mentioned is barely visible to the right.
Just sitting on the ground was this 190SLR with the KEYS IN IT. Two words come to mind: Daddy Likes! Oh how I wanted to just hop over the door into that plaid seat and twist the key…
Simply superb. Perhaps it seems that I’ve definitely drunk the Kool-Aid here, but really it’s more like having been water-boarded with the Kool-Aid. The worst thing about the entire place are my pictures, it may be time to replace my camera, I didn’t think a digital point and shoot could wear out but evidently they do. The cars ALL look much better in person than in my shots.
Wanna see a Gullwing chassis and drivetrain? I’ve got you covered. Feast on it. From the rear…
And now the front. The tube chassis is just beautiful. And seeing it all in basically as-new condition is hard to describe. I’ll just let the picture be the thousand words.
All things considered, these are probably the finest condition and most original vintage Mercedes-Benz vehicles in the world. Before acquisition, a car is thoroughly checked over, its background gone over, and anything it needs is addressed. An example story regards a Mercedes 230SL that was found to have been restored elsewhere to visually excellent condition but when researched it was found to be number 279 of the total production run which is significant for the following reason.
It was found to be missing the protective cover for its fuel pump under the trunk floor. Interestingly the first 400 cars produced had a cover of a different design than the rest of the production run. Rather than modify a later cover or just leave it off, the techs retrieved an archived construction diagram of the early design cover and perfectly reproduced it themselves. The point is, the cars don’t leave unless they are perfect, as they were when they left the company’s grounds the first time around.
It didn’t really strike me until I looked at all these pictures again – I’ve seen Gullwings before and an old boss of mine’s father was the CEO of Nestle and came by one day with a beautiful 300SL roadster that I got to pore over. Many of us have seen at least one of these cars somewhere, be it a parade, a classic car show, a museum or what have you, but this is likely the largest single collection of these cars in one location.
Another one, waiting for its day. The engine is wrapped in plastic and the body is just loosely attached to the chassis.
I found one with the luggage in place. I don’t even want to know what those pieces must cost…
Silver really is the best color for these. Even with all the other silver cars out there today, this would still stand out.
Ran when parked? Lovely in a very creamy white over red interior with the white steering wheel. Flat tire, covered in dust, looks like it came straight out of a barn in rural Petaluma or somewhere. There may even be a chicken feather or two if one looks thoroughly enough.
The car above, a 2006 E320CDI, was one of 33 cars that Mercedes sent on an overland drive from Paris to Beijing that year on a fuel economy challenge run. Of the 33 cars, 30 were European market versions and three were US market versions. Presumably this is one of the three US ones.
It followed the route of the first transcontinental car race in history which took place in 1907 but backwards. Back then it took 62 days to get from Peking (new Beijing) to Paris and I am guessing Mercedes was represented. This time the plan was to accomplish the drive in 26 days in the other direction and the drivers were competing on time as well as fuel consumption. Note that significant parts of the route are still not served by roads and these were standard road cars.
As a fitting bookend to the portion of our tour in the back room that started with the freshly painted 300SL body, we will finish this part with a freshly painted 1964 300SE W112 series car, to be (re-)equipped with a 3.0l I-6. I very carefully walked around this car and found the paintwork to be immaculate, certainly better than what is seen in any kind of regular series production today, no matter how high-end.
I’m not positive if access to this back part is granted normally, I didn’t waive the Curbside Classic secret pass or anything this time, the lady just offered to open it for me, as I mentioned I was the only one there and obviously very interested in everything. Even if it isn’t open normally the front part is splendid enough to be worth a visit. The collection rotates so even though you saw many of the cars here (but not all), there will surely be different ones as time goes by. But even if not, they still look better in real life.
Along with the cars, the Classic Center also has a large amount of automotive art on the walls, and of course a large selection of branded merchandise scattered around. Even a cozy couch in a sitting area with literature for a weary spouse, perhaps. It is a wonderful place to spend an hour or two and is absolutely free of charge. If you find yourself in Southern California, I highly recommend a visit. Auf Wiedersehen!