In the past ten years, “vintage” has come to mean authentic, historic and valuable for everything from watches to Levi’s trucker jackets. This explosion in popularity is arguably a reaction to our digital, disposable age. There was a time when a man saved up, bought a jacket and kept it ’til he passed away, at which point it was handed down, as opposed to the $12 one-season garb people flock towards these days; that work ethic that built log cabins and skyscrapers has now been exchanged for building websites and social followings. We long to connect with something that our iPhones, Twitter stats or Buzzfeed lists can’t fulfill. This rediscovered appreciation for beautiful, meaningful objects from our past is exactly why the Mercedes-Benz Classic Center in Irvine, CA exists…that, and to bring back to life those cars which cause us to lust from the deepest parts of our soft, chewy automotive centers.
According to Mercedes-Benz, there are roughly 700,000 of their classic (out of production for 20 years or more) automobiles in the U.S., with the highest concentration in car-loving Southern California, where gems like the #002 190 SL that was purchased by the Classic Center for $25,000 a mere fifteen minutes from their shop can be found. To serve this large population of historic autos, Mercedes-Benz built their first non-European restoration site in the corner of an unassuming business park. Working primarily with post-war models specializing in the iconic 300 SL Gullwing, the center employees a handful of highly skilled workers who can restore any aspect of the cars from frame-off restorations to wooden dash pieces to hand-mixed paint jobs designed to match the original perfectly.
“Study the past if you would define the future.” – Confucius
Entering the lobby of this relatively small space, we were greeted by a sliver of Mercedes-Benz motoring history, including a 1905 American Mercedes, a fully restored $1.8 million 1955 300 SL Gullwing, and the gorgeous dignitary car from 1972, the 600. We were also greeted by Constantin Von Kageneck, essentially our docent, who led us into what amounted to a tall garage with shelves of cars ranging from their speciality 300 SL Gullwings to the recently popular 1980s 300D, all in various stages of restoration. The center’s purpose is twofold, Von Kageneck explained. “We are here not only to preserve historic cars…but to offer fans and aficionados the opportunity to relive driving and owning one”, he said.
Both of those goals begin by reaching back into the past for guidance. At the back of this garage sits a large shelving system that contains, in forensics-lab-like detail, cards organized by VIN for each vehicle Mercedes-Benz made, containing everything from the original color to what options came on a specific car. That faded manilla card, probably filled out by a secretary a half a century ago ago, is the main resource for an authentic rebuild. It is because of this meticulous attention to detail that cars can take approximately 24 to 36 months to restore at a cost between $450,000 and $500,000 for a frame-up rebuild.
While showing us around the shop, Von Kageneck told us about a 93-year-old man whose love and passion for his special edition 300 SL Gullwing led him to the Classic Center. Unfortunately, the gentleman will likely pass away before seeing the final product, but he is passing it on — and the value after the rebuild will be approximately $2 million, so it’s certainly worth the expense.
In a world of hunger, disease and poverty, paying $1.8 million for a car sounds absurd, and it is. But these aren’t cars anymore. They have transcended transportation and become pieces of both history and art from a bygone era. They are made up of steel and wood, analog examples in a digital world, created by the hands of someone who could never foresee the world we live in today. That reminder of where we have been and how far we have come is not merely desirable, but imperative.