The Mercedes-Benz Classic Center is one of the finest restoration facilities in the world. Vanity Fair's Brett Berk recently stopped by to drive a vintage Gullwing, giving Jalopnik this exclusive behind-the-scenes peek. —Ed.
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Last week, I had a chance to visit the Mercedes Benz Classic Center in Irvine, California. There, I got a tour from the manager, Mike Kunz; I also got to wander around, sit in, and fondle some of the hottest cars ever. I even got to pretend I was Imelda Marcos in the back of 600 limousine. Oh, and I also got to drive a 1955 300 SL Gullwing. You can read about my whole adventure in the silly car column I write over at VanityFair.com. But this is a special, exclusive Jalopnik feature that contains many previously unpublished photos.
Brett Berk writes gaily about culture, politics, and cars for VF.com, and is the author of The Gay Uncle's Guide to Parenting. He is a friend of Los Jalops, he once helped Jamie Kitman buy a car, and he famously gave Sam Smith the nickname "Halfie." Sam has not yet decided how he feels about this.
The Center provides parts, customer support, and service for Mercedes vehicles that have been out of production for 15 years or more. It is housed in an old Saleen showroom, but it has been fully renovated so it looks tasteful and classy.
Some of these vehicles are part of the Classic Center's permanent collection, some are customer's cars, and some are for sale (like in a real car dealership.) How many can you name?
1933 290 Cabriolet: The S-Class of its day, the 290 came in two lengths, short and long. The long one was often chauffeur-driven. This one has a 2.9-liter straight six that puts out 60 hp. It can be yours for just $125,000.
1935 150 Sport Roadster: In the mid-'30s, Mercedes experimented with rear- and mid-engine vehicles. This is one of eleven prototypes that were produced in the mid-engine configuration. In case you didn't notice, it's being given a full restoration. The engine and all that mechanical stuff is in the foreground, the body is in the background.
1935 130 H: One of the rear-engine people's cars from the 1930s, this water-cooled cabriolet had its radiator right behind the rear seats. Cooling air only reached this system through side vents behind the passenger compartment, and only when the car was in motion, leading to some rather obvious issues with overheating.
1936 150 H: Another water-cooled, rear-engine vehicle, this one with its radiator on the side and more cooling louvers all over. Squint and you'll see the Beetle. This is no accident. Mr. Porsche was involved in this program.
1956 300sc Cabriolet: For no apparent reason, the collection skips right over the late 1930s and all of the '40s, and we end up here. Hello gorgeous! This handsome car had the Gullwing's 3.0-liter, direct-injected straight six, good for 175 hp in this configuration, and is for sale for $595,000.
300sc luggage: Did I mention that it comes with two sets of custom fitted, dove-grey interior-matching luggage — one in its ample butt, and one that took the place of the back seat — as well as acres of burl wood trim for a wicked classy effect? Now the price seems reasonable, right?
1956 300 Custom Station Wagon: Let's say you're a rich lady in New York who wants a Mercedes station wagon. But Mercedes doesn't make a station wagon. What do you do? Well, obviously, you get the folks that customize their sedans into ambulances to make a wagon for you. One that features 60/40 split folding rear seats and a flat load floor, of course.
1957 300 SL Roadster: Max Hoffman wasn't satisfied with the Gullwing (we'll get to that, don't worry), so he had Mercedes make him up a batch of these convertible SLs. (While they were at it, they revised the rear suspension to make it less…kill-y.) I think they look pretty good, don't you? This is a rare, original, Strawberry Red Metallic car — a color available only in '57. You can buy it for $719,000.
600 Limousine: A favorite of celebrities and brutal dictators the world over, the 600 was the most technologically advanced car, like, ever, with a hydraulic accessory system that silently ran the windows, seats, doors, trunk, sunroof, and a bunch of other stuff. I got to see it in action. Shhhhh. Shhhhhh. Shhhhhh. And I got to sit in the back of this one and pretend to be Idi Amin.
1979 450 SEL 6.9: I would give away my kidneys and live out the rest of my years tethered to a dialysis machine to own this clean an example of this vehicle. Though the 6.3 is arguably better looking, this one is somehow more brutal, and thus sexier. Particularly if it's a restored, all original one with only 229 miles (not a typo) on the clock. If you want to buy my organs, or the car, they are each $175,000.
SLK on G-Wagen: This Millennium Mercedes was built from a pu**y magnet yellow SLK mounted (heh-heh) on a G Wagon platform. Two people drove it around the whole world to celebrate the 2000s. (I bet they feel stupid now!) After all that, it apparently needs to be restored. It — along with its douche-y matching trailer — is sitting in the back parking lot at the Classic Center, awaiting space in the shop.
Paint shop: Speaking of the shop, this is the part of the shop where they paint the cars. It is stunningly clean in there, as it is everywhere in the shop. Here's a W112 coupe awaiting fifty fresh coats of some gorgeous color, hopefully that burnt-caramel brown that looks so good on these cars.
Storeroom: Mike Kunz, the Classic Center's manager, walked me through this opening and closing drawers that were filled, randomly, with: screws, clamps, coconut-fiber horsehair seat filler replacements, motor mounts, dome light bulbs, bolts, wires, and about ten zillion other things. At one point, when he came upon a taillight lens, he literally said, "I was just looking for this yesterday. I'll have to remember where it is." Then he closed the drawer and we walked on.
Gullwing 1: Did I mention that I got to drive this Gullwing? It's one that the Classic Center bought and is doing a bit of work on, and then planning to sell for $675,000 (in case you want it, and happen to be one of the lucky people born with eleven kidneys.)
Gullwing 2: H.O.T.
Gullwing Interior: Simple, yet elegant.
Gullwing Interior 2: I love this little ashtray, though I ashed out the side window opening (the glass had been removed; the windows don't go down) for fear of marring the dash with my cigarette.
Gullwing 3: If I had taken this photo just a second earlier, you would have seen the speedo registering 120. That's m.p.h., though Mike said it clocks just a bit fast. This car is awesomely stable at these speeds. (Except, apparently, if you lift off the throttle when you try to turn, in which case, the swing axle will swing you into oblivion.)
Gulliwing + SL 63 AMG: I couldn't drive the Gullwing the whole time I was in L.A., so the folks at Mercedes gave me this for my off times. This car is also fun to drive, particularly in second gear, on the highway, as it makes an extremely mellifluous blat.
Gulliwing + SL 63 AMG 2: This reminds me of one of those family photos in which Grandpa is looking extremely hot.
Gullwing + SL 63 3: Also, who is Grandpa's dentist? I would like to hire him.
Gullwing Grille: Smile!
Gullwing Engine: I don't know what all this stuff does, but I do know that there's some direct injection buried in there somewhere, and that the engine is tilted so it'll fit. And it's very clean. You should buy this car, really.
Gullwing Vent: Breathe!
GullwingFrame: This is where all the tubes that hold the car together meet up. It's like the car's belly button. If you tickle it right in the middle, I'm told that the whole car will unfurl.
Gullwing washer-solvent jar: This is the coolest thing under the hood. It holds the windshield shpritz, and it's made of real glass. If you can't afford the whole car, you can buy one of these from the Classic Center. Really.