Since completing an extensive restoration of a 1957 Mercedes-Benz 300SL roadster several years ago (featured in New Zealand Classic Car, February, 2008), Mercedes-Benz aficionado Garry Boyce has been busy with a couple of other very interesting projects.
At this year’s Ellerslie Intermarque Concours d’Elegance, Garry unveiled his latest masterpiece and the culmination of an exhaustive and comprehensive restoration — a 1956 Mercedes-Benz 300SL ‘Gullwing’, which he entered in the prestigious Masters Class competition alongside four other contenders.
After judging, Garry’s 300SL coupé won the Masters Class, scoring 564 out of a possible 590 points — the third highest score achieved in the event's 42-year history. His 1957 300SL SL roadster won this same event in 2009, achieving 565 points.
It’s fair to say that nothing much happens in classic-Mercedes world, locally or internationally, without Garry knowing about it. So it wasn’t surprising to learn that he became aware of an extremely rare 300SL lightweight Gullwing as well as a 1958 300SL roadster hiding away somewhere in the Waikato around ten years ago. As is more often the case in these situations, the cars were not for sale.
However, not long after Garry purchased his 1957 300SL roadster, he managed to persuade the owner of those other two cars to allow him and his restoration team to take a look at the ’58 roadster. What they discovered was a very distressed but largely unmolested car. In fact, the car was so original that the body had never been off the chassis, meaning that most of the parts and fittings were still present and correct, as they had been fitted by the factory.
Garry also took the opportunity to take a quick look at the lightweight coupé on the same day, just a few kilometres away from the roadster’s resting place. What he saw as he inspected such a desirable machine sent shivers down his spine, as the car could only be described as being a complete and utter basket case. After leaving the premises, in somewhat of a distressed state himself, Garry could only speculate as to the ultimate fate of these cars. For an avowed lover of the Mercedes-Benz marque, contemplating what the future held for these two 300SLs was either the stuff of dreams or, more probably, nightmares.
Over time, Garry was able to ascertain that the owner of both of these cars was not living in New Zealand, having shipped the pair of 300SLs from the UK during the late ’80s, supposedly for eventual restoration. Further investigation revealed that the Gullwing had been involved in an accident at some point during its life, and received frontal damage. It also became apparent that the roadster had been sourced as a donor car to provide parts to enable a full rebuild of the more desirable coupé.
Garry’s tenacious nature spurred him on to express interest in the cars again. But, as before, he was advised emphatically that they were not for sale. However, with his quarries in sight, Garry wasn’t about to give up the chase so easily, and he continued to make contact with the cars’ owner about every 18 months over the ensuing years — each time receiving a firm ‘no’ in response to his purchase offers. All this time, Garry was also well aware that the three-pointed-star grapevine was working overtime in Europe and the US, with much speculation that these cars were in New Zealand. Indeed, from time to time, he was asked to confirm these rumours while travelling in Europe or the US — naturally, and for obvious reasons, he politely denied any knowledge of their whereabouts. Of course, if the time ever arrived when the owner was prepared to sell, Garry was determined to be in the right position to buy both cars.
All this dogged persistence finally paid off when he was contacted by the cars’ owner, at first to make enquiries about the potential cost of restoring the roadster. Garry politely obliged by providing a schedule of costs relating to his own experience of restoring his roadster, while at the same time continuing to express interest in the cars.
Then, finally, the call Garry had been waiting for came one Sunday morning at 9am.
“Hi Garry, Michael here. I want to sell you the cars today!”
Barely able to conceal his excitement, Garry negotiated a suitable price that was subsequently approved by his wife, and a deal was finalized, subject to a visit and inspection of the cars the following Wednesday. And so, in April 2007, with the required bank cheque burning a large hole in his pocket, Garry headed to Te Kuiti to re-inspect the cars he had last seen over five years before.
Unfortunately, time hadn’t been kind to either of the Mercedes, and Garry feared the overall condition of the cars had deteriorated even further. The Gullwing was housed in an old shipping container that had been left sitting in a paddock on the outskirts of Te Kuiti, while the roadster had been left to rest 10 kilometres away in an abandoned old farm shed.
The Gullwing’s ongoing deterioration had been expedited due to dampness within the container, while the farm shed was open to the elements. As well, Garry discovered 300SL parts scattered quite literally everywhere — roadster parts were thrown in with the Gullwing, Gullwing parts were with the roadster, and the roadster engine was in the Gullwing. Parts for both cars were discovered in other old cars on the owner’s properties — with Garry being fortunate enough to uncover an injection pump and inlet manifold in the boot of one of these old cars. A camshaft and injectors were lying rusting away on the mud floor of the shed alongside the roadster and, when turned over, water drained from the missing cover bolts in a gearbox that had been lying open to the weather. For an avid Mercedes-Benz enthusiast, the entire scene was akin to something out of his worst nightmares.
However, with the rarity of the alloy-bodied coupé not open to question, Garry forged ahead with the purchase, and, once he’d viewed all the relevant paperwork and documentation pertaining to each vehicle, bills of sale were duly signed and the cheque exchanged.
Unfortunately for Garry, the owner’s next request was terse: the cars had to be gone from his property by Sunday, giving Garry just three days to make all the necessary arrangements. After a few phone calls to round up a few friends, including good friend Ken Williams (who turned up with his six-wheel 5.5-litre V8 G-Wagen race-car transporter, this proving invaluable for negotiating the wet and muddy conditions at the cars’ locations). By 3pm on the Saturday, they had rescued the cars and as many of the parts as they could find. At that point, Garry realized just how much had gone missing over the 25 years that these cars had spent being moved from one bad situation to another.
By late Saturday evening, the roadster was safely with Garry’s restorer, Lloyd Marx in Hamilton, to be used as a reference for the final assembly of Garry’s 1957 roadster, while the Gullwing was at last in safe and dry storage within his own garage in Auckland.
Over the following months, as Garry and Lloyd worked to complete the 1957 roadster, a comprehensive schedule for the restoration of the two new acquisitions was compiled. Garry also decided to visit Classica Technico in Essen, Germany, to look at other 300SLs and talk with parts suppliers. As well, he took the opportunity to visit the Mercedes-Benz archives in Stuttgart. There, once his credentials had been accepted, he was able to obtain a copy of the build sheet for the Gullwing. This contained all the factory information pertaining to the car and confirmed that it had originally been delivered, ex-works, to the Mercedes-Benz dealer in London on 29 January 1956.
Once the ’57 roadster was complete, Lloyd commenced work on Garry’s new acquisitions, starting with the Gullwing.
With the car completely stripped down, the first step in the long road to restoration was to place the car’s unique space frame on a chassis robot. As expected, the frame was found to be twisted, probably as the result of an accident that had occurred in 1972. The chassis was pulled back to factory specifications, with only two small pieces of the chrome-moly steel needing to be replaced. The space frame was then bead-blasted and powder-coated in semi-matte black. Verification of the chassis rebuild was by laser-beam wheel-alignment machine, which confirmed the front and rear wheel tracking to be at 0.02.
The next stage of the restoration process was to tackle the huge task of repairing the car’s aluminium body. As well as suffering from past accident damage, the alloy was also showing signs of metal fatigue cracking and electrolytic corrosion.
Approximately 25 per cent of the metal in the body was refabricated and welded into place, including a full set of belly pans. Great care was taken to retain as much of the original metal as possible. In the parts of the body where stress fatigue had taken place, a double thickness of material was panel-bonded internally to give added strength and rigidity — especially in the roof centre, where the hinges for the car’s iconic gull-wing doors are mounted. Particular attention was also given to boot, bonnet, and door gapping. Garry points out that these gaps are now absolutely perfect — he reckons that the sign of a good 300SL restoration is the five-millimetre paint line on the A-pillar between the windscreen rubber and the door gap, which has been achieved with this car.
Meanwhile, the 2996cc in-line six-cylinder engine was rebuilt to its original factory ‘NSL’ high-performance specification — the motor still retains the original engine number as per the factory build sheet. The NSL power plant was a factory special-order competition engine that was standard on the 29 alloy-bodied Gullwings built and fitted (on rare occasions) to steel-bodied cars as well.
The ‘Sonderteile’ (special-parts) engine consisted of a racing camshaft, adding about 11kW (15bhp), paired with a different governor for the injection pump, and an appropriately calibrated distributor. Only four per cent of total Gullwing production was supplied with these special motors.
The 8.55:1 compression ratio remained unchanged, but the alloy cars did receive different springs and shock absorbers.
The block was rebored and fitted with Mahle pistons and a replacement standard-size crankshaft was also fitted. The head was also a replaced — Garry still has the original — while the fuel pump and injectors were rebuilt and calibrated by Pacific Fuel Injection in San Francisco. Final dynamometer testing showed the engine capable of producing its originally rated power and torque.
The gearbox, which is numbers correct, was disassembled and all the internal gears were replaced along with new bearings and seals. The differential was also completely rebuilt with new bearings and seals.
The wiring loom is new and is a complete replacement, while all dash instruments are original and were rebuilt as necessary. The clock is the original mechanical one, which runs via an automatic electric rewind every 15 minutes. The faces of all the instruments were cleaned and now look fantastic with their period patina.
According to the car’s factory build sheet, the trim was ‘cream L2’ — Garry endeavoured to stay as close to this as possible. ‘L2’ called for ‘Tex Leder’, a vinyl used before MB Tex but no longer available. Instead, Garry chose to use leather, as it was a period option.
Thus, nappa leather from fallow-deer hides was dyed to match a small sample of the original vinyl found tucked behind a panel. The red-tartan–wool gabardine–upholstered seats are to original specification, and the new, cream wool headlining was matched exactly to the original.
While all this work was being attended to, the car’s aluminium body was being hammered and filed to a paint finish; no body fillers were used on the 300SL’s body.
At the time Garry sent the car to the paint shop, he reckoned it looked so good in bare metal that it seemed a shame to paint it. Despite that, the body was etch-primed, paint-primed, and blocked with a paint system from Glasurit. The final colour coats were flow-coated to give added lustre and depth of colour, with the original shade of DB 608 Elfenbein (Elephant Ivory) being meticulously matched.
During the final stages of restoration, before the body went to the paint shop, the car was given a due-diligence inspection by Herr Michael Plag and Herr Gerd Langer from the Mercedes-Benz Classic Centre and the Mercedes-Benz Classic Archive, respectively. The car was subsequently issued with the ‘Expertize’ that certifies its authenticity.
Discarded parts of the aluminium body and space-frame chassis were taken back to Stuttgart for spectrum analyses of the metals, which confirmed they were manufactured in the 1950s.
The Expertize consists of two bound books approximately 25-millimetres thick, printed in both English and German. Garry was delighted to read the following statement contained within the Expertize: “We could not have restored the car better in Germany.”
Further, it was not until this inspection that Garry was made aware that all the aluminium-body cars were handmade in the racing department at Untertürkheim and not at the body works at Sindelfingen. This explains the small dimensional differences on the alloy-bodied cars.
The restoration of this car has taken four years, being worked on alongside Garry’s other 300SL roadster — a project that is now nearing completion.
Complete with matching-numbers drivetrain and all components matching the factory build sheet (with the exception of its being trimmed in nappa leather rather than vinyl Tex Leder), this breathtaking example is the only one of the aluminium-body 300SLs to have been built in this combination of DB 608 Elfenbein (Elephant Ivory) paint, red-tartan–wool gabardine–upholstered seats, and cream L2–specification trim.
So, what’s next? After the stress of having two body reconstructions going on at once, with restorer Lloyd Marx working on two engines, two gearboxes, and the running gear for two cars at the same time, Garry reckons there’s an old saying in life that goes something like ‘the harder you work, the luckier you get!’ Garry truly deserves the luck that has come his way.
Can you imagine a matching pair of 300SL Roadsters lined up to compete in next year’s Ellerslie Intermarque Concours d’Elegance? That’s Garry’s plan for 2016 — and it’s something we can’t wait to see.
As for the rare and valuable Gullwing, it looks as if Garry has decided to sell this incredible vehicle; alas, more than likely the new owner will not be a resident in New Zealand. Of course, Garry’s already on the lookout for his next project — watch this space!