The only way to fully appreciate automobiles is to go way back to the very machine that started the whole shinding: the Benz Patent Motor Car. The rickety, clackety three-wheeler was the first self-propelled automobile as we know it, a tidy fact the Mercedes-Benz PR department won’t let you forget any time soon. Ask me how I know.
Early on in my auto writing career, I was invited by Mercedes-Benz on a so-called immersion trip to Stuttgart that included a tour of the factory, a peek at their infamous secret vault of historic cars (which housed everything from Princess Diana’s R129 convertible to a literal wall of priceless F1 racecars), and test drives of everything from fresh-to-death V12s to a selection of classics plucked straight out of the museum. That last bit was crucial: any carmaker could flaunt mass production, but few had over a century of lineage they could trace their modern cars back to.
And then, a funny thing happened on the flight back to LA. I realized that I liked sampling the new stuff, but I loved driving the classics. Call me indoctrinated, but experiences like those might help explain why I’m currently entangled in no fewer than three old school Benzes — one of which my wife absolutely hates — and have an even longer ownership history of the sometimes pesky, often endearing, needy-but-gratifying old rigs. Which brings us to a warm afternoon in the SoCal suburb of Long Beach, where a million square-foot facility once owned and operated by Boeing is celebrating its debut as the Mercedes-Benz Classic Center.
The place is nirvana for classic car geeks, especially when configured for show-and-tell. Look, there’s Roy Orbison’s piano black 600 “Grosser” sedan! Hey, that’s a 1,000 horsepower Mercedes/Ilmor Indycar! Ooh, and the Mille Miglia-dominating Gullwings and Porsche-built E500s… I could go on. But if you’re looking for an orthodox, by-the-books restoration job for your old Benz or a new-to-you classic that’s been verified for authenticity from the source, these fanatics have you covered.
The immersion continued: A week later, I found myself behind the wheel of a large automobile — specifically, a 2022 Mercedes-Maybach S580 — aiming its imperious nose in the general direction of the Monterey Peninsula for Car Week, which is basically summer camp for rich car freaks. Rather than equipping journalists with other shiny new steeds, they flaunted some old timers pulled from the Classic Center like a gorgeous 1960s 280SL “Pagoda”, an imposing 300 SEL 6.3 sedan from the early 1970s, a Bobby Ewing-approved 380SL, a snorty CLK63 AMG Black Series and a supercharged SL55 AMG, among others. The long way up the California coast isn’t the most direct route to car week, but I’d argue it’s the only sound choice when you’re piloting vehicles with the charisma and charm of these bad boys.
Once you’ve made it to Monterey, the commonplace falls away and almost every car in sight seems like an exceptional, handmade expression of joy that makes so-called regular cars seem banal. That’s also where Mercedes-Benz shows off the C111, a wedge-shaped, gullwing door-equipped standout of which only 13 remain, all of which are owned by the carmaker. The cool thing about this showstopper isn’t just its Weibherbst paint color, which is German for “white autumn,” and also the same golden hue of a German rosé wine. It’s how the model’s super slippery aerodynamics and fuel sipping engines broke numerous speed and efficiency records; sexier living through engineering. Adding to the mystique was a static display of the C111, which is estimated to be worth in the neighborhood of $40 million apiece, which is perhaps not-so-coincidentally the same value of a large-scale Andy Warhol print displayed nearby that consists of multicolored repeating images of the car.
Circling back to dollar amounts is a funny way to drive home the point about classics, but Marcus Breitschwerdt, head of Mercedes-Benz Heritage, makes a telling observation: “There are so many new cars that are around $200,000, but there are far more classics which are worth a million and a half to five million.” Then, tipping a hat to the value of extreme scarcity and how it affects the very tippy top of the market, he adds, “The title I’m most proud of is that recently, thanks to the brand, I have the bragging rights to call myself the most successful used car salesman in the world by having sold the [300 SLR] Uhlenhaut Coupe,” referring to the recently crowned world’s most expensive coupe which traded hands for $143 million. Nostalgia can be warm and fuzzy and downright intoxicating. But it’s also one hell of a financial drug.
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