December 23, 2007 in Business

Vintage Benzes get classic treatment

Los Angeles Times The Spokesman-Review

IRVINE, Calif. — Imagine a used-car dealership with six-figure prices, an inventory older than you are and access to parts that have been out of production since the early 20th century.

That sums up the Mercedes-Benz Classic Center, a 26,000-square-foot, multimillion-dollar shrine to all things Benz.

It’s a place where you can get an oil change for a 1956 300 SL sports car (the one with the famous gull-wing doors) or parts for a 1964 220 SE coupe. Or tour a museum stocked with a few dozen historic Mercedes-Benz automobiles and browse the inevitable gift shop for a miniature model of that Benz you always wanted but couldn’t afford.

If you’re in the market for a set of “pre-owned” wheels, wander the showroom stocked with vintage Mercedes — like the burgundy 1928 630 Saoutchik open-top touring car, originally owned by a Mr. Brandt of San Francisco and selling for the low, low price of $775,000.

For those on a budget, there’s a fully restored 1955 190 SLR going for $125,000.

Mercedes executives claim the Classic Center is the only facility of its kind, and they might be right.

Other high-end automakers such as BMW, Porsche and Ferrari emphasize catering to owners of their older, classic cars and operate elaborate parts-and-restoration facilities in Europe. None but Mercedes has opted to open a full-fledged support center for its classic car customers in the U.S.

In the rarefied and mercurial world of luxury car collecting and restoration, it was seen as a risky move on the part of the German automaker, one of whose founders, Karl Benz, is generally credited with building the first true automobile in 1885.

“It seems to me a reasonably good idea, but I’ve never seen it work yet,” said Bob Mosier, renowned classic car restorer and owner of Mosier Restoration Inc. in Inglewood. “But if anybody can pull it off, it’s Mercedes.”

With average monthly sales of one car and a service department geared toward cars that are at least 20 years old, the Classic Center obviously isn’t intended to function as a true dealership. Director Mike Kunz sees it more as an elaborate advertisement for his company’s products.

“We don’t sell new cars out of this facility,” Kunz said, “but that’s our purpose — to provide a compelling argument for customers” to consider Mercedes when buying a new car.

More new Mercedes are sold in Southern California than anywhere else in the world, and five of the 10 biggest Mercedes dealerships are in Los Angeles and Orange counties. The region is home to more than half of the 540,000 vintage Mercedes on the road in the U.S., according to Kunz.

Kunz grew up in New Jersey but his German heritage — his parents immigrated after World War II — shows in his insistence that everything in his domain be just so.

“That’s how you get customers,” said Kunz, a 23-year Mercedes vet whose fluency in German helped him land his first job with the automaker translating owners’ manuals and repair guides.

“If it looks like a dump, it shows your attitude toward your work. We don’t operate that way. We’re clinical.”

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