Victoria-based exotic and classic car restorer Rudi Koniczek is always enthusiastic about the cars that he restores. But he absolutely comes alive when he talks about unearthing one of the rarest cars in the world from decades of dusty storage in a rat-infested garage at a home in Santa Monica, Calif.
For the past 40 years, Rudi & Company has been one the foremost restorers of Mercedes-Benz 300SL roadsters and gull-wing sports cars. Owners have shipped cars for restoration from as far away as Europe, South Africa and Japan. He has restored about 100 of the cars and currently has half a dozen under restoration. His shop also restores other special interest cars to concours standards.
He takes pride in having restored the 1960 Mercedes-Benz 300SL bought new in Montreal by Pierre Elliot Trudeau. It was a rush job to be completed in time for Justin Trudeau's wedding in Montreal. The restoration that usually takes a full year was compacted into eight months. The silver roadster is magnificent and is part of Canadian history.
The Mercedes-Benz 300SL was introduced in 1954 as a two-seat, closed sports car with distinctive gull-wing doors and was the first gasoline-powered car with direct injection. Later it was offered as an open roadster. It was the fastest production car of its day.
The 300 referred to the threelitre engine and SL stood for Sport Leicht. From 1955 through 1963, there were approximately 1,800 M-B 300SL roadsters built and 1,383 gullwing coupes produced from 1955 through 1957 in Stuttgart, Germany. Gullwing describes the way the doors lift open.
In the '50s, the factory turned out 29 special lightweight alloy body gull-wing coupes with Plexiglas windows. These are among the world's most valued collector cars, worth about $2.5 million each.
Only 28 of the alloy-bodied cars were accounted for. The whereabouts of No. 29 was one of the great mysteries in the classic car world. Koniczek had restored numbers 1 and 6. He knew where all the other alloy-bodied cars were except for No. 21.
Twenty years ago, he heard about a gull-wing that had been stored in a garage in Santa Monica, Calif., for decades. It was a rumour that he and a California enthusiast followed up on over the years.
This spring, Koniczek was able to make a deal with the owner of the car. But getting the Gullwing out of the garage was a challenge. The widower owner was in his late 80s, and his garage was full of old mainframe computers. The car couldn't even be seen in the garage.
He hired two men to clear the way to the car. When the car began to emerge from the clutter, it became apparent that the search for No. 21 was over. "I took a magnet out of my wallet and ran it over the car and it didn't stick," Koniczek recalls of the moment.
The owner of the car, Tom Wellmer, had received the new 1955 special alloy M-B Gullwing coupe in New York as a graduation gift from his parents. He drove it into the 1970s until the transmission broke. Then he put the car up on jack stands and began taking it apart. He took the wheels and hood off, the interior out and removed the transmission. And then the car just sat - for more than 40 years.
"This is the ultimate garage find and may be one of the greatest finds ever in the collector car world," Koniczek says. "It's amazing to know that the car had been there all those years without anyone knowing about it." It still had the 1971 California license plates.
Koniczek guides seven full-time artisans and a bevy of other craftsmen who contribute their talents during the restorations. His mission statement is just three words: Best or nothing.
or nothing. His restorations have won every major award there is. The M-B Museum in Stuttgart features some of the cars he has restored.
There is a row of 300SL cars in various states of restoration, including a roadster once owned by Canadian Forest Products founder Peter Bentley. Other cars are receiving body and paint jobs in a downtown Victoria shop.
Koniczek is the ultimate self-made man. An only child, he and his parents came to Canada from Germany in 1953. As a teenager, he got an after-school job in a model shop, taking his pay in kits that he would build into his favourite car - the M-B Gullwing.
Koniczek will start the restoration of the "missing" alloy-bodied 300SL early next year. The only stipulation made by the original owner in selling the car was for the rare car to be given a full restoration to look as it did when he took delivery in 1955.