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Restoring the Soul of a Grand Auto : A Vintage Car Purrs Anew at Body Shop in Panorama City

October 05, 1989|JAMES F. PELTZ | Times Staff Writer

Several years ago, Claus Mees of Palo Alto paid $18,000 for a dismantled 1955 Mercedes gullwing he found in Oklahoma. The two-seat roadster, whose doors open up like gulls' wings, have become collectors' items because of their innovative styling and because only 1,400 of the cars were built between 1954 and 1957.

But Mees' car was a bit short of pristine condition. So, in 1983, he hired Scott Grundfor, whose Scott Restorations in Panorama City specializes in overhauling gullwings and other vintage Mercedes cars.

Mees shipped his car to California in about 50 boxes, and many of its parts were missing. Three years later--Mees said it took that long because he couldn't afford to have it finished sooner--Mees' maroon gullwing was done.

Mees won't say what he paid Grundfor for the repair job, although these days Grundfor charges up to $200,000 per car, except that it was "substantially less than what it costs today." But Mees has no complaints. He takes his Mercedes-Benz 300SL gullwing out only for car display shows, and has never driven it. "It was perfect, and I wanted to keep it that way," he said.

Scott Restorations is no slapdash body shop, where they pound out dented fenders and apply a $200 paint job. Cars brought to Grundfor are literally restored from the frame up, so that the cars look exactly the way they did when they left the factory three or four decades ago--or even better.

Top Restorers

Grundfor's work has made him one of the four or five top restorers of vintage cars--particularly of Mercedes-Benzes--in the nation, said John Olson, editor of SL Market Newsletter, a Minneapolis-based journal for Mercedes SL owners.

"His reputation precedes him even as far as Stuttgart, where the Mercedes people know him," said David Brice, an Australian hotel developer who has had three 300SLs restored by Grundfor and has two more in his shop.

A 1954 gullwing, which originally cost $6,280, today fetches more than $200,000 even if it's just in average condition. But when Grundfor and his 37-member staff get done restoring it, the car would sell for more than $400,000.

With Grundfor, you pay for what you get. If he completely restores a Mercedes 300SL gullwing, the job can take up to 18 months and cost more than $150,000.

Despite the cost, his shop--which consists of three single-story buildings, one for painting and parts fabrication, one for assembly engine work and the other for storage--is crammed with two dozen 300SLs and several other makes in various states of restoration.

Overseas Clients

Customers from Japan and Europe ship their valuable autos for him to restore. He also brokers sales of hard-to-find cars, and together the businesses generate about $2.5 million in annual revenue, he said.

Grundfor knows that obsessions carry a big cost, and he's only too happy to help wealthy car lovers fulfill their desire to own--and often resell for a profit--fully restored rare automobiles. But even though Grundfor acknowledges that his business has nearly made him a millionaire as well, he likens his work more to art than commerce.

"The hard part of the business is the business," said Grundfor, a lean San Fernando Valley native whose beard and shoulder-length, light red hair makes him look younger than his 42 years. "You have cash flow problems that surface, you have accounting problems.

"I could have a body shop this size and make as much or twice as much money," he added. "I love the cars. I like to be an artist."

Grundfor's canvas is not limited to the Mercedes 300SL. On a recent day, his shop also housed a 1936 Mercedes 540K cabriolet, a 1937 Rolls Royce Phantom 3 and a 1950 Ferrari 166-MM Barchetta, among others.

But he's best known for the 300SL. Many of the cars' parts can no longer be bought from the manufacturer--such as an ashtray--so it's up to Grundfor to either find a used one and refurbish it, or build one from scratch. A Mercedes gullwing ashtray that Grundfor makes costs several hundred dollars; a restored 300SL radio would cost $1,500.

Also, all replacement fenders for the 300SL must be molded by hand. Grundfor's team can re-upholster seats (cost: about $2,000), and reset wood paneling in the car's interior. Painting a restored 300SL can range from $4,500 to $15,000, depending on the number of layers of paint required and the type of finish the car's owner wants.

The 300SL originally had 47 exterior colors and 34 interior colors, but Grundfor generally will paint the car in nearly any color the client desires. Most stick with an original hue, however, because they know that protects the car's resale value, he said.

Grundfor gives his customers a rough estimate of the cost, but requires no down payment once the work begins. He bills customers much in the way that law firms do: twice a month a detailed computerized invoice is sent out that lists the labor ($45 an hour) and parts "down to the number of screws and washers we use," Grundfor said.

Raising Value

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