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Car Care | Tender Loving Car / Southern Californians
Keeping Old Vehicles Like New

This Coupe's the Gull of Their Dreams

June 25, 1998|JOHN O'DELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Car: 1957 Mercedes-Benz 300SL "Gull Wing" Coupe.

Owners: Tom and Toni Burniston.

Annual mileage: 1,000.

Total miles: 151,500.

Annual maintenance costs: Under $100.

Price when new: $6,200.

Present value: $150,000 (estimated).

Tom Burniston bought his two-seat Mercedes rocket at a used-car lot in Long Beach in 1961 and for the next 20 years used it pretty much as a daily driver. Average annual mileage dropped from 15,000 to 1,000 during the last 17 years as the value and age of the car increased and the Burnistons decided to reserve it for shows and keep it in the garage the rest of the time.

"I bought it when I was 25," Burniston says, "and for a long time it was my only car. I drove it to work, on dates; we took it on our honeymoon and on our vacations until the kids came."

The Gull Wing gets its name from the curved, overhead-opening doors that give the car the profile of a sea gull in flight. One disadvantage of the car's outrageous curvature is that the side windows can't roll down--they are either left in place or taken out completely. As a result, the car can get incredibly hot in the summer.

Built to be a touring car that would double as a race car at the drop of a checkered flag, the Gull Wing was powered by a massive 240-horsepower, three-liter straight-6 engine and boasted the first production fuel injection in the industry. The cars had features like quick-release wheels, a wide-neck fuel inlet to fit the high-volume gas cans used in races and a trunk with just enough room for the full-sized spare and a tool kit.

A horn button on the passenger side of the dashboard let the navigator warn wandering cows and ducks out of the way during road rallies, and the driver could twist a dial on the dash to advance or retard the ignition from inside the cockpit--a concession to the spotty quality of gasoline in post-World War II Europe.

Although theirs is not a daily driver these days, Burniston and his wife, Toni, still take the coupe on Sunday drives and to local and regional meetings of the Southern California Gull Wing Group. They recently made the 250-mile round trip from their home in Long Beach to Palm Desert for a meet sponsored by the Gull Wing owners group. And they drive it every May to the Mercedes-Benz car show at Fashion Island in Newport Beach and every September to the Belmont Shore car show in Long Beach.

Burniston boasts that the car "can still hit 140 and cruise there real smoothly when I get the chance to let it out."

A former mechanic, Burniston does all his own maintenance and repair work except, he says, for the unique direct fuel-injection system, which "needs a specialist when it needs work."

He tore the car down for a restoration that lasted from 1977 through 1979; he says he spent about $7,000 on parts, upholstery and paint and invested hundreds of hours in rebuilding the engine, transmission and power-brake system.

Since then, he says, "there just haven't been any heavy expenses. It's been real dependable. They made these cars to last." One example: Although Burniston has rebuilt the master cylinder, he has never had to replace the brake linings.

Being his own mechanic helps, though. The cost of a complete engine rebuild for a 300SL today, Burniston says, is about $25,000.

"You have to find a specialist who knows about these cars, and they're expensive," he says. "And a lot of the parts have to be made from scratch."

Burniston's regular maintenance schedule is pretty basic: He changes the spark plugs yearly and the oil twice a year. It's his biggest expense, as the dry sump system takes 15 liters (about 16 quarts) of 30-grade oil in each change. He says he rarely washes the car--which he keeps in his garage--but protects the paint with frequent dustings and the application of high-quality wax and polish every two months. Mercedes built the Gull Wing Coupe from September 1954 through September 1957. Most of the cars were sold in the United States--one of the few places in the decade after World War II where people had money to spend on a luxury sports car that cost more than most new homes. About half of the coupes were sold in California.

Original buyers included movie stars Yul Brenner and Tony Curtis, industrialist Briggs Cunningham and international playboy Ali Khan.

The Burnistons' eye-catching car was made in April 1957 and sold to a Huntington Park woman. It was No. 1,392 to roll off the assembly line--and only eight more were made, because Mercedes at the end of 1957 switched from the coupe to an SL roadster that remained in production until 1963.

When Burniston spotted his on the used-car lot and ran home with news that he'd just seen the car of his dreams, his dad tried to talk him out of it.

"He thought I was crazy for wanting a car with only two seats," Burniston says. "He offered to help me out with a loan if I wanted to buy a new Plymouth instead."

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