For classic car aficionados, there is a secret world of treasures hidden away in sheds, outbuildings and storage units across the United States. The possibility of stumbling across one of these is about as likely as hitting the lottery — and potentially as lucrative as well.
These underground pearls of the car world are known as “barn finds.” Broken, rusted and deflated, these undiscovered classics have either been forgotten or disregarded by their owners until someone stumbles across them and recognizes them for what they are worth. In the case of Ponte Vedra’s recently-discovered 1954 Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing Coupe, the value is estimated to be around $1 to $1.4 million, fully restored, according to the Hagerty Valuation Tool price guide.
Bill Warner, the founder and chairman of the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance, assisted with the discovery of the car within the Ponte Vedra Beach storage unit where it had been sleeping for around 10 years. The Gullwing is now owned by the Mercedes-Benz Classic Center in Irvine, California, which purchased it at an undisclosed amount.
Warner, 75, remembered admiring the car when he was just 16. He has kept in touch with the car’s owners since he saw it almost 60 years ago. Warner said he naturally filed the information in his mind to “make a point of knowing what’s around.”
The owner of the Gullwing wishes to remain anonymous although Warner did state he believes one of the reasons he eventually decided to sell was the time, cost and money involved with restoration. Although Warner was interested in the car himself, he jokingly said, “There comes a point in your life when (attempting) a car like that to getting a proper restore, you have to wait in line a year or two. Then, when they get to it, it’s another two years. When you get to be in your late 70s or early 80s — that’s four years to get a car done. You just don’t know if you're going to be alive that long.”
Partially what makes the 1954 Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing Coupe special is its limited production, with this one being the 43rd out of only 1,400 made. Also, because the car was designed as a race car, the doors open from the roof rather than the sides to streamline it. The Gullwing is known as one of the first true sports cars ever made and is considered an iconic car for collectors. In its prime, it could travel upwards of 160 miles per hour, all according to Hagerty’s website.
“There are specific cars that are must haves for collectors,” Warner said. “A 427 Cobra is one. A pre-1971 Ferrari is another and a Duesenberg is another. That’s just the way it is. This car is one of those.”
Constantin von Kageneck, the marketing and communication specialist for the Mercedes-Benz Classic Center that bought the car, said seeing it in its original state was a “phenomenal experience.”
The unveiling of the car was broadcast in May 2018 by Hagerty’s Barn Find Hunter’s YouTube channel, episode 32. Warner joined automotive writer Tom Cotter as they opened the Ponte Vedra storage unit.
Beneath the thick layer of dust, the all-original Gullwing shows little evidence of rust or damage, which is a feat itself in Florida’s humid climate.
“The original tires were there,” Warner said, “which just about blew us all away. The tires were dry rotted and everything, but the tubes were still good.”
Even an ancient and partially-peeled AAA sticker still clings to the rear window, offering a $200 reward for the “arrest and conviction of a thief stealing the member’s car.”
“We believe the car has been sitting since 1956 and with 35,308 miles on the odometer,” Kageneck said. “It appears the original owner enjoyed this 300 SL quite a bit between 1954 to 1956. The car was also found in primer and with all of its chrome trim pieces packed inside, probably awaiting a repaint that never happened. …Everything was original, from the body panels, glass, interior trim, powertrain, wheels and even tires.”
The 65-year-old car’s life looks like it’s taken a sudden and exciting turn: It will be featured at this year’s Amelia Island Concours d’ Elegance, which takes place March 7-10. It will be reunited with its sister car, No. 44, which has received a full restoration. Kageneck said for the show that even the car’s dust “will be left intact.” This will be the first time the cars have been together since their initial production in 1954.
“For most classic car aficionados, there is an emotional connection to a specific car,” Kageneck said. “It was the car their parents took them on vacation when they were young, the first car they owned in high school or the car they dreamed about when they were introduced to cars in the first place. …Classic cars tell a story of the past, they inspire people’s nostalgic imagination and offer us a glimpse of what life in the past looked like.”
As for the No. 43 Gullwing, although its past has taken it many turns, its future looks like it might finally see the hot asphalt of the highway once again.
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