The Gullwing Whisperer
B.C. restorer brings Mercedes classics back to life
The winged gargoyle perched atop the iron gates that control access to a particularly secretive rural property here is an allusion to what awaits beyond.
Passing beneath it triggers a fast slip down a rabbit hole brimming with oddities impossible to forget once you’ve cast eyes on them. There are life-sized gnomes, the world’s largest collection of Tintin miniatures, a vintage slot car track and the pièce de résistance: an eye-popping trove of shiny, winged automotive masterpieces.
These are vintage “Gullwings” – officially, Mercedes-Benz 300 SLs – rare, 1950s-era performance cars revered for their racing lineage and iconic roof-hinge doors. The cars in this lot aren’t just any Gullwings, though. These are all ‘Rudis.’ In the parlance of automotive restoration culture, this means they’ve been taken apart and put back together by Rudi Koniczek, the German-born Canadian who is perhaps the world’s foremost restorer of the 300 SL.
On this day – as on any day – the lineup of Mercedes crammed cheek by jowl into Koniczek’s garages is so astonishing that doing the math on their worth is laughable. The money they’ll fetch isn’t what drives the eccentric curator, anyhow.
“We’re recreating automotive art. That’s all this is,” said Koniczek, who wears a trademark glint in his eye and a floppy hat adorned with driving goggles. “Today, people buy these cars because they’re an acquisition, a commodity. ‘I can buy this for 1.5 million and send it to auction in a month and get 1.7 million.’ That’s the wrong thought process.
“Back in the day, the people who drove these cars – prime ministers, kings, engineers – appreciated art. To me, these cars are meant to be shared and enjoyed by everybody. It’s about getting the car out on the track, driving it, living it,” he said.
For those who can and do, many have Koniczek to thank. For more than n40 years, he has been bringing dilapidated 300 SLs back to life in like-new condition, including the 1959 SEL Roadster Prime Minister Justin Trudeau inherited from his late father, Pierre, and drove at his wedding to his wife, Sophie.
Koniczek first fell in love with the model as a young boy living in Toronto. After meeting the then-president of Mercedes-Benz Canada, Rainer Lange-Mechlen (Koniczek charmed his way into the man’s office to show his slot car collection, all of which were Mercedes), he was given an apprenticeship with the company. Koniczek went on to become the only factory-trained apprentice in Canada, studying under three meisters who hailed from Germany; he was so good, they told him, he ought to leave their body shop to go out on his own.
“They recognized something more in me than just a normal mechanic … and they said, ‘Sie haben es ihrem kleinen finger’ – You have it in your little finger. Run away. You’re destined for other things.”
While Koniczek did set up his own business, in 1971 in Victoria, he has maintained strong ties with Mercedes-Benz. To date, Koniczek and his loyal team of disciples, via his business Rudi & Company, have restored more than 100 300 SLs. This is in spite of the fact that Koniczek has never advertised. Word of his talent has spread worldwide: Collectors from Japan, Sri Lanka, China, Mexico, Bolivia, Germany, Ireland, England, Holland and beyond ship their cars to Koniczek’s 10-acre compound – sometimes whole, more often broken and in boxes.
“People ship their cars in for us to play with, and what an honour it is to do that,” Koniczek said.
Shipping in a car, though, doesn’t guarantee that Koniczek will agree to work on it. Nor does dropping in for a visit via fancy private jet, as many do.
Restorations by his team usually take 18 months and cost upwards of $300,000, depending on the handiwork that needs to be done. Koniczek is equipped to do almost everything, from upholstery and stitching to transmissions, engines, rear axles and bodywork – everything except chrome work – at his property. But the process is time-consuming and tedious. Before Koniczek ties himself to a car, he invites its owner for a couple nights’ stay so they can get acquainted. Koniczek can assess reactions to his affinity for youthful indulgences: the Tintin miniatures, waist-high replicas of Disney characters placed here and there, the surprise elicited by his leaving the dinner table in a Hawaiian shirt (printed with 300 SL sketches, no less) and returning in a fur vest and plaid pajama pants.
“We cook, we drink wine and we get silly,” he told Mercedes-Benz magazine recently. “I want to make sure that I can laugh with them; otherwise I won’t work on their car.”
Koniczek has turned down restorations. When he does take on a project, though, he commences a labour not just of love, but deep-seated passion.
“It’s like breathing to me. We just do it,” said Koniczek, who has eight full-time employees, three of whom have worked alongside him for 25 years. “All we want to do is pay tribute to the gentlemen, the engineers, the designers, the craftsmen who built these wonderful things that are going to be lost if we don’t pass the journey on.
“We have to keep the artistry alive.”
To do so is an increasingly lucrative talent. A 1955 300 SL alloy – one of just 29 models built with an aluminum alloy body – restored by Koniczek recently sold at auction for a record $4.62-million (U.S.). With all Koniczek’s success, one wonders what cars the man chooses to keep for himself?
The answer would shock most enthusiasts.
“We’re not keepers. We’re just custodians of automotive art,” he said. “We keep nothing. We pass it on.”