Honor Thy Father

By Neil Andrew
Images by Ron Pollard, Neil Andrew
Restoring this classic Pagoda is much more than a car project

By Neil Andrew, with love and appreciation for my Dad who has taught me about fixing both cars and life along the way.

Photos courtesy of Neil Andrew and by Ron Pollard Photography, Huntsville, Ala. 

My father, Gary F. Andrew, joined the U.S. Army in 1968 and spent 26 years on active duty before retiring as a Colonel in 1991. At the rank of Captain my father completed a tour in Korea and was surprised to be offered an assignment in Germany.  He and my mother, Joann spent nearly 11 years in Germany. During their time there my parents fell in love not only with Germany, but also with Mercedes-Benz vehicles.  My father loves them for their impressive engineering, reliability, and styling.

They have owned seven Mercedes so far, and imported three of them back to the US. Father’s first Mercedes was a used 280 sedan. They liked it so much they bought a new Mercedes, a 280, in 1974 before returning stateside. My parents also bought a factory-new 1981 Mercedes 300D sedan that they used while in Germany, but none of these cars would be the Benz he would love the most.

A European Rescue

It was during dad’s second tour in September of 1978 that he bought his beloved 230SL from another soldier who was about to return to the US. The seller told Dad about the original owner, a woman who had ordered the car with an automatic transmission because she couldn’t drive a stick shift. The car’s bottom side was rusted from years of winter driving and salt on the roadways. My mother was not pleased that Dad purchased the car. She saw it as a rust bucket that was too much trouble and too expensive to fix.  Dad would not listen at all; he was in for the long haul. 

After purchasing the car for $4,625, Dad began keeping records right away. On the inside front cover of his memoranda book he wrote, “History of my new car. A 1966 Mercedes Benz 230SL beginning 12 Sep. 1978.” In its pages he added details about everything he did to the car, no matter how small. Before long it became clear to him that he would need help fixing the rusted wheel wells and underbody.  Dad ended up hiring a local mechanic to help him repair the car. He documented the entire build, including every hour they worked on the car.

After a year of documenting work on the car, he wrote in his memo book, “Restoration MB 230SL began 21 Sep. 1979 at Muenchweiler Auto Craft Shop. Herr Herbert Hurst is doing body repair and painting. I assisted.” According to his notes, they worked from Sep 1979 – March 1980, spending an incredible 804 hours on the car in just over 6 months. My father notes that he logged 461 hours and Herr Hurst logged 343 respectively. Father noted that during this overhaul they replaced both front-end wheel wells, as well as the inner and outer left rear fender, trunk floor and rocker panels. They also removed rust, added a rust proofing coating and a sound proofing material, reinforced the frame painted inside and out and more. The SL had a silver body when he bought it, so Dad returned the car to its original colors, a white body with a navy blue hard top.

The last time the SL was shipped from Europe to the U.S. it made port in New Orleans. My Aunt Debbie lived there and was more than happy to pick it up and keep it till we got settled in Alabama. The only problem was Dad had “forgotten” to include the key to the gas cap. When we picked up the car, she mentioned how she would have driven it a lot more had she had the key. I also remember getting my driver’s license in the early 90s and being excited to drive the SL for the first time. I think the first time I was able to drive the car alone was when I took the car to my High School Prom in 1994. I felt like the coolest kid alive that night.

Inactivity and Decay

Dad drove his SL to work most days up into the mid 90s. Sometime around 1996 he drove it to work and someone in the parking lot dinged the heck out of the driver door. I recall him coming home angry and talking about the jerk who had done this to his car. He said he just knew that a person who would do that must have zero appreciation for anything nice in this world. After that event, the SL did not get driven as much. A year or so later, dad tried to start the car and it would not start. After that point it just sat unrepaired. At times we said to each other, “We should work on the SL” but before we knew it, the car had been cold for 15 years, then 20, and then 25.

In 2019, I knew it was time to fix up the car. By this time, Dad was done with carrying a heavy workload and I had a four-day work week that freed up Fridays for me to spend with Dad and the car. Sometime in August of that year we talked about the car and its current state. I just blurted out, “You know what, I’ll see you on Friday to work on the car.” And just like that, we began the rebuild.  First, we cleaned the car inside and out, including removing a small mountain of acorn shells that a family of chipmunks left behind in the engine bay. Then, we made a rather long to-do list and made an inventory of all the parts he had collected over the years. We were both surprised at what we found in each box. We made quick use of many of his used and new-old-stock parts. It was amazing having these parts and not needing to find them online and have them delivered.

The Time is Now

I was enjoying working with my father on the car, but as we worked on the SL, I began to see some changes in him. I started think about the stories my mother had been telling me about dad’s forgetfulness and a few other signs that could point to issues with dementia. I had always attributed his odd responses to questions, or a little forgetfulness, to his bad hearing. As we worked, he couldn’t always remember the names of tools he has used his whole life. At times I found myself showing him a technique or repair trick he had once taught me. Furthermore, he has always taught and led me when repairing anything. He always had the answers. Suddenly, here I was having to take the lead in diagnosing some problems with the car.

I had set a goal for us to get the car ready in time for the local Veteran’s Day parade. We ended up missing the entry date for the parade, but we had the car driving under its own power for the first time in 25 years on November 10. In about three months we had replaced all the hoses and fuel lines, fuel tank, fuel and water pumps, thermostat, rebuilt the brakes, replaced the plugs, wires, distributor button, points and much more.

Our “Little SL” was now drivable again and Dad was incredibly anxious to take the car around to show off to his friends.  He drove the car to church and to his Rotary meetings and was so happy to have it back on the road. He called me almost daily with a story of where he had driven that day and who he had seen. He received a ton of compliments and beamed from ear to ear with pride on every drive.

One Final Chapter

Around March of 2020, Dad began showing more serious signs of dementia and he was given a driving assessment test. The test measured his ability to make decisions like braking on time and spatial awareness, to name a few. Unfortunately, he failed the test and lost his driver’s license. Just like that, three short months after being reunited with his beloved car, he lost the ability to drive it.  He was completely devastated, as was I.

At first, I did not want to believe the results of the test. As I spent more time with Dad and the months passed by, both he and I began to accept that this was the best decision for him.  I told him we could still work on restoring the car and that I would take him for a drive anytime. My mother had also assured him that she would take him on rides and anywhere he needed to go. Little did we know how these promises would be put to the test.

As March 2020 began and the COVID-19 virus isolated us all, my father was unable to go out as promised. At times he didn’t understand why mom couldn’t take him to Home Depot or to a restaurant. Other times, he didn’t understand the need for social distancing or wearing a mask. We all sheltered in place and waited for the end of the lockdown. Mom and I still took him on rides when we could. After a month, we realized COVID-19 would be here for a while and we began working on the car again. We continued to order and replace parts for the car, including the rather difficult job of replacing the steering box and bushings to cure the loose steering. 

By now, I was doing most of the diagnosing and troubleshooting. I ordered parts as needed and we also continued to replace worn cosmetic parts as well. This past July, we replaced the aging soft top and the car was looking great. I began thinking we might want to get a real photo shoot of the car at some point. I thought we would finish a few more things on the list, like detailing the engine or touch up a few chrome spots or interior blemishes.

Then, in late July, Dad took another turn for the worse. He wasn’t talking or answering as much and seemed less interested in working on the car, although he still always wanted to take it for a ride.  I began to worry about not being able to do the photo shoot with Dad. I feared that he might lose interest in it altogether or maybe he would not want to be involved during the shoot. I decided that there was no time like the present and reached out to my friend Ron Pollard, of Ron Pollard Photography. I expressed to him the sense of urgency, and having already dealt with his own family issues with dementia, he understood.

The next weekend Dad and I waxed up the car and took it downtown for a professional photo shoot. My mother and I were a little nervous about Dad going into the shoot but, Ron was more than kind and compassionate to my father.  Dad even seemed to get into it after a while and was taking direction quite well. My mother met us at the final location to get in a few shots, and we wrapped the shoot. I will always cherish these photos taken with us and the SL. I am beyond happy to have captured the car and my father at this moment in time. 

An Unbreakable Bond

This car we love ended up giving my father and I quality time together that we would not otherwise have had. When the project began, I thought he had more good years left. I am still shocked at the speed at which this awful disease has caused him to disappear right before our eyes. Had we not begun work on the car when we did, the opportunity would now surely have been lost. I would have waited too long to start spending time with him.  I would have missed the good days he had left to be able to help with the car and tell me things about it. The car gave us a reason to spend time together before and after he got worse.

I am thankful that we had this opportunity because I can say we finally fixed up the car. I can say he did get to drive and enjoy the car again. I can say that I did spend meaningful time with my father before and after the disease took hold. At times, during the rebuild, he could recall a story or insight about the car. Sometimes he knew how things came apart or went together. I feel blessed to have not only restored this car with him, but to have gained the knowledge he had about this wonderful automobile. We rebuilt the car and our relationship at the same time.

I added the list of repairs we have done in the past year to Dad’s little memo book, and I will continue updating it as other repairs or maintenance occurs. I will also continue taking Dad on drives on the weekends and any other time I can. Lately, he has been enjoying riding in the North Alabama countryside. On one of our most recent trips, the SL rolled over 99999 Kilometers, and it felt like the car was beginning anew. Dad asked why I stopped the car and I showed him the dial, he seemed pleased as he said, “it’s all zeros.” I believe, after all the work we have put into the car, that it’s ready for a new set of adventures.