The Tale of a 1964 230SL Pagoda

Gary Anderson
Royce Rumsey
The November-December 2015 issue of The Star includes the Tale of a 230SL, profiles of four high-performance sedans, details from Pebble Beach Concours cars, a last look at the Mercedes-Benz cars in the Kemp Museum, and the Trucks of Daimler-Benz, Part 1.

A PAGODA'S TALE

This 1964 230SL was picked up new from the factory by a club member who
kept it for many years. The exquisite little roadster now begins a second life.
 
ARTICLE GARY ANDERSON
IMAGES ROYCE RUMSEY

 
Every car has a story to tell, or so it is said. But sometimes those stories are almost lost when the car changes hands. So it was with this burgundy-red 1964 230SL, just restored to its appearance when first sold, and now in the hands of only its second owner.

A box in the trunk

Always on the lookout for interesting and original Mercedes-Benz cars, Michael Kunz of the Mercedes-Benz Classic Center in Irvine, California, found an ad in Hemmings Motor News two years ago. The ad was from a Midwestern dealer offering an original, one-owner 230SL with only 37,000 miles on the odometer. This proved to be exactly the sort of car that the Classic Center loves to buy, recondition and put back into the hands of enthusiasts of the marque.

When the car arrived in Irvine, Kunz found a box in the trunk containing several accessories and a thick file of letters and other documents. The car’s entire early history, from the time it was first just a gleam in the eyes of David and Marjorie Fee of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, rested in that file.

Tourist delivery

And what a story it turned out to be. In the words of an article in the May-June 1978 issue of The Star that was found in the box, “[The Fees’] romance with Mercedes cars started when they went to the 1960 Chicago Motor Show and David saw the 220SE coupe.” He placed his order and it was a “stroke of good fortune that his was the last off the line when production was stopped.”

Enjoying their car, the Fees joined Mercedes-Benz Club of America’s Milwaukee Section (now the Wisconsin Section) in 1961. In September 1963, the Fees visited the Mercedes-Benz factory in Germany to take delivery of a new W110 190D Finback during one of the MBCA/Mercedes-Benz Stuttgart Safaris – annual events in which groups of MBCA members traveled to Stuttgart together to take delivery of new Mercedes vehicles and then tour together before shipping the cars back to their homes.

While at the factory, they asked for information about a future purchase of the sporty new 230SL they saw on display there. With typical German efficiency, by the time the Fees arrived home, a letter awaited them from Daimler-Benz in Stuttgart that included price lists and brochures for the 230SL and contact information for the U.S. distributor in South Bend, Indiana. A few days later, South Bend’s Mercedes-Benz Sales Inc. contacted them with current U.S. prices and information on taking “tourist delivery” of a 230SL in Germany the following year.

Thus began a year-long correspondence between David Fee and Daimler-Benz executive Othmar Schaffer regarding the purchase, and the two soon became friendly enough that Fee sent a small Christmas gift for Schaffer’s son Andreas. By February, Fee had decided he would order a 230SL and asked Schaffer’s own preferences for paint, soft and coupe top, leather interior and carpeting.

In response, Schaffer wrote a two-page letter with a catalog of all paint and trim options and  discussed the pros and cons of various combinations. He concluded with the recommendation: “If you prefer an elegant appearance, then, in my opinion a darker color would be suitable … such as body and coupe top in burgundy-red (DB573) with black soft top and cognac leather (No. 216, MB-Tex No. 120).”

In his response later that month, Fee enclosed a picture taken when he had been at the factory the previous year, or one of himself and his wife in a loaner 230SL the factory provided for a test drive. Coincidentally, it was exactly the combination Schaffer had recommended – burgundy-red paint, cognac leather upholstery, black soft top and burgundy-red coupe top – and that was what he wished to order.

In March, Schaffer acknowledged the order and offered extensive detail on possible options, including a recommendation to order the larger heat exchanger and Cocomat mats in a matching color. He noted that delivery could be arranged for September 7 – in time for the next Stuttgart Safari – and that Fee should contact his dealer immediately because the quota was limited and already sold out through July. Sure enough, the next document in the file was a dealer “Tourist Purchase Order for European Delivery” made out to Fee, dated March 28.

But there were still a number of details that Fee wanted to work out; he was nothing if not precise. Several pieces of correspondence between Fee, Schaffer and German technicians argued that the power steering system was a good idea and would be helpful in parking. After several exchanges of letters discussing the “sportive performance” of the new optional automatic transmission, Fee nonetheless decided to order the standard 4-speed manual transmission. The optional rear “emergency seat” was highly recommended by Schaffer and would add only DM250 to the price, so Fee added the side-facing rear seat to his order as well.

 By the time all was said and done, an order confirmation was sent April 22, specifying the burgundy and cognac color combination, U.S. equipment – lights, whitewall tires, chrome roof rails – plus a 310-mile break-in charge and one-month European insurance for the Safari tour. Fee further requested a black steering wheel in place of the standard white-rimmed wheel, and the larger heat exchanger and jump seat that Schaffer had recommended. On August 15, Fee wrote a check for the total cost of $5,278.35 to Daum Motor Cars Inc. in West Allis, Wisconsin. The Fees would pick up the car on September 9 on the 1964 Stuttgart Safari.

Included in the documentation that the Classic Center received with the car was the German international automobile registration document needed for transit across borders in Europe during the Safari. Also in the file was the freight bill for shipping from Hamburg to Milwaukee, the entry manifest, manufacturer’s statement of origin and a letter from Mercedes-Benz Sales Inc. to “All Mercedes-Benz Dealers in the United States,” listing the 230SL’s chassis number and ownership and asking that dealers extend “prompt, courteous, and efficient service” in providing warranty protection.

According to his biography in the 1978 edition of The Star that also featured his car, David Fee was elected president of his section and became co-chairman of the Great Lakes Region Gemütlichkeit X in 1967. The Fees’s 230SL would win its class in the concours at the event. David and Marjorie continued to bring the car to shows, though driving it sparingly, while actively participating in the Mercedes-Benz Club of America in the four decades that followed.

Transition to a second life

After David’s death, Marjorie put the car on the market with the help of a local dealer, placing the Hemmings ad that caught Kunz’s eye and instigated its acquisition by the Classic Center in 2013.

The 230SL itself was in excellent condition for its age. European-style headlights had been installed in place of the original U.S. equipment at some point. Various panels had been repainted, probably to fix scratches and paint wear, but there was no evidence of any body or chassis damage. As the Classic Center does with cars it has acquired for resale, the decision was made to restore the car to a specific point in its lifetime.

In this case, because a photograph with the documentation showed it at an MBCA event soon after delivery and the original order and delivery forms indicated exactly what options and accessories were on the car at the time, the plan was to repaint the body in the original color, preserve the interior upholstery, replace the carpeting, and fit the car with white sidewalls and U.S. headlights. The front seats had been reupholstered in original pattern leather; that particular grain and embossed pattern was no longer available in the original cognac color, so the newer upholstery was preserved. A grille badge in the pictures was even found in the trunk and reinstalled.

However, as restoration technician Nate Lander noted, when the cylinder walls were inspected with a bore scope through the sparkplug holes, the cylinders were found to be heavily glazed: The engine was completely dismantled. Sure enough, surface corrosion was found on the camshaft rubbing surfaces where they had been in contact with the cam followers, as well as in other metal-to-metal contact areas. Lander noted that this is a very typical condition in a low-mileage older car that has sat for long periods of time; moisture can collect between metal surfaces. As a consequence, the team decided to rebuild the engine, transmission and differential.

For safety and performance, all suspension wear parts were repaired and replaced, a routine step in any Classic Center resale preparation. Classic Center technicians then repainted the engine compartment, refitting original insulation and other period-correct materials, and thoroughly cleaned the undercarriage.

With restoration complete, Kunz contacted clients who had an interest in acquiring an excellent original early Pagoda. Northern New Jersey Section member Bruce Iannelli – whose cars have appeared in The Star in the past – secured the 230SL with plans to use it as a family car and pass it on to his daughter when she’s in a position to maintain and enjoy it. Before shipping the car to New Jersey, the Classic Center brought it to Legends of the Autobahn® 2015, where the 230SL scored an unusual perfect score in the MBCA Concours d’Elegance inspection, easily winning best in marque on the field.

When a car has already played such an integral role in the life of one family, providing decades of enjoyment, it’s nice to think that through fortunate circumstances and professional efforts, it is now ready to have a second life with a new, equally enthusiastic family.

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