Gull wings flock to Nevada City
Thirty-five people from an auto club got together recently for a barbecue at a Nevada City home. In many respects it was like any barbecue being held simultaneously in thousands of backyards across the nation – lots of food and drink with casually dressed people milling around, talking and laughing.
The big difference, though, was sitting in that driveway under the trees was about $2 million worth of car flesh, consisting of the famous 300 SL gull wing (coupe) and its sister, the 190 SL roadster; about eight in all, mostly in flashy red or aerodynamic silver.
The gull wing is the distinctive car, that when its two doors are raised, simulates a seagull in flight. We know you’ve seen a picture of it before.
Those gathered represented close to 30 percent of the Northern California chapter of an international club called The Gull Wing Group and had come from near and far to celebrate the 50th anniversary of this car, which was designed and produced on a limited basis by Mercedes-Benz strictly as a racing car.
That was until a smart, visionary car dealer in America, Max Hoffman, said “build a 1,000, and I’ll sell ’em.” The car debuted in New York City in February 1954, and the rest, they say, is history.
Yet only 1,400 (of the coupes) were ever built, between 1954 and 1957 (slightly more for the roadster, 1958). So seeing a gull wing is a pretty rare sighting these days. In Nevada County, there’s only one that we know of, and that belongs to the host of the barbecue, Mike Blanton, and his wife Pauline.
You’d think that a person who owns such an expensive car (prices range from $125,000 for a roadster in undriveable condition upwards to $400,000 for a showable gull wing) would be a banker or CEO of a software company.
Not necessarily so. Although there might have been one or two of those lurking about – and there were, we admit, a couple of folks who owned vineyards and had brought their wines to taste – this reporter talked with a retired teacher from Chico, who through very astute foresight bought his roadster for a mere $2,000.
You can just imagine the shape it was in. Now, though, after putting in much work on his car, he has the last laugh – it is worth about $100,000, he said happily.
Yet another gull wing owner at the barbecue was Ernie Spitzer, 74, originally from Austria and now Fresno. Not only had he met the famous Max Hoffman, he was the one who actually started the “Gull Wing Group” 43 years ago, “to maintain the cars and produce parts because there weren’t any trained mechanics (in this country who knew this car),” he says.
The club of 640 members over the globe also keeps tabs, knowing where each and every road-worthy gull wing is in the world. Spitzer’s is right there in the driveway, a gull wing he bought new in 1955.
Then there was Kent Emigh, a man who has the distinction of having the first European car dealership in Indiana. “I’m the last guy still alive,” he says, “who sold gull wings new” – for $8,000 in the mid 1950s. To prove it he whips out a scrapbook with the celeb likes of Mel Torme and Eli Lilly, founder of the famous pharmaceutical company.
Chapter president Pat Matthews says he did not drive his gull wing to the barbecue because the very next day he was showing it in the Half Moon Bay Concours d’Elegance.
The following weekend (Aug. 15) he said, the créme de la créme of the 300 SLs (including those in one-of-a-kind colors – would you believe school bus yellow?) would be strutting their stuff at Pebble Beach at one of the most exclusive concours in the world.
What’s it like to ride in such a fabulous car? Teacher Gary Ested said, “It’s noisy, you know when you hit a bump, its raw power is absolutely exhilarating, and it’s terrifying knowing you’re riding around in your net worth.”
Party host Mike Blanton, 57, has owned three gull wings, from a trailer queen to the one he has now, a 1955, white with red leather interior, that he’s driven to such places as Jackson Hole, Wyo. and Victoria, B.C., accruing miles on an odometer that now reads 54,000.
A retired captain of a liquid natural gas carrier, he bought it fully restored in 2000. Surprisingly he’s found it “a very economical car to run, getting 20-22 miles to the gallon around 65 mph.”
While he says it handles well at higher speeds (he’s had her up to 100), at low speed it’s heavy (that ole “swing axel with bad characteristics”). The secret, though, is the car’s dependability. “The car did well because it was so dependable,” Blanton says. “Maybe they weren’t the fastest, but they didn’t break down, either.”
Blanton is not into entering his car into competitions. Rather, he says, “I like driving it, sometimes showing it, and fiddling around with it within my capabilities.” Then there is the social aspect. “Being in the club causes a lot of people to hold on to their cars so they can stay in the club.”
And so the barbecue comes to an end, everyone well fed, happy to have schmoozed for a while, and off they ride into the sunset in their beautiful cars.
Pam Jung writes about classic cars – and their owners – for The Union. She welcomes suggestions for stories and can be reached at 265-8064 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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