Thursday, April 16, 2015

A Graceful Gull

Peter Meijer’s 1955 Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing; 
only 1,400 were ever built, with 80 percent sold in the U.S.
Graceful Gull - PDFThe 2nd annual Rally 4 Kids, supporting the county’s United Boys & Girls Clubs, hits the road on May 9, and the Santa Barbara auto enthusiast community has revved up its support. Thanks in part to the strong network of car buffs in the area, the fundraiser was quickly able to establish itself as the largest source of funding for the clubs, exceeding $200,000 last year. 
That community has coalesced around the weekly Santa Barbara Cars & Coffee event, which fills up the Upper Village horseshoe in Montecito every Sunday morning – moving to Coast Village Road on the last Sunday of each month.

The link between the two events is Monte Wilson, who helped to start the Cars & Coffee tradition in 2010. He’s also a co-chair of the Rally 4 Kids, along with Diana Starr Langley, who convinced him to lend his local clout to the clubs last year. As such, many of the participants are Cars & Coffee regulars.

There’s one vehicle in particular that will be the centerpiece of the display of exotic and fun cars at the event’s after party on Saturday night. Peter Meijer’s 1955 Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing is a gorgeous work of auto- motive art, one that you might recognize from its frequent appearances at Cars & Coffee.

I recently had a chance to sit down with Meijer to talk about the car, and the unlikely tale of how he came to own it.

Let’s start with his own story. Meijer was born in Holland, but wanderlust took him all over the world as a chief steward on a Royal Rotterdam Lloyd ocean liner. After serving in the Dutch military, he decided to pick a new home.

“From all the countries you’ve seen, where do you want to live?” he asked himself. “The United States was my choice. It’s the best choice I ever made, I can tell you.”

To immigrate, he needed a sponsor, which he found in an attorney in Cleveland. His parents moved to Santa Barbara following a visit with friends, which had them hooked, and Meijer soon followed. 
He’d gotten an education in electronic technology in Ohio, so he put it to work designing and repairing home audio systems at a local shop called Audio Vision. It was at this shop that he acquired the Gullwing and not
quite intentionally.

“My boss had two Ferrari Daytonas
and he wanted a Gullwing,” says Meijer. He took on the task of finding the car for his employer, since at the time Meijer owned a 300SL Roadster, the open-topped version of the car.
“I looked around and I found this car in Baytown, Texas, outside of Houston. The car was $4,500. If you bought the car, the person that sold it would pay for your plane ticket.” 
The acquisition might have been fairly easy, but when he presented the car to his boss, things didn’t go as planned. 

“When he got in the car, he closed the door and it hit him in the head,” recalls Meijer. “He could not use the car, because the seats are already sit- ting on the chassis.”

The source of the problem was the 300SL’s design, which was a fascinating study in form following function. It was based on a racecar Mercedes had designed around a tubular aluminum frame. That frame completely enveloped the cabin up to the mid- point of the body, so traditional doors wouldn’t work. The company instead decided to use the iconic roof-hinged portals, which when open resembled wings.

Because the doors only came halfway down the body, the opening had to extend across the roof to allow a big enough port for entry. Unfortunately, if you were of exceptional stature, like Meijer’s boss, the door closing could leave a dent in the top of your skull. 

Rather than sell it, Meijer decided to swap out his own car for it.

“The original color was kind of a dirty yellow. It wasn’t very attractive at all,” recalls Meijer. He had it repainted silver, which is the historical color of German racecars, and which stunningly complements the red leather interior. 
The car came with a matching set of luggage, with 
the bottom case shaped to fit the shelf behind the seats
Meijer left the audio shop around 1970 when he bought a Chevron station from his brothers, and there he began working on cars in earnest. He soon opened up a service shop, Continental Motors, which would come to focus on luxury German cars. 

It was around this time that his son convinced him to restore the car fully. He took the body off the car, and rebuilt many of the systems, but eventually had to turn to an expert shop in Arizona to finish it. 

“I had the car running without the body, and drove the car,” he says, conjuring images of a rolling skeleton shocking anyone in the vicinity of his shop.

The 300SL is a technological tour de force, lightweight with a powerful 250-hp inline-six engine that featured one of the first automotive applications of gasoline fuel injection. At 161 mph, it was the fastest production car of its day. With only 1,400 Gullwing coupes ever made, Hagerty estimates the current value of this car at around $1.65 million, given its excellent condition. In fact, the value seems to have leapt significantly in the past two years, from around $900,000 in April 2013. Were the car’s body constructed entirely of aluminum, as 29 examples were, it would be valued in the range of $6 million. The economic recovery has certainly been kind to collector cars, especially those as desirable as an authentic Gullwing. 

Aside from his Gullwing and pre- vious SL Roadster, Meijer owned another interesting piece of automotive history. The Shelby Lonestar was intended to replace the Cobra, built on a modified Ford GT40 racecar chassis. On a visit to Las Vegas, Meijer went to the Shelby museum and asked an expert about the car, but it was unfa- miliar. 
“He says, ‘Well, if he built anything, I should know about it, but I don’t,’” recalls Meijer. A few months later, he received a package in the mail from that expert with all of the info on the car. 

You can check out his lovely Gullwing, along with its custom-matched red leather luggage, at the Rally 4 Kids after-party on May 9. Or maybe you’ll run into him on his trips to wine country. He’s also taken it to Laguna Seca a couple of times to drive in the Monterey Historics races. While he is a member of an owners club, he doesn’t drive all over the country with the car to attend events, simply because it would be too taxing. 

“For me to drive that car long distance, it’s not a pleasant experience,” he says, referencing the noise level at highway cruising. “I mean, I could take my hearing aids out.”

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