Bringing my baby back to life
By Gregory L. Haag
When I first saw the Cabriolet parked behind the Texaco Service Station on S.W. Military Highway in San Antonio, I was a junior at Jefferson High School, and it was 1965. I didn’t know what “she” was; I just knew I had to have “her.”
The car had been wrecked. The left fender was smashed and the grille with its world-famous, all-identifying, universally recognized, phenotypic Trinity Star was missing. I stopped in to ask the attendant what was up with the wrecked car. He explained that it was a Mercedes, and that a military officer had had it shipped over from Germany. After only a few months, he had wrecked it here in San Antonio.
Excitedly, I called the officer and negotiated a deal to buy the car. If I told you what I paid for it, you would never believe it! I knew it was a Mercedes, but that’s all. I later found out it was a very rare first edition 220 Cabriolet Cab A, and that there were fewer than 150 made.
Out of sight
From 1965 until 2010, the car had several homes. Most were inside barns or garages, but it was still exposed to weather and rabble-rousers. Because I had it locked up and it was out of view and earshot, the rabble-rousers who got to it decided to bust out the windows so they could sit in the car and play gangster.
When I began the restoration, I realized I did not have the title and was faced with the task of applying for a new one. To do this, I had to physically haul the car to the San Antonio Police Department Theft Division and show a detective where the VIN numbers were on the car chassis so he could “run the numbers” and verify that the car had not been stolen. Then, I had to take the VIN number and an official letter from the police department to the Texas Department of Transportation, getting a “sign-off” from them, also stating that the car had not been stolen. After an eventual title hearing, I was finally granted a clear title.
Now, the real fun was about to begin. I live in La Vernia. I was aware of a paint and body shop called Diamondback Restoration and Collision just 2 miles from my house. Their motto was “Bring us your car, and we will give you a Diamondback.” Although I had never had a reason to go there before, I did now!
I met owner Ken Hinton for the first time and spent an hour or so observing him, his shop, and looking at the projects he was working on. It all checked out favorably and I was impressed with his knowledge and passion for classics and collectibles. He followed me down to my shop to see my car, and our “interview” ended when he said the car was a “keeper,” and I said, “You got the job.”
Ken had about 10 employees, so he only worked on my car for the more complicated procedures like marrying the crushed fender with a donor from a Cab B. Ken tried to place the splice as far back toward the main body compartment as possible, but it just didn’t seem to work. He told me it would not fit. I talked to him once more and I told him what I had been told, “It will work. Just figure it out.” Being given such a challenge, Ken finally did figure it out, and it did work -- beautifully.
Making her go
Now, the motor and drivetrain were my next project. When I turn left on Highway 87 from my house, I go down to Diamondback. When I turn right, after a mere 2 miles I reach a place called KSW Import Motors. Here I met Stanley, a German who was a certified Mercedes-Benz mechanic and a wonderful guy who wanted to buy my car. After I declined, he asked me how I was going to restore it. I told him I planned a frame-up or frame-off restoration. He seemed pleased with that, so he agreed to do the mechanics on the car based on two conditions. First, he was not going to do it in a hurry, and second, he was going to repair it as close to absolutely correct as possible.
Bits and pieces
It wasn’t long before Ken was able to pull the body off of the frame so I could take the frame, motor, transmission, and drivetrain to Stanley. Now my car, my baby, is in two different locations and is beginning to look like a mumbo-jumbo car -- a door here, and a fender there. All seemed to be disordered chaos, yet all was in order and accounted for, and yet another interesting turn of events was about to occur.
Ken called me one morning and said, “Come get your car, and take it out of here as soon as possible.” He had just lost the lease on his shop. I had just finished major surgery two weeks prior, and I was still recovering in bed. I had a wheelchair, which I put myself in, and with the help of my son, wife, and several other friends, took a trailer to Ken’s shop and proceeded to pack up every piece of car I could get my hands on. For the most part it worked out OK, but as always is the case, several important pieces of my car were yet to be found. A few eventually showed up in trunks of other vehicles that were quickly extracted from Diamondback.
So up to date, Ken and Diamondback were in the process of doing all the bodywork and had done a very good job to that point. Ken no longer had a shop to work from, though, and my car was sitting in pieces. I realized I had a perfectly good shop that was basically holding a lot of furniture and junk. I didn’t want to lose the momentum of the project, nor did I want to change ships in the middle of a very turbulent sea, so I asked Ken what he needed in order to continue working on my car at my own shop. He explained it wouldn’t take much, and the main thing I had to purchase was a compressor. So, I hired him and his helper, Frank, to continue work on my car. The advantage now was that Ken, the passionate maestro himself, was doing all the work. Ken is a perfectionist. He does extraordinary work.
So we’re back on the road again, albeit with some bumps and twists and turns, but progress really is beginning to occur. Unfortunately, I had no idea where to find the parts that I needed for the car once it became obvious that certain things could begin to be put together.
A few good men
My first contact was a very nice guy named Ronnie, who was the first person to let me know that I actually had a 220 Cabriolet Cab A. He had been supplying 1951 to 1955 Mercedes parts to collectors and restorers for years. He was thinking of closing down his business, but still had enough parts available that I was able to fill in a few gaps. I bought the grille, the Cab B fender, and several other parts to allow Ken to continue working on the car. My journey was beginning to feel like a joy ride.
I next visited a shop named Beemers & Benz, a parts and repair shop in Somerset that specializes in those types of cars. They said my car was too old for them to help me, but put me in contact with Dr. Leo MB (Mercedes-Benz). Leo is another interesting fellow who introduced me to a gentleman named Frank. Frank introduced me to a parts company named Niemullers in Mannheim, Germany. I began a series of emails with Niemullers and was able to start ordering specialized parts I couldn’t find in the United States. The prices were very high, though.
My next contact came by the way of the Hemmings Motor News magazine. It was Bob “Hi Ho” Silver, a gentleman who lived in Gardena, Calif. He was an interesting and entertaining guy. His shop was stuffed to the “grilles” with cars and car parts. His cars had even been featured in many movies in Hollywood. When I visited Bob, I was lucky enough to be able to spend the day with him. I learned a lot, and, of course, I bought some parts.
Most recently, I went to a Mercedes Club meeting at the Fair Oaks Ranch Golf & Country Club in Boerne. There were about 12 or so people at the meeting. Each introduced themselves and proceeded to announce what kind of cars they had or were working on. I mentioned that I was restoring a 1951 Mercedes-Benz, and a man by the name of D.J. de Jesus gave me the name of yet another man in San Antonio who restored older Mercedes.
As it turned out, this new fellow, Andre, soon became my newest and best friend. He not only restores Mercedes, he specializes in 220 Cab A’s. I have since purchased several key components for my car and learned many important things from Andre. He is currently restoring a 1954 Coupe Cab A, has probably restored more Cab A’s than Bob Silver, and lives in San Antonio. The truth is often stranger than fiction.
As for upholstery, the shop I used is also on Highway 87. The odd thing is that right about the time I began to think about the upholstery, a man named Manual and his son, Joe, show up at my shop asking to rent part of it to start their upholstery business. We struck a barter deal and a new project on the Mercedes got under way right under my nose, right alongside Ken.
The top has yet to be made, and because it is a Cabriolet, it is a bit complicated. However, Andre referred me to a good top company, and they have assured me that they will be able to provide me with a beautiful top.
My car is still in pieces, but I am beginning to see the light. I have seen the entire body put together, which was exciting. Stanley has finished the motor, transmission, rear end, brakes, drivetrain, and other major parts of the car, but is waiting on fittings to finish up the final assembly.
I have repaired all the glass and I’m waiting on the proper time to install those. I also recently found a wood mill to redo the veneer interior. It won’t be long before body and chassis can be brought together once again. At that time, the new wiring harness will be installed, as well as the top.
So here I am a lot wiser, with a lot less money in my pocket, and hopefully very close to turning the key and starting up a “brand-new” 60-year-old Mercedes-Benz 220 Cabriolet Cab A. It has been a tremendous experience, and I have met nothing but wonderfully passionate and creative people along the way.
Gregory Haag is a resident of La Vernia.