Story by Alan D. McNarie
Photos by Kyle Rothenborg
Six years ago Mark Passarelli discovered a rusty automobile engine buried in the sand of an Arizona junkyard. Most people wouldn’t have recognized it, but Passarelli isn’t most people. He’s one of the world’s foremost restorers of classic automobiles. He realized that the engine was from a rare 1952 Mercedes 300SL, Mercedes’ first postwar design, built for its re-entry into auto racing after the war.
|Mark Passarelli, pictured here in his Big Island shop, is one of the country's foremost automobile restorers.|
But this wasn’t just any 300SL engine: It turned out to be the one that had powered the very first Mercedes 300SL: serial number 0001/52. Only eleven of the 300SL race cars were built, and of those, four were missing, including the original prototype—until that day in 2005 when Passarelli stumbled across his destiny. Today that prototype engine sits in Passarelli’s shop, Hale Merced, located in a former coffee mill near the tiny village of Wai‘ohinu on the Big Island. And he’s painstakingly rebuilding the entire car around it, part by part.
Few people on Earth can do what Passarelli does, partly because he has to do so many different jobs: He’s an entire auto factory rolled into one: mechanic, machinist, sheet-metal worker, upholsterer, painter, woodworker, veneerer, leather worker. If he can’t find an aluminum part, he makes it from scratch using a sandcasting process similar to that used by sculptors and jewelry makers. He even recreates the custom luggage that Mercedes sold, sculpted to fit in its sports cars’ limited spaces. One of his restored vehicles, a 1954 300SL Gull-wing, sold at auction for $1,375,000, a record for that brand and make.
So far his current 300SL is little more than a small, tubular steel frame sitting in the center of the shop, but once fully restored it will be a remarkable machine. The 300SL had unusual doors that swing upward, making it look positively futuristic for 1952. The three-liter engine bolted onto that spidery steel frame was the first “slant six” engine, built to power an extraordinary race car at a pivotal moment in automotive history.
“It’s historically significant three or four ways,” says Passarelli. “It’s the first race car that Mercedes built after the war. It’s also the first tubular chassis that they ever built, the first car with gull-wing doors and the first slant six.” The engine was underpowered for its time, but the car made up for it with the light, revolutionary frame (only 180 pounds) and aluminum body. Passarelli believes that if he dropped a modern engine into that body, he could produce a car that gets fifty mpg— not that he’d do such a thing. Like all his restorations, this car will have either original parts or parts reproduced from the original designs, right down to the clock on the dashboard.