Master of the Motorcar
Story by Alan D. McNarie
Photos by Kyle Rothenborg
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.
A plywood mock-up of a 1952 Mercedes-Benz 300SL.
The other car currently sitting in Passarelli’s shop shows how far behind the company had fallen. Though the 170DS was built in 1952, the same year as the 300SL—Passarelli thinks the two cars may well have shared the same factory floor—the huge black sedan looks like a prop from a World War II movie. Passarelli got it from a retired army colonel in Wahiawä who’d bought it while stationed in Germany. Its most distinctive feature is its “suicide doors”: the front doors are hinged at the back. They’re just the opposite of the 300SL’s streamlining: sturdy though they are, if they’d flapped open while the car was moving, the massive, instant wind drag (or contact with a passing pedestrian) might have torn them off. But the car wouldn’t have been moving that fast even with a tail wind: Its 1.7-liter engine is smaller than those in many subcompacts today. This steel monster could manage a top speed of only 65 mph.
But Mercedes wasn’t willing to fade into obscurity as a maker of luxurious but staid sedans. An engineer named Rudolf Uhlenhaut developed a revolutionary auto chassis inspired by fighter aircraft. The Mercedes design team created an equally revolutionary engine and body using whatever was available. The suspension and other parts came from one of those black monster 170DS sedans. The dashboard clock came from a Messerschmitt ME-109 fighter plane. But the car’s design was an engineer’s poetry, spare and beautiful. To accommodate the wraparound frame, the doors opened upward: the famous gull wings.
The 300SL proved to be a spectacularly successful experiment: It won nearly every race it entered, from LeMans—where it set a speed record, averaging 155 mph— to Mexico’s grueling La Carrera Panamericana. It later went into commercial production and became the first Mercedes sports car to penetrate the US market after the war. It was the fastest production car of its day, and it remains one of the most sought-after models by modern collectors.
Passarelli believes the prototype engine he found in Arizona came from one of the cars Mercedes brought over to race in the 1952 Carrera Panamericana. “My theory is that as the other cars were destroyed or used up in racing, this car was cannibalized to keep the other cars going,” he says.
Rebuilding a rare classic car from just an engine is a slow process. Passarelli has been at it for six years, using original blueprints and building the car the way all Mercedes were assembled in those days: rests a reproduction of the original jig used to build the car’s revolutionary steel frame. Another corner holds a “body buck,” a full-scale plywood mock-up of the body, which he’s using to form the aluminum body. In a third corner are the tools he uses for that job: an “English wheel” to bend and shape aluminum; a beanbag and hammers; and vice-like, bench-mounted tools for stretching and compressing the metal. None of these are power tools; Passarelli is shaping the body with the power of human muscles alone.
Mercedes 170DS, one of Passarelli's specialties.
“I call myself a jack-of-all-trades, master of quite a few,” jokes Passarelli, a genial, straightforward man with a mild Western drawl, a blacksmith’s shoulders and a military-looking haircut. He’s been mastering those trades since 1981. Before that he was a navigator on a US Navy nuclear-powered attack sub, practicing the fine art of steering around seamounts in the days before GPS. When he wasn’t at sea, he took that penchant for precision topside, working on Harley-Davidson motorcycles. After he left the Navy, he spent time in Hollywood as a designer and special effects man. (He designed Freddy Krueger’s saber claws for the Nightmare on Elm Street films.) During his Hollywood days he restored classic cars for Arsenio Hall and Carol Burnett.
“When I went home to Denver, it was too cold to ride a Harley,” he says. “So I bought a Mercedes, and that’s how it all got started. I noticed how incredibly well built the cars were and how easy they were to work on. No planned obsolescence involved with these cars. They were built to last.”
He estimates he’s restored between forty and fifty cars since then. His restorations have taken honors at classic car shows across the country and in Europe. An average restoration takes eighteen months and costs between $300,000 and $400,000. He’s worked on classic Ferraris, Volvos, Jaguars, Porsches, BMWs and MGs. But his stock-in-trade and first love remains Mercedes—specifically, Mercedes built before 1971 (when the company stopped building each car by hand), especially the gull-winged 300SLs. If you offered Passarelli a choice between a Picasso and a 300SL, he’d take the car.
“Outside of classic architecture, this is the twentieth century’s greatest art,” he says, pointing to the slant six engine. “Form follows function. The lines— you’ve got one of the lowest coefficients of drag here with this car. The engine is tipped at fifty degrees to the left, so they could lower the hood line, thereby decreasing the coefficient of drag. And in the process they created a whole new design paradigm.”
Passarelli painstakingly reconstructs the cars using original parts; what he can't find he manufactures. "Outside of classic architecture," he says, "this is the twentieth century's greatest art."
For decades Passarelli operated out of a shop he’d built himself near Cave Creek, Arizona and called his business Rancho Mercedes. But he never lost the love for the Islands he’d first experienced in his Navy days. So in 2010 he relocated to the former coffee mill in the Ka‘ü district and renamed it Hale Merced (“hale” being Hawaiian for “house”). It might seem a counterintuitive move—after all, the Mainland market for classic cars is much larger than the local one, and the supply lines are longer here.
“Some people think I’m crazy for moving here,” Passarelli says, but with the warm weather he can work year-round in a shop with the doors open. And he can begin his days by fishing at South Point— something he couldn’t do in Arizona.
Besides, his clients can afford to travel, especially a potential buyer for the 300SL Passarelli’s rebuilding now, which he believes should shatter the record set by his previous 300SL restoration. “Probably between three and five million when it’s finished,” he says. If, that is, he decides to sell it. While the car is “technically for sale,” he adds, “I kind of want to finish it and still own it.”
“This car,” he says, “is my life.”