Conversations With People We Value #6
Along the way when good fortune smiles, life affords us the opportunity to make the acquaintance of gifted individuals of good character, good humor and superior skill.
Decades ago while visiting an island off the east coast, my eye caught a neatly ordered disposition of older and highly desirable Mercedes-Benz automobiles arrayed in front of a small repair shop. The gathering of Stuttgart finery compelled me to know more.
Three vintage M-Bs filled a long single bay garage. Three-pointed stars and classic M-B grills adorned the walls. The lone occupant extended a craftsman’s hand. “I’m Larry, what can I do for you,” he said. With that, I met a gifted master mechanic immersed in mid-20th century Mercedes-Benz technology.
Old School Larry
Almost forty years later, I have asked my, now, good friend Larry to sit for an interview. “I will talk with you,” Larry says, “but don’t give my full name or the location of my shop. If too many people learn what I do, the phone will never stop ringing and I will never get anything done.” You see Larry focuses his considerable Mercedes-Benz acumen primarily on Mercedes-Benz coupes, cabriolets and SLs from the’50s, 60’s, 70’s and 80s so that their owners can drive them as Mercedes-Benz had intended rather than placing them in suspended animation in some climate controlled sarcophagus.
Old school Larry is just that, “old school” and in Larry’s highly skilled case it is more accurately old “graduate” school. Old school for many conjures up a hands-on application of intuitive wizardry. Larry is all of that and more. Indeed, in Larry’s care a favorite tool endows a certain divining rod/Ouija board sixth sense.
An infrared heat gun for example offers a powerful and convenient means for deducing problems occurring in areas unseen. Pointing it at each hub cap or alloy wheel after driving can reveal a potential wheel bearing issue by displaying a significant temperature differential. Should one front tire compared to the other measure much hotter it could indicate an alignment problem. A significant tire temperature differential could indicate a brake caliper not releasing.
If, when aimed to where the exhaust manifold outlets meet the head, the temperature of one outlet exceeds the others by one hundred degrees or more it could indicate a mis-adjusted valve, a burned valve or a lean cylinder caused by a malfunctioning injector. Being M-B exclusive Larry has a mastery of the idiosyncrasies and nuances of the vintage models in which he specializes. Together with his “intuitive wizardry” he often divines high probability problems before really attempting any invasive procedure.
Interestingly Larry’s business is not restoration. His customer base consists largely of people of means with a particular fondness for an older Mercedes-Benz that they garage on island and enjoy driving while there.
Larry attracts customers with the natural draw of a lodestone. Old school through and through, he does not advertise. He has no social media or internet presence. He does not even have a computer. A few years back he grudgingly entered the 20th century and acquired a telephone answering machine. Lacking a computer does not mean Larry lacks resources. He possesses an extraordinary archive of manuals, parts books, service literature and parts microfiche. In this internet of everything age many respected M-B servicers will reach out to him (by phone) as a resource for part numbers and authentication.
Larry’s business focuses on the refurbishing of a select group of vintage Mercedes-Benz vehicles to a high standard. He then maintains them as premium drivers in strict accordance with factory specifications.”
Larry says, “A person may have a 380SL they bought new in 1985 when they were in their 40s. It has enjoyed the care of a beloved child. They plan to keep driving it because they have someone who understands the car, can get parts, will keep it running and be their eyes and ears. That someone is me. These people don’t mind spending the money to maintain their treasured “island” car.”
“They’re not into car shows,” says Larry, “they are into loving the car for what it is. They love to drive the car. They want it to stop, start and do what it is supposed to do and then be parked it in their garage.”
Philosophically his approach to the oversight of vehicles in his care mirrors the rigors with which aircraft are maintained with annuals based on time and usage.
While some might question how much demand exists for Larry’s vintage M-B services on a little island. Larry says when he first started in 1982 40 percent of his business came from off island. Today, the island gives him all he can handle.
Actually the level of demand has resulted in Larry totally re-evaluating the vehicles he accepts. He expects a customer to demonstrate the same respect for the automobile that Larry possesses.
“When a new client comes in I will ask the same battery of questions,” Says Larry. He will inquire of prospective customers as to when the car last had a major service based on the mileage or the time. If they respond that they don’t believe in that, then they really don’t want me,” says Larry.
When I accept a car, I provide a schedule of service prioritized from a safety standpoint and reliability standpoint. Conforming to that schedule will ensure that their vintage Mercedes is factory ready whenever they turn the key.
I love what I do says Larry and after all my years in business I want to do it my way.
I’m having fun working on great cars meeting all kinds of good people. I will have long time clients come in and sit down for an hour or two in the afternoon and we’ll just talk about cars. Some of my clients possess the financial means to buy any car they want. Many also appreciate that they lack the in-depth knowledge of the automobiles they desire. I am pleased to be of help.
When asked for any words of wisdom to share with anyone interested in purchasing the types of M-Bs he works on, Larry, smiling knowingly, says, “Know what you are looking for. Know what you want it for. Buy the best one you can find. And don’t call me.” Then he laughs.