Hemmels Mercedes Is Perfecting The Pagoda And Beyond
Photography by Nat Twiss
Undeniably desirable, far ahead of their time and timeless still, 300SLs have long been a benchmark for blue chip collecting. As their market position steadily increased over the last few years, it’s shed light on the other SLs, most notably the 190s and Pagodas. With high production numbers and excellent drivability, driver-level Pagodas have always been attractive and plentiful for modest enthusiasts.
But what if you want something more, what if you want the perfect classic SL? What would that look like to you? What if you want to spec the car completely to your liking, just as if you walked into the showroom in the 1960s and dreamt up a configuration for the factory to build, all tailor-made.
Based in the UK, the team at Hemmels is providing just that—more, in fact. They deliver gorgeous nut-and-bolt rebuilds with the final product delivered in better-than-new condition. As admirers of all SLs, we sat down with co-founder Joseph Sullivan, a renowned Mercedes restorer, to learn more about the Hemmels process and how bringing Pagodas back to life is just their entrée to a larger vision.
Shayan Bokaie: You’ve been in Mercedes restorations for some time now, tell us a bit about your background and how you got started.
Joseph Sullivan: I’ve been getting my hands dirty for a very, very long time. Both my father and grandfather were mechanics and I used to do restorations when I was a child out of that same garage. My grandfather and I both pursued aeronautical engineering as well, but we’re mechanics, genetically speaking.
SB: Was Mercedes always the focus for you guys? More so, why the SLs in particular now?
JS: Mercedes is in my blood. Every member of family has had a Mercedes going back many generations. At first, we did all sorts of early Mercedes-Benzes, including early cabs and coupes, but the W198 300SL and the W113 Pagoda series started to become the focal point for a few reasons. The drivability and reliability was such a leap forward for Mercedes and set such a strong direction for the company’s future for one; compared to the 190SL, which is a truly beautiful car, the performance is simply leagues above. And from a restoration perspective, the 300SL and Pagodas are certainly not an easy restoration project, and I love a challenge like these cars provide. It’s not that they are fraught with so many issues (though there are plenty of difficulties inherent in bringing these cars back), it’s also that the end product must meet such a high standard. That’s the fun kind of challenge. To be regarded as one of the finest restorers on the planet of models that are this difficult to restore is an honor and something that I aspire to. Lastly, just look at them; they’re jaw-dropping, gorgeous. It’s quite rewarding to step back after the restoration and just bask in it sometimes!
SB: They’re certainly stunning cars, my dad actually has a manual Silver/Blue 250SL and the performance is surprisingly modern compared to the 190SL, but they still aren’t really known for their power, are they?
JS: The 190SL is beautiful in its own right, but when you drive one you’re certainly not in the fast lane too often. It’s great to poodle down to the local pub, but if you’re looking to cruise across Europe in something vintage with a star on the hood, the Pagoda is much better suited to that kind of GT driving experience. We’ve also developed a high-efficiency performance package for the 280SL, which adds electronic ignition, electronic fuel injection and combustion modifications to give it 30% more horsepower. The improved responsiveness and power band range is incredible. Also, the reliability and usability of the Pagoda is exceptional. One of our clients just completed a 5,000 mile trip through Europe complete with his & her luggage. We’ve seen countless pictures of the car outside of hotels and iconic locations.
SB: You co-founded Hemmels with one of your customers, a dream a lot of enthusiasts have with their mechanics: How did that come to be?
JS: Well, I started doing my own restorations out of my garage, so a facility like this was always the dream. Jon Curley was a client of mine initially, and he took notice of the high standards of work we did, so we discussed what it would take to bring Hemmels to where we are today in the market. The vision for our concept comes from his background in tech, so we’ve adopted a very adept digital offering for our clients which is not something other restorers do, so that paired with my background in complete restorations has helped us carve out a unique spot.
SB: Walk us through what a full restoration looks like.
JS: From the beginning we set out to ensure the car will be one of the finest restored SLs around. This means high levels of quality control, which means 95% of the work is done here at our facility in Cardiff. If the client doesn’t already have the vehicle, I do the sourcing personally to get a very good idea of what the restoration will require in terms of cost and current condition. Then after a full inspection, we strip the vehicle down and document every single piece to catalogue what percentage of the car contains original parts and decide what needs to be replaced or restored. This process is key for us, and it ensures we don’t miss a single nut or bolt before we start the rebuild.
One thing that’s not typically original or in good enough condition are the bodies, so we’re changing 60-80% of the panels with genuine Mercedes panels, making us the largest purchaser of classic Mercedes panels in the UK. Every Hemmels Mercedes is produced using an identical process that takes the car to bare metal. In a sense, each car is reborn, not restored.
SB: These cars are leaving you guys in better-than-new condition I presume?
JS: Absolutely. Each car comes fully warrantied. We have one team assigned to the car for each of the three largest stages of work while two quality control members will look after it, and then final inspection is done by myself, so we’re certainly not missing out on anything, and that’s the key to our success. As fantastic as original Pagodas are, they have their imperfections. The original lines weren’t always right, bonnets were filed down by hand and so forth. We spend the necessary time making sure all the gaps and panels are absolutely perfect.
SB: So since the car is being taken to back to its bones, how much customization do you offer? Do you protect the original specs offered by Mercedes or do you allow clients to take liberties?
JS: Our clients spec their beautiful car in whichever way they desire. If they want a completely original-spec vehicle as it came from the factory, then that’s what they’ll have. Most clients opt for some sort of customization though. Anything from our new engine performance upgrade to more personal options. For example, we have a particularly tall client who struggles to fit in the car, so we’ve added more legroom but the kept integrity of the vehicle. There’s no additional charge for that service for example, for us it’s about delivering that feeling when someone first sits in the car they’ve dreamt up regardless of how its achieved. We also ship cars all over the world so options like A/C or heated seats are popular as is a choice of EU or US-spec headlights.
SB: I’m curious about color choice since originality can affect the cars value if they ever decide to sell. What are you noticing there?
JS: We try to keep colors within period, however as we’ve evolved customers have requested more modern options. Selenite Gray, a color currently offered by Mercedes, or other modern silvers are quite popular at the moment.
SB: It seems like you guys have the restorations down to a science now, how many cars are you doing in a year?
JS: This year we will complete over 30 cars—primarily 280SLs and a handful of 300SLs. For reference, the 190SLs and Pagodas take 8 months and each 300 SL, Gullwing or Roadster, takes about 18 months to rebuild. The new facility and team have allowed me to take the skills I’ve honed over such a long period of time and expand it. Everyone knows exactly how I want things done, and we demand the best out of our staff. After all, you’re only as good as your craftsmen, and we’re a well oiled machine.
SB: Earlier you mentioned how technology has impacted the vision, could you speak more about that?
JS: This applies predominantly to the client engagement aspect. As soon as you commit to your Hemmels rebuild, you’ll get to watch the car go through every phase of restoration via your account on our website. You’ll be able watch the process through a live feed of every piece of paperwork, documentation, and photograph from when it was sourced, stripped, and rebuilt right up until delivery back to you. Everything is then compiled into a beautiful hardbound book, because well, who doesn’t love that?
SB: The growth has been quite significant since inception, what’s next for you guys?
JS: Expanding our markets and working on significant cars. Increased demand has now made the USA our #1 market so we’ll be expanding operations there in 2018. We’ve also been commissioned to rebuild a 1968 Pagoda for Mercedes-Benz World at Brooklands, which we’ll be documenting online in the new year.
SB: Can’t wait to check it out. Thanks for the chat, cheers!