This Mercedes-Benz 230SL Has Been Family-Owned For 50 Years
Photography by Jeff Stockwell
Through all the ups and downs, this 1965 Mercedes-Benz 230SL has spent the last 50 years with the same California family. In fact, this past January marked a half-century of ownership. That’s more than 600 months, north of 18,250 days— needless to say, that’s no short timeframe.
Eric Charnholm, the son who inherited this lovely Grey White Pagoda, has kept the wheels on this family convertible moving forward. Although it’s pristine brightwork, creamy paint, and plush leather cabin represent a near flawless restoration, it wasn’t always such a pampered possession. For most of its time within the Charnholm bloodline, it was a trusty workhorse before being temporarily abandoned to the garage.
The current caretaker was kind enough to give us some insight on what 50 years of motoring memories feels like. Spoiler: it’s nothing short of beautiful.
Andrew Golseth: Eric, how did this car originally join the family?
Eric Charnholm: In 1967, my father, who was a school principal in Los Angeles, decided he wanted to buy a two-seater convertible. He started looking around for something used, and he was always a fan of Mercedes-Benz since spending some time in Europe as a schoolteacher, so naturally he looked around for an older Benz.
During this search his friend, Jim Alder, was selling a 1958 Mercedes-Benz 300SL for $7,000. My dad was considering the 300SL, but found this this 1965 230SL in Santa Monica for $3,400. Unfortunately for me, he bought the 230SL instead of the 300SL. To this day, I still jab at him for that decision!
Anyway, my dad test drove the 230SL, liked it, and purchased it. That’s how we ended up with “The Little Mercedes,” as we’ve always called it. We bought it on January 31st, 1967, and it’s been in our family ever since.
AG: Was it your dad’s weekend car or everyday wheels?
EC: It was his daily driver, going to and from work everyday. That went on for a number of years until he realized it was kind of a pain to drive a manual in the growing traffic of Los Angeles. So he sort of pawned it off on my mother at some point. So here was my mom, driving this little convertible car jammed with two kids. It’s got a third seat, so my sister and I would ride around with my mother driving us around in this manual transmission car with no power steering.
She continued driving the car until she died; it was pretty much the only car I ever knew my mother to drive. My entire time with her, 24 years, she drove this car.
As a matter of fact, when I was born, I came home from Pomona Valley Hospital in the back seat. Behind the passenger and driver’s seat is where that little third seat is, and that’s how I came home from the hospital.
AG: So this is literally the first car you’ve ever been in?
EC: Yes, it’s the first car I’ve done nearly everything in. I learned to drive with it, it’s the first one I ever washed, the first one I ever wrenched on. This car, it was like a genesis for me, turning me into the car nut that I am now.
AG: After your mother passed, what became of the car?
EC: Well, when my mom passed away, it just sat in the garage. My dad didn’t drive it because, I don’t know, it’s tough when you lose your wife, and the car sort of represented Mom.
I think we all sort of sat back away from it for a bit, and that just lasted way too long, because then you end up with a situation where you’ve got a car like this sitting in the garage with boxes on it, which is exactly what happened. Ironically though, we had started the restoration process and were about 80% done by 1988, about three years before my mom passed. So the car was actually in very good condition while it sat.
AG: So what made you finally come back to the car?
EC: Honestly, I think as my son got older and came up on driving age, I saw it as this thing that needed to be rectified. It would never be sold. It would always be part of our family, and I felt it was my responsibility to get it going again, so that it could be enjoyed again and handed down to my son like it was to me.
It’s like suddenly now I’m married and I have two kids, just like when I was a kid, it was my mom and dad and us two kids. I just saw that there was something missing, and this was the thing: it just needed to be done. It’s the fifth member of The Beatles, so to speak. It just had to become part of our family again.
AG: What did it take to get the SL roadworthy again?
EC: Well, initially, getting all the boxes off of it and looking at the rotted tires. I got new tires mounted so I could at least get it off the ground.
When I started in earnest I went from the fuel tank in the back and worked my way towards the front of the car methodically taking everything apart. I spent weeks working on it after work in the evenings and weekends. Finally, after three months of tinkering, it was ready to fire up. I go to start it, and nothing. It just turns over and I realize I had forgotten to put the spark plugs back in! After connecting the plugs it started on the first try— I got it back on the road in December 2012.
I drove it 7 blocks down the street to my dad’s house with one headlight functioning and only the front left brake caliper working. I pulled up in the driveway and punched that little Mercedes horn: my wife and kids came running out, just laughing that it was alive again.
AG: What does your family think of it?
EC: They love it. They get it. We’ve made a lot of memories in it as a family, going on a honeymoon among other adventures. We’re adding a whole new history. Another fifty years. One day, my son will get it and hopefully it’ll remain in our family for a number of generations.
AG: Has your son gotten a chance to drive it yet?
EC: He has. I raised a petrolhead and thought it was important to teach him how to drive a stick-shift. His first car has a manual transmission, and it’s a very rare and cool car I have to say, it’s a 1991 Mitsubishi Galant VR4.
AG: Very nice, sort of like the precursor to the Evo. Back to your car though, have you kept the Mercedes pretty original?
EC: Yeah, basically everything is as it was. The only mechanical upgrade is a stronger starter. Aesthetically the only thing I’ve changed are the tires: these originally came with whitewalls, but I’ve gone to black because I prefer the look.
The engine was rebuilt in the ‘80s and Mom had only put about 18,000 miles on it before it was parked. So, once I went through it and replaced all the bushings, it shifted and drove like a new SL. It’s bizarre because it never drove this nicely when my mom had it. Back then it was always this totally servile jalopy. Not anymore!
AG: Mechanically, you did everything yourself?
EC: Yeah, pretty much. It’s funny, when I was growing up, my dad used to comment on how advanced this car was, which it was for the time— it’s got a pretty advanced mechanical fuel-injection system. My father always told me how complex it was, so that got in my head and I was a little terrified of this car because it was “so advanced.” But thanks to the internet, it really wasn’t all that tough, it took time, but it wasn’t rocket science. It turned out to be pretty simple, at least by modern standards.
AG: Did you discover any interesting history when going through the car?
EC: Actually, yeah. It still has the original Becker radio in it. I pulled it out when I was restoring the dash to go through all the heating ventilation switches and lighting and I noticed on the back of the radio there was a sticker from the radio repairman dating back to 1975. I want to call up the shop and say, “Hey, the light bulb in the radio went out. Can you guys replace it,” because apparently it’s still under warranty!
I also noticed that my dad had the full exhaust and muffler replaced at Midas back in 1981. According to the paperwork, it came with a lifetime warranty. My dad is still alive, so I think it’d be hilarious if the exhaust goes out, because we’ll take it back to Midas with the original receipt.
AG: Do you have any favorite memories with the car?
EC: Yes. There’s one that always sticks out. When my mom was suffering from cancer, she had her lymph nodes removed from her arms, so she was struggling with steering the Mercedes. When she’d have to do a U-turn, she would ask for my help. With all four of our arms, we’d turn this vintage car’s steering wheel to make the turn. That’s the memory that always pops in my head about that car. I can never escape it. The funniest thing is, a lot of it would have been resolved if we would have kept the proper air pressure in the tires.
Another memory is of my mother as well. She ran a real estate agency, and the car was not all that conducive to taking clients to showings, because it only sat two adults. So the clients would be forced to drive their own car with my mother in their passenger seat instead of the other way around. My mom always thought that led to a lot of her success. The clients felt more in control which helped them think they were making the choice to buy more on their own terms; through this car’s failure to take people in groups, it actually helped my mother’s career, which I think is pretty funny.
AG: What does your dad think about the car today?
EC: He’s thrilled. He’s so happy that it’s still here and being used. I think it’s one of the highlights of his older age. When I was working on it he was always the first person I went and grabbed, ecstatically yelling, “Hey, it’s running!”
AG: Sounds about right. So what’s your favorite part of the family legacy with this car?
EC: The stewardship. The feeling of responsibility I had in bringing this car back to the road and successfully having accomplished it. I feel an incredible sense of pride that I was actually able to get it running and keep it running. Now we can enjoy it, take it to Cars & Coffee shows, and share the story with other people.
When you hang on to something and take care of it for so long, it ends up becoming part of your family. So that’s my favorite thing about it: it’s simple existence. Just the fact that it exists.