One man’s love for the marque’s classic cars sets off a decades-long pursuit of perfecting their restoration.
PHOTOGRAPHY CHERYL RAHARJO PHOTOS FULLERTON CONCOURS D’ELEGANCE
The Aga Khan, Zsa Zsa Gabor and Karl Lagerfeld all owned one. Grace Kelly, with Frank Sinatra riding shotgun, was immortalised behind the wheel of hers on the silver screen in High Society. On the streets of Manhattan in the wee hours, Miles Davis once raced his against a baroness in her Bentley.
Produced in the optimistic postwar era, this sporty drop top with its curvaceous wings, art moderne lines and sexy silhouette stole the hearts of many a celebrity. And, apparently, it purloined Allen Lim’s too.
“I was 25 years old when I first set eyes on a Mercedes-Benz 190 SL,” the retired businessman recalls of that day in 1985. “It was the most sublime automobile design I had ever seen. It was at that moment, I wanted to know more about the history and technology behind the ‘three-pointed star’. It was the 190 SL that sparked my decadeslong love affair with Mercedes.”
While the compulsive classic-car collector (he has four in his stable) did not manage to get his hands on that model, he bought a 1951 Mercedes-Benz 170s luxury two-door sedan four years later. The lengthy restoration project – the first of what would go on to become a string of five – became his preoccupation throughout most of his 30s and 40s.
Lim, 57, elaborates: “The car was mechanically fine after the first restoration in the 1990s. But in the spirit of Mercedes’ motto, ‘The Best Or Nothing’, I wanted to keep improving the car’s interior and exterior so that it would look like it had just left the factory. The second phase used parts and materials imported from Germany. I did a lot of research to get the right paint mix and the correct leather interior. I even managed to find original car accessories offered to its European customers in the 1950s.”
Lim is at the press preview of the inaugural Fullerton Concours d’Elegance (see box). The star of the show is another of his restorations, a stunning 1959 Mercedes-Benz 220s cabriolet, in resplendent dual tone light blue and cream paintwork, and matching cream leather upholstery.
Among the dozens of vintage and classic models gathered, his Ponton (as the model series is commonly called) is the sole car to be presented as “concours quality”. For an automobile to be considered so, it must appear to be, to all intents and purposes, factory fresh. It must also use only original and periodcorrect parts in its restoration. The 220s bore the de rigueur Becker AM radio that then came as a Mercedes factory option, white sidewall tyres and even a German-made battery of the appropriate provenance.
The car has, quite literally, come a long way. Given the dearth of collectibles in Singapore due to the country’s tax disincentives for older vehicles, Lim had to source it from Australia. But, first, he had to persuade the previous owner, who wanted to ensure that it would go to someone responsible, to give it up. To Lim’s great relief, they hit it off . Although the drivetrain was in good mechanical condition and the body work mostly rust-free, he decided he needed to “tropicalise” the car for use here. As the car was more than 50 years old, it was sensible, he says, to embark on a full restoration to give it the best chance of lasting another 50.
“Restoration is both an art form and also a science,” he explains. “Like producing great art, it cannot be hastened. Like a science, it must be systematic. Corners cannot be cut.”
So he started by taking the car apart. Then, he had the engine painstakingly rebuilt to restore the horses that bolted from the stable through years of wear and tear, and, more importantly, to ensure that it could cope with Singapore’s start-stop traffic and hot and humid climate.
The brake, electrical and fuel systems were checked and serviced. Components that could be restored were rescued, but perishables such as the fuel tank and fuel lines were renewed.
With the mechanicals sorted, Lim moved onto what he regarded as the most challenging part of the endeavour: the body and interior. He sandblasted the body panels to strip it of old paint, allowing him to remove the rust and properly repair the rotten areas. He spent an “inordinate amount of time” to get the structural integrity of the car correct – drivability is vital, he says, as he intended not to baby the car but to use it regularly.
The detailing was also demanding on this craftsman. Typical of the era, the car is heavily appointed with chrome and wood inlays. They had to be removed for reworking, but they were attached to the car using delicate clips. An unskilled hand, he says, could easily break the fasteners and render the parts worthless.
For the wood inserts, he relied on a skilled carpenter to fill up the damaged surfaces and to varnish them, bringing out the wood grain. He goes on: “There are numerous coats of varnish on the wood inserts. Each layer is hand painted with long strokes. When it dries, you sand the layer down and then apply the next layer. It is only this old-fashioned method that allows you to have this almost mirror-like sheen.”
In a consistent refrain, Lim shares that the car remains an ongoing project for him, it having not “reached perfection” in his eyes. But it could be too that he is in no particular hurry, having yet to meet his one true love. Circling back to that delicious little number at the beginning of the story, he says: “I am still looking for the ideal 190 SL.”
“RESTORATION IS BOTH AN ART FORM AND ALSO A SCIENCE. LIKE PRODUCING GREAT ART, IT CANNOT BE HASTENED.”
ALLEN LIM, ON THE NECESSITY OF TEDIUM IN THE RESTORATION PROCESS
KING OF THE ROAD
Lim, next to the two-tone 220s that was the highlight of the Fullerton Concours d’Elegance press preview.
01, 02 LABOUR OF LOVE
Period-correct parts, down to the upholstery and wheels, are vital to earning a “concours quality” grade.
Lim’s 220s houses an original Becker AM radio, framed by chrome and wood inlays that were all the rage in the ’50s.