A Gullwing for Big Dog Garage

Leno's Gullwing

This week’s In the Barn story is about how one of the world’s most famous collectors found a Mercedes Gullwing of his own. It comes from The Corvette in the Barn and you can pickup your own copy of the book from Motorbooks or Amazon. Be sure to send in your own find stories because one is going to get printed in Tom Cotter’s upcoming book. Now, enjoy the story!

Some of us have to search for old cars the old-fashioned way; opening our eyes as wide as possible as we drive down the street or keeping our ears open to hear rumors for old cars. Others of us have a real advantage and can request old car information on our own national television show. Such is the luck of Jay Leno, host of the Tonight Show with Jay Leno on NBC.

If you read The Vincent in the Barn, you may remember that Leno lucked into a rare Vincent Black Shadow barn find when he just happened to mention to viewers that he needed a Vincent gas tank that he dented over the weekend. The next day a gentleman called from Florida telling him that he didn’t have a gas tank, but he did have a complete Black Shadow that he bought new when he was in the service decades earlier.

Leno has become America’s best-known car collector, and he constantly gets phone calls and letters at his studio that the rest of us could only dream about.

This was the case recently when a letter arrived from a viewer saying that he had a vintage Arial motorcycle for sale. “This guy sends Jay a two-page letter talking about the bike,” said Bernard Juchli, general manager of Leno’s Big Dog Garage in Burbank. “Then on the bottom of the letter it says he also has a 1955 Mercedes 300SL for sale.

“So I asked Jay, ‘Would you like to buy an Arial motorcycle?’ and he said ‘No, not really.’ Then I asked him if he had any interest in a Mercedes Gullwing, and that piqued his interest.”

The Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing is one of the most iconic sports cars of all-time. It was made famous by the operation of its doors, which opened up instead of out; the car resembled a seagull with its wings outstretched. Gullwings are powered by a powerful straight six-cylinder engine, a toned-down version of the engine that enabled the legendary Sir Sterling Moss to win the 1,000-mile 1955 Mille Miglia through the Italian Alps in a time so fast that it has never been beaten.

Leno has always had a hankering to own a Gullwing. Before his comedy career took off, he worked as a mechanic on old Mercedes-Benz models in the Boston area.

“The car was out in Orange County somewhere, and apparently had been stored in a shipping container behind the guy’s business since 1983,” said Juchli. Juchli is the man responsible for managing Leno’s huge collection, which consists of about 130 cars and 70 motorcycles. “I had a Jaguar shop up in the San Francisco Bay Area, and Jay sent his XK120 engine for me to modify to racing specs,” he said. “Eventually Jay realized it would be cheaper for him to hire me to manage his collection than to send projects to my shop.

“I was hired to set up the shop so we could actually do work and perform our own restorations instead of sending them out to other shops. But Jay likes to be involved in the process, and he gets his hands dirty all the time.” Big Dog Garage’s staff of seven now performs complete restorations and has fabricated a number of cars from the ground up.

“The engine was out of the Gullwing when I bought the car,” said Leno. “It was all in pieces. This is how I found it. So far we’ve done the brakes and the gauges over. My plan is to drive it like this; keep it a beater Gullwing.”

Beater Gullwing

Leno said the car was put into a storage container at least 35 years ago. “It just sat,” he said. “It was one of those things where the owner intended to restore it, but he never quite got around to it.”

Leno said he hears about many cars because he has a reputation for paying the asking amount for cars and people know he’s not going to resell them for a profit. “And when you deal with older guys, especially guys with no kids, they want to know that their stuff is going to a good home,” he said. “They’ll say, ‘If you promise to take care of it, I’ll sell it for this much.’”

As a longtime admirer of the Gullwing sports car, Leno is clearly pleased with his new purchase. “The nice thing about this car is that even though it was a race car, it’s never been hit,” he said. “Look how nicely the doors close. This car was raced at Riverside. I have pictures of it running there. It has just seventy-three thousand miles, and I’m just the third owner.”

He went on to say that the car has no rust, but unfortunately he was missing the factory belly pans. “I believe the car was originally silver, but sometime in the 1960s or early 1970s, it became sort of a hot rod. It was painted by Junior Conway of Junior’s House of Colors in a candy apple red. And Tony Nancy, another famous hot rod guy from the 1960s, stitched the interior.”

“It was just an old sports car back then.”

Like This? Get Our Daily Email

Comments

  1. scot

    ~ big dog, indeed. huge, fortunate dog!!!
    another great episode, Tom. thanks as always.
    “It was just an old sports car.” seems such a bizarre statement today.

  2. geomechs Member

    Great article! I’ve always liked the Gullwing. I wish I could find one needing some TLC hiding in a barn somewhere. It would be a blast to have one.

  3. Koolpenguin

    Here’s a great video of Leno talking about this particular car.

    http://www.jaylenosgarage.com/at-the-garage/classics/1955-mercedes-benz-300sl-gullwing-coupe/

  4. jim s

    jay leno does drive his cars and has the resources to maintain them so it went to a good home. another great story… and yes back in the 1960s and early 70s there were a lot of ” just an old sports car “. run hard, put away wet, as daily drivers and disgarded when the repairs became costly or life got in the way. researching for sale adds from that timeframe shows what they were selling for. what i find interesting is the number of cars from that timeframe that are now claimed to be # matching. i know keeping them that way was not on my radar back then.

  5. ThisOneGoesToEleven

    I still strongly disagree with the choice to leave the bodywork in poor condition. It’s not truly historically significant race wise, it doesn’t justify retaining it’s (over used term) patina- it flat just looks rough, beat up, and needing restoration. If any classic deserves absolute first rate paint and bodywork, a gullwing merits it. I’ll bet the next owner in the distant future does it right and completes the job.

    • Koolpenguin

      @ThisOneGoesToEleven
      If you watch the video I noted above Leno says that he will eventually give it a full restoration. He’s taken care of the engine, brakes, gauges, etc and now he’s just enjoying driving it. Not sure what there is to “strongly disagree” with??

Leave A Comment

RULES: No profanity, politics, or personal attacks. Don't post your car for sale in the comments. Click here to get it featured on the homepage instead.

*

Notify me of new comments via email. Or subscribe without commenting.