Mercedes Motoring: Turning ordinary into extraordinary

If you were to wander into the garage at Mercedes Motoring in Glendale, Calif., likely the first thing you’d notice is how neatly everything is organized. Two tidy rows of gleaming Mercedes-Benz cars, the newest one several decades old, stare at each other from either side of a wide, high-roofed bay. In a series of square cubbies standing against one of the walls, parts are grouped according to type – speedometers in one cubby, HVAC controls in another, service manuals in another. Small parts live in segmented plastic bins, and clean tools are laid out on a wide table nearby.

“I’m a pretty tidy guy,” said J.G. Francis, the shop’s 41-year-old owner and founder. “Even as a kid I really liked organizing things and being neat.”

Francis’ innate neatness means he isn’t apt to spill anything, but his cleanliness spills over into his craft, which is bringing old Mercedes-Benz automobiles as close to their original condition as he can. It’s important to note that the cars Francis tends to work on aren’t usually sought-after collector items like a 1955 300 SL gullwing coupe or 1937 540 K Special. For more than a decade, Mercedes sedans and station wagons that saw service ferrying people to and from work, school and appointments – 1968-85 240D and 300D models, in particular – have been Francis’ bread and butter.

“I think they’re the best production car made,” he said.

Francis’ business model is simple. He looks for original, low-mileage Mercedes cars that can be disassembled and returned to factory original condition – as close as possible, at least. Most are cars that can be driven from wherever they’re purchased to Francis’ California shop. The cars come from all over the country, and Francis is often joined by Sean Johnstun, a childhood friend with whom he now shares shop space.

“A lot of the cars we restore, we fly out and drive them back here,” Francis said. “Generally the further they are away the better, because we’re always looking to turn it into a fun road trip.”

Francis said examples from the Southwest are usually rust-free because of the dry climate, but they often have damaged rubber parts and interiors due the relentless sun in the region. He said he likes cars from the Pacific Northwest, where state transportation departments don’t use much salt on the roads, and from colder climates where cars are generally stored during the winter.

It takes about five weeks – and sometimes as long as two months – to go through a car, and Francis says he and his team touch nearly every part during that time. Once the cars have been rejuvenated and are in Bristol condition, most sell for $25,000 to $40,000 or so, depending upon how rare the model is.

In addition to Francis and Johnstun, who grew up together in Las Vegas, four others are also involved in the business, and most work on the cars. Johnstun also runs a hot rod upholstering business, Fat Lucky’s, so there are often flamboyant hot rods and custom trucks at the end of Francis’ two columns of shiny, sober Benzes. Becki Chernoff is tasked with finding cars for to work on; Francis has the final say in deciding which ones make the cut. Mike Barron and Ron Babcock also help out around the shop (with Babcock assuming office duties as well), and Rafael Ortega takes photos.

Francis and his team follow an orderly process to get the cars ready to be re-released into the wild.

“We come up with a game plan on day one,” he said, explaining that his team takes off trim, moldings, paneling and bumpers – all of the parts that will expose paint hidden away for years. The paint is color-sanded and polished, the interior is freshened up, belts and hoses are replaced, as well as anything else that may have deteriorated while the car was sitting. Surprisingly, that generally isn’t a lot.

“You’d be shocked to see what happens – in terms of what we don’t have to replace,” he said. “Mercedes-Benz cars were built at a high level, so we have a good platform to start with.”

Francis says he has been refining his restoration process over the last decade, but the origins of his current trade are simple. He basically transformed a hobby he was passionate about into a career. Nine years of fits, starts and indecision eventually got him through college, and he said he landed a solid desk job for a while. But after restoring a maple yellow 1979 300SD, his focus changed.

“I call myself a corporate dropout,” he said. “I got out of all that to build cars.”

Over time, the restoration projects became more involved. After performing a few of them, Francis said he realized that it was possible to make money doing what he loved, so he stuck with it. But he is quick to point out that the quality of his work has improved in the years since.

“Sometimes, I’ll see one that we built three or four years ago, and I’ll say, ‘Oh, we’re better now,’” he said. “It keeps me from being complacent – I’m always happy with my work, but never satisfied. I can always do better.”

Part of the growing process, he said, has been taking on more challenging projects. Francis’ first restorations were run-of-the mill 1970s and ’80s luxury commuter cars, but recently he has been delving into rarer vehicles, too. Among the more sought-after vehicles he has taken on are W113 chassis and W111 coupes (including the Pagoda model), and the W109 300SEL 6.3. In his current fleet he even has a 1962 300d Adenauer, a contemporary rival of the Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud and predecessor to the Mercedes-Benz 600 limousine (made famous by European heads of state and banana republic despots).

In the future, he said he may expand his business into Mercedes-Benz vans and campers. His personal collection includes a turbocharged, Caledonia green 1979 250T station wagon and 1973 206D Hanomag camper, a truck-like transporter van that looks something like an old Volkswagen bus.

“I just happened to find my niche with diesels,” he said. “We stamp the same thing out over and over, so it’s exciting when we get something very rare and usual.”

Francis says sales are steady, but that at some point, he may want to try his hand at something else altogether.

“I love building cars, and I see it in my long-term future, but at the same time there are so many other things I want to do with my life,” he said. “I’d like to restore an old sailboat and sail it around the world. I’m pretty serious about that one.”

Francis’ future seems secure, but a battered Mercedes sedan parked in front of his shop hints at what may come. His passion for the cars seems to have rubbed off on Barron, who bought the car for $600 and spends his free time fixing it up. Could Francis’ young apprentice be the vanguard of the next generation of Benz preservationists? Only time will tell.

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