The missed phone call that cost our family $915,000

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Matt Fink

Every family has a story of “The Car that Got Away” — or they should have one, at least. Mine involved missing out on a car whose value then increased eighteen times over. My family had what some say is the most collectible sports cars ever. One of only 167 built. One that often sells for well over a million dollars nowadays. We just didn’t get a phone call in time.

Our story begins in 1952 at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The top two places went to Mercedes-Benz in their purpose-built race car, the W194. Despite its success, Mercedes had no plans to sell a roadgoing version. The U.S. importer for Mercedes at the time, Max Hoffman (who interestingly lived in a Frank Lloyd Wright home and commissioned Wright to design his Manhattan Jaguar dealership), had a different opinion. He thought America was doing pretty well post-war and there were people with money to spend. He was able to convince Mercedes that it would make sense for them to sell the 300SL Gullwing as a road car, and he was right. The firm built and sold 167 of them in the debut year. Here’s something you don’t read every day; the street version actually had more horsepower than the race car. This was the first production car with mechanical fuel injection and if you could find a road long enough it could hit 163 mph. Yes, in 1954!

My family joins the story in 1955 when Great Uncle Welcome and Great Aunt Honey (yes, their real names) took a drive to Arizona to visit an old friend. This wealthy friend proudly showed off his newest purchase. His 1 of 167, 1954 Mercedes Benz 300SL Gullwing. Silver with leather interior (a $165 option). He laughingly told them how the dealer had convinced him to spend an extra $85 for the matching luggage set. As you can imagine, Welcome and Honey loved it.

Their friend took note of how they loved that car. So much so, that unbeknownst to them he changed his will to leave the car to them. That surprise phone call announcing them as the new owners of the 300SL came in 1974 with his passing. You can imagine their pride bringing home this ultra-rare dream car.

Matt Fink

Great Aunt Honey especially loved how the cute luggage fit perfectly behind the front seats. Her excitement was short lived though as she soon realized why the luggage was designed to sit there. She couldn’t fit anything in the actual trunk, because it came pre-filled with a spare tire and a mammoth 34.7-gallon fuel tank and little room for anything else. Knowing her husband was so excited she did not want to complain. Returning to their home in very hilly Alamo, California (a suburb about 20 miles east of San Francisco), Great Uncle Welcome noticed his first real problem with the car. It was grueling to drive on a regular basis in the mountainous terrain around Alamo because the clutch was extremely heavy. So much so, that Mercedes eventually offered it with a clutch arm helper spring.

Honey never drove anyway so Welcome did not want to say anything since he knew how much she loved it. Honey however did begin to notice something strange. He started choosing to drive their barebones brown 1971 Plymouth Valiant 4-door sedan more and more. But how could he choose to drive that boring car when the most beautiful car he had ever seen was sitting in his driveway? Well, it’s hard to continue to love a car when you can’t get in or out of it. The 300SL had unusually high door sills as a consequence of the gullwing doors. These were challenging for most people to swing their legs across, but especially difficult for an elderly couple. To help with this, the steering wheel had a neat trick where it would turn 90 degrees horizontal to act like a handle to use when climbing in.

That didn’t address the other problem he was facing: upkeep. Mercedes recommended oil changes every 1000 miles. Because of the car’s race-bred dry sump lubrication system with large oil cooler, Welcome’s short trips around town would not get the oil hot enough to flow properly. The final straw however came from Honey the day she learned that in addition to the Gullwing not having air conditioning, the windows also could not be rolled down.

They soon made the very difficult decision that this dream car just wasn’t for them. They decided to sell it, but they wanted to make sure it stayed in the family by blessing someone who would really appreciate it, and they knew just who it should be. It was still 1974 when Welcome called my grandpa looking to find my dad. “Can I have Tom’s phone number please? I know he and his family are into cars. I have a Mercedes sports car I would like for him to have. I would only ask $5000 if it goes to him.” To which my grandpa replied, “Sorry Welcome, but I know that Tom isn’t interested. He’s got a family now, he shouldn’t be buying some old sports car.”

Welcome tried one more time. “Are you sure? I could at least ask him. If not Tom, what about you? I really want this to stay in the family.” My grandpa unfortunately replied, “You know that we have ten kids Welcome, we have no business buying a sports car. Goodbye,” and hung up the phone. Three days later, Dad found out about that phone call and (even before he yelled at his own dad for this colossal mistake) he desperately tried to reach Great Uncle Welcome … but it was too late. His neighbor had just driven away in it having offered him $10,000.


In the end, all we are left with is a good story. The Hagerty #3 average condition value for the 1954 Mercedes 300SL Gullwing is $920,000. Whenever one comes up on a Barrett-Jackson auction, I still text my dad and have him tune in to watch, even though it hurts. That fitted luggage Great Aunt Honey liked so much … is now worth $20,000!

Matt Fink

Thanks, Grandpa, for protecting my dad from buying probably the most historically important sports car Mercedes-Benz ever made. Maybe we would not have seen the potential 18,300 percent increase in value. After all, at the time my family lived in Madison, Ohio, right on Lake Erie, so who knows what condition it would be in now. But man, it is hard not to think about what would have been if my Dad had only got that phone call. For any of you with sports cars out there, feel free to leave me one in your will. I promise to love and care for it, even if the clutch is heavy and the windows don’t go down. Until I get a call from one of you, I will keep my model of the 300SL on my desk alongside other dream cars I’ll never be able to afford. That’s my family’s story, what’s yours? What’s the “one that got away” you wished you would have bought?

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    Great story! I love it.
    Back when I was about 10, my father had a Gullwing. It was the coolest car ever and remains so to me today, yet it “got away” when he sold it at auction back in the late 70’s. Needless to say, the values have increased a bit since then. I too watch them sell now and internally curse him for selling it…but it is what it is. I am thankful for the experience of riding shotgun in that car in my youth. It most certainly is a part of what made me the car but that I am today.

    Oh man…..i’ve had several instances over my lifetime where “the car got away”. Austin-Healey 3000, Jag XK-120, ’55 Chevy Bel Air with an authentic ’67 Z28 302 in it and more! It still hurts to think about them!

    Our “car that got away” story also involved a Gullwing. Years ago we were members of an all-marque sports car club in St. Louis. A member wanted to sell his Gullwing. We didn’t know the car (or the member) well, and price details are a little fuzzy. I remember it as $6000, and Hubby remembers it as $8000. Either way, we were vehicle broke at the time, with 3 cars plus an airplane, so we passed on the deal. Oh well. We DID keep the ’64 Porsche 356 SC sunroof coupe, now owned for 55 years.

    1969 I was stationed in Berlin, bought a 1956 Porsche sedan for $500.00, shipped it home and loved it, until I blew the engine. Money being tight and having no place to store it I traded it in for a new 1970 Volvo Three years later I saw a 1971 Mercedes 280SE convertible for sale for $5000.00. It was either that or a new Volvo 164 for about the same money. I didn’t have a garage, in NY there was alternate street parking for street cleaning and with robberies the convertible seemed like a risk, went with the Volvo, two cars I’m still kicking myself in the butt over.

    Oww, that story is hilariously funny/sad. During my junior high school years living in Arcadia, CA I had the incredible dumb luck to ride in a Gull Wing (looked just like the pic in story) belonging to a family down around the corner. It really was hard to get in and just enough room to squeeze behind the seat for short rides. As the windows didn’t open I don’t recall any ventilation – a short ride was all you wanted on a Southern California summer day….Ahh, but what a ride for a 7th grader!

    I purchased a wonderful 300 SL Gullwing in the early 1980’s which I owned for about five years, driving it regularly, even to my office. I sold it to raise the capital for another collector car purchase, a Ferrari 365 GTC. I have been fortunate enough to own a number of wonderful vintage cars, but in truth, the Gullwing was the one I most regret selling. What a machine that was.

    1975, Buffalo. New York. $5500 to spend on a new car. The finalists: 1964 Corvette coupe and 1975 Trans Am.(Both automatics. I know! I know!) Sat with Dad (The Stockbroker) to discuss the purchase. Dad- “Why the hell would you want an 11-year old Chevy?!”. “Good point Dad, I guess the Trans Am would be a better investment.” My first lesson in Freakonomics. Dad did tell me one time his title should have been Chemical Engineer because he had mastered the art of turning money into garbage. Lesson learned- four Corvettes and two Sciroccos with manuals have almost made up for that gaffe.

    If you live long enough, and have a passion for collectible cars (as most of us here, do), we all have a litany — a veritable laundry list — of cars that got away, that we either sold for a song, or could have bought cheaply.

    We end up sounding like our grandparents talking about seeing a movie for a nickel.

    Ohhhh I have a story.

    My wife & I considered a purchase of a Porsche 917K that was openly listed for sale in the Porsche club newsletter for $175,000. For sale by Brian Redman for Bobby Rahal (both hero’s of mine). We were a bit short on the total but tried to make it work out financially. However… Even though we were in the process – We couldn’t finalize the funds for the old racecar.

    We followed it though, for many years. Finally seeing it valued at over $14,000,000. at some point. We still privately talk about seeing the ad & going through all of those the motions. Whoa. Just missed it.

    I would be happy just still owning some of the cars I have had. But then I think at least I was lucky enough to have had them

    Wonderful attitude. I shall remember your statement next time I get those digressive feelings. Thank you.

    Great story and sorry you missed that one. I had a sorta similar situation but got lucky. I pursued my best friend’s dad’s 300 SL Roadster for 16 years. The call came as I was headed out on a trip to Scotland and the car was going to be sold that day. Short version; I have now owned it for 31 years but had I not gone back in the house to grab that call in 1992, I’d be telling a story more like yours. They are lovely machines.

    I have a couple missed opportunities off the top of my head. I was a car crazy kid since about 7 years old, and especially classics, spending hours upon hours in the auto trader “Old car book” magazines. At 16, in the late 80s, just finished drivers ed, I was dreamily looking through classic car classifieds constantly, even though I couldn’t exactly afford much, nor was it truly practical in the least. I remember then a local newspaper classified ad popped up one day… 1948 Tucker, $3500. I had read about them and thought it was the most fascinating car ever. I had zero luck convincing my parents to take me to see it or that we had enough space in the driveway, and the ad disappeared in a few days. Never forgot that I potentially almost had a chance at having a Tucker.

    Soon after getting my license I also recall stumbling upon a beautiful 1979 Porsche 930 turbo at a nearby used car lot, asking $9000 I think. Too high for me alone, and in retrospect not a car for a new driver for sure, but man did I wish I could get that. My dad was a Porsche dealer mechanic through the 70s and always longed to own one, but never did, so, perfect opportunity! My efforts at persuasion again sadly went nowhere. My dad keeps all his cars forever, so we would surely still have it today.

    I was at Hot August Nights and got to spend several days at the event with Frank Bank.

    Many may not notice this name but he was Lumpy on Leave it auto Beaver.

    Frank was a true car guy. He did well on TV and got into investments and had done well. He was friends with Tim Constidine from My Three Sons. Tim a major car fanatic on his own went to sell his Benz 300 Gullwing. Well Frank bought it at a very very good price in the 60’s

    He held on to the car for several decades and then someone offered him $110,000 for it. His wife was sell it who who ever give you that much for that thing. Well he sold it.

    At the event he told me just look at how much they are today!

    Then my father told me of a buddy of his who won a Gullwing in some kind of contest. He was crazy for it till he got no me. He had a one car garage and could not get in or out of the car in the garage. He traded it for a Corvette.

    One has to wonder on all these old race cars the stories of how many either gave them away or how others missed a chance at owning one.

    My got away was a clean Dino for $15,000 back when no body wanted them. Also a Pantera for the same price that my buddy reminds me about yet today as he found one for me in great shape.

    Sad to say I had a chance to buy one for. 18000 $ from a lady who got it as a divorce settlement . She lived at the Malibu bay club condos ,at Ventura county line , I showed up with cash during fish fry at the famous Neptune’s Net restaurant , and was told , I do not dodo cars while pm drinking Champagne !!!😣. The next one for the same price was with Bob Estes , who owned the Ford Lincoln an VW dealership in Beverly Hills . The new. Buyer showed up an talked him out of it before his son , my good friend Dale showed up ! 😣I then decided I was not fated to have on 😆

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