Alleged “fake“ Mercedes 300SL ignites million-dollar scandal
Allegations of fraud are rare in the world of high-end collector cars. When such claims do happen, they reverberate like a shockwave through the comparatively small community. The implications on people, restoration shops, and cars at the center of the accusation can be lasting. At the end of May, noted Mercedes-Benz restorer Kienle Automobiltechnik became the focus of an investigation by German authorities, who suspect the company created a duplicate vehicle using the chassis number of a car that had not come to market in decades.
The car that prompted the scrutiny is a 1961 Mercedes-Benz 300SL roadster that hasn’t been registered in 50 years. The car, a disc-brake example painted in Fantasiegelb (Fantasy Yellow), was featured in the 1961 Geneva Motor Show and repainted red shortly thereafter. It recently sold for €1.6 million ($1.74 million USD). When the new owner went to register the car in Germany, they discovered that another 300SL was already registered with that chassis number—a Fantasy Yellow example sold through Kienle in 2019.
The joint press release from the offices of the public prosecutor and the Baden-Württemberg State Criminal Police states that Kienle’s private residences and headquarters were searched, extensive evidence recovered, and that the investigation is ongoing. Meanwhile, Kienle has issued its own press release, asserting that the suspect car was never in its facility for the purposes of restoration. Rather, Kienle states, the car was in its custody because Kienle was serving as broker in the transaction. (The release also recommends buyers seek an expert report that identifies potential counterfeits, though no such report was ordered in this instance.) Kienle says it intends to pursue legal action against those who brought the allegations.
Those with longstanding involvement in the classic Mercedes-Benz world were shocked by the news: “It was very surprising to hear Kienle’s name come up in something like this,” said Canada-based Rudi von Koniczek, himself a leader in the 300SL restoration world. “There are instances where people have built a fraudulent car and sold it as the real article. That’s criminal—that’s wrong. But for Kienle brokering the sale, that’s stepping in shit and not knowing it. I feel for him and his employees. I think Kienle was involved in unfortunate circumstances, and that can happen to anyone.”
When authorities seek to find the truth amid cars claiming the same identity, they often reveal a tangle of allegations and assertions of what really transpired. Collectors are reminded in these instances of the perils surrounding high-dollar purchases. Mistakes happen, but when the potential exists for a big payday, there exists strong motivation to knowingly create a counterfeit car.
“Chassis numbers that no one has seen in years are fertile ground for the criminal mind,” said appraiser and Hagerty Price Guide publisher Dave Kinney. “There will always be an element that will go to great lengths to make a fake designer purse, watch, or Rembrandt. Cars present their own level of complexity, not just for the myriad parts involved but also because of serial numbers. With every model, there will always be a few ‘missing’—those [cars] that have been wrecked beyond repair, those that were secreted away in a quiet place, and those sent to off-the-radar countries.”
What’s a buyer to do? Recourse for consummated deals of cars that are later discovered to be fakes can prove challenging, to say the least. It’s best to perform as much diligence as possible on the front end. If buying from a broker, confirm what research they have done on the vehicle. Then, since there’s always a chance that people can be fooled, the best safeguard (as Kienle suggested in its press release) is to hire an expert. This can be an extensive, expensive process, but the upfront cost is justifiable given the peace of mind it offers: that your car won’t be recast as a replica and devalued by evidence that surfaces in the future.
Such experts—whether a reputable restoration shop, a qualified marque historian, or even Mercedes Classic itself—pore over available documentation and the car itself in forensic detail. Koniczek has performed such services for clients. “We examine bolt types and sizes, types of weld, the fonts and positioning of the stampings,” he said. Koniczek has even examined the thickness of the metal on various points of the car in pursuit of answers. Counterfeiters can get close, but minute variables tend to come to light in such inspections. Still, nothing is guaranteed.
The collector car world will watch as the Kienle case unfolds in Germany; authorities are not only investigating the 300SL sold in 2019 but also looking for evidence of other duplicates in the shop’s history. In the meantime, what’s transpired is both a cautionary tale and an unwelcome mark on restoration shops. For that reason, Koniczek contends, respected players have little reason to cut corners. “Those who are in the business for a long time have too much to lose. The guys who do it deliberately, they’re short-lived,” said Koniczek. “What’re they accomplishing? They’re putting a blight on every restorer. Why not just play it straight?”