- Extended Family: The Incredible Story of the Kircher Special and Its Long-Lost 300 SL Relative
Extended Family: The Incredible Story of the Kircher Special and Its Long-Lost 300 SL Relative
The quest to locate his Gullwing’s original engine took one enthusiast down an entirely different road
When Jack Gallivan was a boy in Salt Lake City, Utah, in the middle of the last century, he and his brothers played a game. Their father was the publisher of The Salt Lake Tribune, the local newspaper of record, and in order to prove the Trib's classified section worked, they would buy used cars out of the paper.
"We'd look through the Sunday listings, whittle it down, make calls, go visit, and take the finalists to the mechanic to check them out," Gallivan says. "Of course, the sellers didn't realize that we were kids making the [initial] calls."
In the early '60s, one of the vehicles they came across was a 1955 Mercedes 300 SL Gullwing. Gallivan's father wasn't a car connoisseur, but he responded to vehicles he found beautiful—classic dual-cowl Lincolns such as those driven by the Trib's owner, an automotive editor's MG TC, and the Volkswagen Karmann Ghia and Jaguar XK140 he purchased. The Gullwing was one of these vehicles. "He just fell in love with it," Gallivan says, "the sheer beauty of the thing."
The family looked at it, but the price was too high. About a year later, however, Gallivan's father was driving with his younger son and saw the same car parked in a gas station with a "for sale" sign on it. "My little brother says they just made a U-turn, went back to the gas station, and Dad went in and bought the car," Gallivan says. He recalls his father paying around $3,400.
The Gullwing became his daily driver. He drove it to the office. He parked it at meters on the street. He let valets park it. "It was not something he treated as outrageously special," Gallivan remembers, "but that was how he loved it."
Gallivan loved the car, as well, and drove it regularly. "There were no restrictions or 'don't take my car,'" he says. "It was just there." As his father aged, Gallivan found himself in line to receive the Gullwing. "My dad decided early on that he wanted to die broke and was liquidating stuff out of his estate," Gallivan says. "I am a junior. His name was John Gallivan, and I am John Gallivan Jr., so there was no big challenge in just moving the title over to me."
Gallivan spent his career producing sports programming for ABC and ESPN on the East Coast, including airings of the Indianapolis 500 and Monaco Grand Prix. Now 76 and retired back in Salt Lake City, he thinks of his own fiscal legacy. "I have no plans to sell the car," he says, "but I thought maybe the next generation would [benefit from doing so]."
One of the Gullwing's mysteries: It arrived in the Gallivans' possession with a nonoriginal engine; the powerplant was from a 1957 car. Factory-correct drivetrain stampings increase the value of a car such as this significantly. "We typically say at least 10 percent [added value] to be conservative, but I've heard figures as high as 25 percent," says Mike Kunz, who runs the Mercedes-Benz Classic Center in Irvine, California, a brand subsidiary dedicated to preservation and restoration of vintage Benzes. "But at today's values, 10 percent is more than $100,000."
Given this difference, Gallivan set out to find the original engine. He hadn't been active in the collector car community or in researching automotive history. But he found a Gullwing owners' group message board and posted a question. Does anybody know how the engine I have ended up in my car? "It never occurred to me to ask," he says, "or that an engine, missing for 60 years, would ever reappear."
A Stylist named Charlie Lyons hand-built a curvaceous body out of aluminum. Like many homemade sports cars of the time, it was a bit of a mashup of Italian and British lines.
He was shocked to soon receive a response from a classic car restorer in Missouri named Jeff Moore, who ran a shop called The Automotive Archeologists. "I have your engine," Moore wrote. "And moreover, it happens to be in the Kircher."
In the post-WWII era, soldiers returning from overseas or assisting in the war effort on the homefront put their gearhead field experience to good use in the customization and hot-rodding of automobiles. According to historians, even before the Corvette was launched in 1953, there were more than 50 American-made sports-car models. Many of these were manufactured in limited numbers—by hobbyists, obsessives, or entrepreneurs—some with the dream of becoming regular production cars, some to be raced in early Sports Car Club of America events. Their activity was clustered on the coasts, particularly the West Coast, but pockets existed nationwide.
Charles Hughes of Denver, Colorado, the scion of a wealthy local family, developed a passion for speed before the war, testing planes for the military and sponsoring vehicles in the Indy 500. After the armistice, he further indulged this interest by purchasing a Jaguar XK120 to race. He bought the car new from Kurt Kircher, who owned the local foreign car shop, Denver Import Motors. Kircher was an amateur racer himself who'd had some success with a Chrysler Hemi-powered Allard J2X, one of the quickest cars of its time, if a bit crude.
The two became fast friends, quite literally. Kircher had a degree in automotive engineering—he'd worked for General Motors on post-war V-8s and the Powerglide transmission. Hughes had a degree in physics as well as a stellar machine shop in his six-car garage. So in the early '50s, the pair decided, according to a history Kircher wrote a few years before his death in 2004, "It would be fun to try to build something better."
Familiar with the Jag powertrain, they decided to create a clean-sheet racer around an engine and transmission salvaged from a wrecked XK120. Kircher designed the drilled chrome-moly tube frame, rear De Dion suspension, and inboard rear-wheel drums and safety hubs. The front suspension came from the Jag. The steering rack came from an MG. The rear differential came from Halibrand. The rest of the bits were either shopped or poached.
A stylist named Charlie Lyons hand-built a curvaceous body out of aluminum. Like many homemade sports cars of the time, it was a bit of a mashup of Italian and British lines—a Ferrari 250S mated with a Jaguar D-type. But unlike either of those, it had inboard headlamps in the grille, deeply scalloped sides, and an intriguing dual-piece construction—the car's entire top half could be unbolted to allow for mechanical massaging. It was finished after a year of work. Kircher named it for himself—the Kircher Special—and hit the track. The car was fast and handled well. "I do not have a list of all the events we participated in," he wrote. "But we won most and never did worse than third in class."
Still, by the mid-1950s Porsche and Ferrari upped their power games, and Kircher and Hughes decided they too needed more. Kircher set his mind on installing a fuel-injected straight-six and four-speed from a Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Gullwing. According to a murky chronology, he apparently found a wrecked SL and traded its powertrain to a friend at Mercedes-Benz in Germany for a hotted-up race version allegedly prepared for the Mille Miglia. Kircher installed it in his car and went to work winning more races.
Soon after, however, advances such as disc brakes rendered the car's drums somewhat archaic, and the owners decided not to invest in it further. The Kircher eventually passed to body-maker Lyons, who apparently traded the race engine in it for a stock one from another 300 SL in Colorado Springs. It was this factory engine that, again mysteriously, came out of the car the Gallivans would eventually purchase. (Confused yet? You're not alone. It's like a game of three-card monte with engines.)
A succession of owners followed—including Bugatti collector Carlton Coolidge and the Blackhawk Museum—before the Special passed into the hands of Court Whitlock in Missouri. Whitlock campaigned it on the vintage race circuit in the States, as well as more far-flung locales such as New Zealand, Singapore, and Malaysia. He had the car cosmetically restored by Moore's Automotive Archeologists and showed it at the Amelia Island Concours in 2014.
The Classic Center's Kunz spotted the vehicle on the field at Amelia that year and immediately noticed the big three-pointed star on the hood. "I remember walking by the car, and I went, 'Oh my God, who did this?'" Kunz says and laughs. "Not knowing there's a very cool story to who did this."
Or that he'd soon be involved in undoing and redoing this.
The Gallivans had no history on the origin of the 1957 SL engine that came with their Gullwing. Neither did they particularly care. "Dad loved the car," Gallivan says. "I don't think it ever occurred to him that it was flawed or imperfect because of some mismatch, in part because selling was never on the table." And no one knows why or when it was put into the car, why or when the factory engine was taken out, and whatever became of that alleged Mille Miglia racing engine from Stuttgart. But all old car stories are seemingly full of incomprehensible apocrypha. "There's a disruption in the continuity that cannot be overcome," Gallivan says.
Convolutions aside, Gallivan wanted to reunite car and engine. Sadly, by the time he made the discovery, he'd already sent his Gullwing to the Classic Center to have the nonmatching engine rebuilt as part of a mechanical restoration. He offered Whitlock's representative, Moore, the opportunity for a swap: his rebuilt engine for the proper one in the Kircher, whatever its condition. But Whitlock was no longer driving the car, and his interest in an updated engine was minimal. "He insisted that if I wanted the engine I'd have to buy the whole car," Gallivan says.
"You're exposed from the nipples up. But even in the cold of the night, in the rain, in the dark, immense heat pours through that firewall"
After much consternation and bargaining, Gallivan decided to go forward with the purchase. Among his two daughters and three grandkids, no one really cares about cars—"I'm very concerned about this," he jokes—so he viewed his plan as an investment in their future financial stability. Still, he felt obliged to write his family a note. "I am 75 years old. I have migraine auras, macular degeneration, ringing ears, some kind of weird outcropping on my kidney, a bladder condition, one bad hip, and two bad knees," he wrote, wryly. "Today I bought a race car."
The engine in the Kircher needed a complete rebuild before it could return to where it belonged in the SL. While this occurred at the Classic Center, Gallivan decided to have the rebuilt, unmatched straight-six from his dad's car installed in the racer. His plan was to have it ready in time to drive it in the Colorado Grand, a 1,000-mile historic tour through the Rockies. After this, he would sell it.
The Kircher has no top or windshield to speak of. It also lacks windows, ventilation, a stereo, a driver's side door, a speedometer, or any other modern comforts. "You're exposed from the nipples up. You have no protection. But even in the cold of the night, in the rain, in the dark, immense heat pours through that firewall," Gallivan says. Yet despite all of this, he fell in love with the Special. "The car is so endearing," he concedes. "It's magic, and it's very lucky for me. I mean, I got the engine reunited, and I had this great experience with it. I just think I will hold onto it as long as I can."
Gallivan was kind enough to share the magic with us, allowing us to drive his one-off race car. We've had the good fortune of getting behind the wheel of a few 300 SLs, so the stiff four-speed shifter and period VDO gauges were familiar. We were not prepared, however, for the tractability. The Kircher's front overhang is shorter than a Gullwing's, so the turning circle is tighter. The suspension setup and ride quality is superior, more pliant and less unpredictable compared to the sporadically terrifying swing axles on the factory car.
But the real difference is in the speed. Because of its stripped-down interior, aluminum body, and drilled frame, the Kircher is hundreds of pounds lighter than a standard SL, closer in spec to one of the rare aluminum-bodied Gullwings. And because of the side exhausts exiting just aft of the front right wheel, the straight-six's sound is both more proximal and more intoxicating, a guttural snarl not usually associated with Mercedes of the era. Although it's fussy like all old sports cars, it just wants to go at all times.
Of course, it also has to stop—a bit harrowing with four-wheel drum brakes and a weirdly offset pedal. And because it is lipstick red and doesn't look like any other vehicle ever made, when it does stop at lights and intersections, it tends to draw attention—especially when people notice the badge above the grille. "That's a Mercedes?" people ask. It's like an unimagined fantasy come to life.
Thinking about the vehemence with which marques such as Ferrari go after infringements on their intellectual property, we ask Kunz how he feels about the Kircher sporting this salad-plate-sized three-pointed star on its nose.
"We object to things like that when you see a Star on a Gazelle, one of those 540K replicars," he replies. "Because people won't know that that really is not a Mercedes. But this? The guy wanted more power, to be more competitive in racing, so he chose Mercedes-Benz. I think there's nothing wrong with that."
We concur. We would even venture to say it's special.