Rudi Koniczek, the Canadian King of the Mercedes-Benz 300 SL
Childhood immigrant's infectious passion keeps tradition alive
From beneath his wide-brimmed hat and trademark driving goggles, Rudi Koniczek flashes a genuine smile, welcoming me inside from the Canadian morning chill. He motions for me to sit in a cozy armchair inside his tiny, cluttered office. Stacked high are mounds of automotive books, memorabilia, posters, and models, the mad physical overflow of a giddy mind with a lifelong obsession. Not 10 feet above our heads, one floor up, millions of dollars worth of vintage Mercedes-Benz steel is being restored to its former glory. "Are you having an orgasmic morning?" he asks, with a glint in his eye.
Most people don't start conversations this way. Rudi isn't most people. His house is packed to the gills with thousands of Tintin collectible toys and figurines, as well as high-end art both tasteful and raunchy. The man has devoted an entire room to building slot cars and racing them on a hand-built track. And at this colorful, far-flung home and workshop, down a narrow and forested road outside of Victoria on Vancouver Island, lives one of the world's most accomplished and respected experts on the Mercedes 300 SL, as well as one of its most eccentric personalities.
Rudi works on all vintage cars, but he's known as a bona-fide Gullwing guru. Customers send him cars from all over the world, from the U.S., Hong Kong, Monaco, Switzerland, and more, shelling out $300,000-$400,000 for his time-reversing powers. He takes me upstairs to the shop, casually past his showroom of concours-winning restorations. Under fluorescent lighting, five majestic 300 SL Gullwings and Roadsters are lined up in various states of progress. "We get cars that have been upside down, burned to the ground, wrapped around telephone poles, you name it," Rudi says. To keep track of them all, they get nicknames like R2-D2, Punch, Monaco, and Timbits. "Punch was smashed up front and back, like it got punched on both ends. Timbits? Belongs to this guy Tim, who sent me the whole damn thing in boxes."
A full restoration takes about 18 months, which seems like a short turnaround given the stupendous level of craftsmanship that goes into every nook and cranny of each project. Everything from mechanicals to body repair, leather, fitted luggage, and wood crafting goes on under Rudi's watch — only chrome work is outsourced. "For me, my work is about honoring history and my commitment to the mark — and especially the Gullwing," Rudi says.
"When somebody asks what the car is going to be worth after the restoration, that's the wrong question. This isn't some commodity; I treat it as a work of art. "
That commitment's story begins with his birth in Germany in 1949, near the Czech border. "We lost everything in the war, so Papa fled to Canada, and my mother and I followed six months later. I was 4," he says. The family settled in Toronto, but being a German refugee in the post-war era wasn't easy. "It was a tough gig, not knowing the language, the culture, the food. Everything was foreign," Rudi recalls. Things got rougher when he was 10, when kids were more cruel. "I'd get beat up or spit on. After the war, Germans were Nazis and squareheads and Krauts. My parents taught me never to fight back, just to turn the other cheek and laugh. Laughter and jokes were my refuge."
Tintin comics proved another key escape, and the one that inspired his love of cars and racing. "Hergé, the artist, was just a freak for detail, like me," Rudi explains. "He captured the cars so well, the swift movement of those little European sports cars and racers. Maybe it was my German pride or heritage, but soon all my model cars were Mercedes-Benz." Model cars turned to a job at a Toronto hobby shop, and soon Rudi was building 300 SL, W196, W154, and W125 slot cars and racing them competitively against other hobby shops. "I was playing, of course. But when I saw those cars run I felt like I was there in real life."
At 15 he walked into the offices of Mercedes-Benz Canada with a suitcase full of slot cars and charmed his way into the office of the president, who offered him a job as a lot boy. Sweeping floors, shoveling snow, and cleaning cars turned into a factory apprenticeship that lasted four and a half years. "It was the best education imaginable," Rudi reflects. "From the bottom, you learn how to clean tools, be a mechanic's assistant. Then you graduate to terrible jobs like studding tires and oil changes on diesel trucks — the real grunt work. It was wonderful."
Most of the mechanics there were passionate about the new technologies being developed in Germany, but the allure of Mercedes history and tradition put the blinders on Rudi. "I was a sponge and just sucked it all up," he says. "Most of the hands were older and German, so I'd help them learn English, and they'd answer my questions about pre-war superchargers and bearings, little tricks to know from a bygone era." The moment he drove and worked on his first 300 SL, Mercedes' claws were set deep. "I was just blown away by the beauty and the quality of engineering and design. I thought that like dinosaurs, which died and turned into valuable oil, the knowledge I was collecting would someday be worth something."
Rudi finished his apprenticeship in 1971, when he was 21 years old. He moved to Victoria to start his own sports-car tuning shop, mostly for the British machines that used to flood Vancouver Island. He recalls there were lots of so-called remittance men — black sheep of wealthy British families — who had been marooned all the way out in western Canada with a mansion and a sports car. "Those cars were great for business," Rudi says. "Fun, cheerful, and always breaking down!" Soon he started leaving business cards on Mercedes-Benzes he'd stalk at dentists' offices or university parking lots, and eventually he got a bite.
"Dr. Martin Scherzer called me, wanting some routine maintenance and a valve adjustment on his Mercedes 230 finback," Rudi remembers, like it was last week. He does this constantly with apparently zero effort, recalling people, names, or places from decades ago in excruciating detail. Scherzer took a liking to him and invited him to dinner, and after that the Benzes starting arriving at Rudi's door as word got out. Not long after, he sold the tuning shop and opened a new business for German cars — and later a specialty arm for Mercedes, Bentley, and Rolls-Royce carriage cars.
Business was booming with eight employees by the mid-1980s, but by then it was running him. "It stopped being fun, and if it's not fun, I don't do it," he says. "After two years of internal turmoil, going to tea-leaf readers and fortune tellers, I closed the damn thing. I needed to go back to my roots, which was always Mercedes and the Gullwing." The first 300 SL arrived from Wales, and he restored the entire car with one assistant. He sent it back — perfect, of course — and soon another showed up. Then another and another.
Twenty-five years ago he moved his shop from downtown Victoria to this location just outside the city. Before long both Rudi's staff and his clients started to feel like the workshop was home. "People should come over, talk cars, feel the love of what we do and share in it," he offers. "We should go from the shop to the kitchen, have some wine and a giggle. The clients come back, they become family, part of this little club."
Things really picked up after a weeklong Gullwing owners' festival at Rudi's house in 2001. In recent years, the clientele has shifted with a huge uptick in the cars' value. One of his finest cars, a gorgeous silver 1955 300 SL with a rare aluminum body and blue-plaid interior, sold in 2012 for $4.6 million. "These days we turn away more people than cars," he admits. "When somebody asks what the car is going to be worth after the restoration, that's the wrong question. This isn't some commodity; I treat it as a work of art that's meant to be shared with future generations."
It's been Rudi's mission to share his passion for vintage Mercedes with people who appreciate it, who can enjoy the wonderful heritage and tradition he loves. So it follows that as long as there are people who want to dive into the world of vintage Benzes, there need be others who have the expertise to fix them. Six of his eight staff have been with him for 18 years or more, many since they were kids.
Production manager Ross Morrison, at 15 years old, was hitchhiking up the road when a crazy guy in a crazier car pulled over, waving him in. "This Rolls-Royce shows up, which he tells me belongs to the ambassador to the Ivory Coast," says Morrison, beaming. "He asked if I needed a job, and I thought it would be landscape work or something. When I showed up the next day and saw I'd be working with these cars, my jaw hit the floor. That was 25 years ago, and now I'm doing engines, transmissions, everything."
Mark Root started out as summer help when he was 14, also about 25 years ago. Now he's the chief road tester, driving each car for about 400 miles. "As the miles pile up, he goes down the shit list until there's no more shit," Rudi says. On the other end of the spectrum is Eric Cherneff, who began his career as a mechanic at the ripe age of 47. Once an extremely successful but equally miserable accountant, Cherneff is grateful Rudi gave him a shot. "I laid my heart out on the line, thinking there's no chance he'd want some hobbyist like me," Cherneff says. "He just threw me right in the fire and let me be creative." The team is called Rudi & Company, and the man in charge takes the latter part seriously. "We're like a dance troupe. A band of artisans, doing things the right way."
Rudi tells me to hold on a second. He pulls one of his guys aside and tells him to clean off a fingerprint he spots on a windshield. He circumambulates the workshop with palpable energy, scanning for imperfections with keen precision. The cars are executed flawlessly, oozing style and class. Brightwork shines gently around great swaths of rich paint, which matches perfectly the snazzy interiors and fitted luggage. Those details, that perfection, is what Rudi calls the sizzle of the steak.
To make sure the tradition carries on, Rudi decided to bequeath his entire business to his friends at GAIN, a luxury dealer group based on Vancouver Island, rather than sell it. Rudi helped the same group last year kick off a local motorsports club and racetrack, called the Vancouver Island Motorsport Circuit, ("Welcome to Speed Island," September 2016). He trusts that, in their hands, his staff and his legacy will live on properly when he's gone.
The team is called Rudi & Company. "We're like a dance troupe. A band of artisans, doing things the right way. "
We head from the workshop to his house, where Rudi undergoes one of his frequent outfit changes. He dons a chef's coat before cooking dinner, admitting it makes him feel closer to his father, who was a chef. After lots of wine, some spontaneous dancing, and another outfit change for Rudi into a bizarre animal-skin pelt, something is unmistakable. Deep down Rudi is still a kid, surrounded by toys and friends, and he hasn't for a minute lost the heart of a child. His verve for life, for artistry, and not for money, is why Rudi's cars are so special. Commission him to work on yours and you get a lifetime seat at his table. "Our doors are always open; you're part of our weird extended family now," he tells me. He throws me a wink before closing the door, and I know the crazy bastard means it.