Classic Mercedes wedding car
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An Article About The Restoration Of Donovans 300 SEL 6.3 Litre Mercedes
'The car to get you better known with your bank manager'
Written by Steve Barratt in May 2006
Purchasing took place in October 2003 from a Mercedes-Benz dealer in Devon. He had owned the car for nearly 10 years, two years of which it sat outside as he ran short of money and time to work on it. When I purchased Donovans classic Mercedes it appeared to be in a fair condition for its year, considering its hard life which became apparent as I learned more about its previous life during the restoration which spanned two years.
The owner after Donovan Leitch also had the car for a few years, but again it was left outside unused for about three years. Looking back, like most large projects it is often very hard to see how much work has to be done to see it through thoroughly.
I had seen the classic Mercedes-Benz in 1996 when I visited the breaker and dealer in Devon for the first time to buy a part for the door mirror on my Mercedes 123 estate car. I admired the car at the time, but never thought that one day i would own it.
While talking to the dealer he showed me the Mercedes-Benz 6.3, at that stage I knew nothing about them, but was surprised Mercedes-Benz had made a car with such a large engine. I was also interested that Donovan Leitch was the original owner. I moved back to London a few months later. Later in 2000 I moved back to Devon, and visited the dealer in 2001 for some spares on my Mercedes-Benz 123 estate. He said he had tried to sell the car for some time, again at that time I did not think a great deal about the car.
In October 2003 I thought about trying to reduce working so much on my property maintenance business and came up with the idea of buying the Mercedes 6.3 and hiring it out for weddings etc. I made inquiries about the car with regard to how expensive certain works would be, and how available spares were, after a while I decided to take the plunge and purchase the car. I was aware that these are expensive cars to work on. My original intention was to get the car up to a reasonable condition and then use it for wedding car hire work etc.
One thing that cannot be stressed enough is that these cars are horrifically expensive to work on. I have been told that these cars were nearly double the cost of a Rolls-Royce in 1970, although I have never got around to checking this information. They are one of if not the most expensive saloon car Mercedes-Benz have made. They are also complicated and in general difficult to work on mainly due to the very cramped engine bay. It never ceased to amaze myself the cost of most of the spares, in general most Mercedes-Benz parts are good quality but likewise some parts were ridiculously overpriced.
As I progressed I began to see that if I were to go full out on the car then I would have something very good and quite rare.
I have partly restored a car before (Rover 3.5 P5B) but that was far easier. This Mercedes-Benz restoration was very involved and technical. The main point with any restoration and in particular these cars is not to let the frustration of locating spares or suitable people to carry out specialised work get you down. Anybody thinking of restoring one of these cars should be fully aware as I have said before that they are very expensive to work on. It is best not take on one of these cars unless you are technically minded are good at working with your hands, can think around problems, whilst being very patient in locating spares. If of course money is not a constraint then you could of course hand the whole car over to a decent restorer. Having said that though if you want to get everything perfect then like most things in life you have to keep your finger on the button meaning you must be involved, and not just have romantic thoughts of driving along on a summers day in the finished car with everything done without putting in the hard work, or expecting someone else to sort out every last detail. I think it is also important not to push people who are carrying out different jobs for you. I hear this so often, people get so impatient and seem to loose sight of the bigger picture of getting a really good job done as opposed to an alright one due to them insisting on speed.
The start of work commenced with the removal of the heater matrix and blower motor.
The heater matrix
This job on its own is considered quite a large job. The taps on the heater radiator had both seized, three control cables had snapped, and the foam in the matrix box, which stopped the heater flaps banging, had perished. I managed to locate the black foam, keeping it all original, and a second-hand heater matrix, which came from a Mercedes-Benz from Monte Carlo. I do like to pay attention to detail and the foam in the matrix was virtually identical to the original in thickness, colour and texture. A new blower motor was fitted into the restored heater matrix
In order to inspect the engine bay and carry out work on the engine it obviously had to be taken out. With the engine out I completely stripped the engine bay removing all the air pipes and air chambers. At this stage I sent the car off on a Transporter to a local body shop to have the entire engine bay repaired and re-sprayed, there had been some poor repairs over the years and corrosion which was visible with everything removed. When I say I had the engine bay repaired I did ask that all the original bodywork lines were put back in again, not just plates welded in. This was expensive but my aim was now to bring this car as near to when Donovan bought it new from Stuttgart in 1971.
The engine during rebuild
Many thanks go to Mike Hill of Hills Motors for his engine bay and other body works. Removing the engine and gearbox on these cars is something a lot of people fight shy of, mainly due to the large combined weight of approximately 700lb and the amount of dismantling.
Start of work on the engine bay
The completed empty engine bay
One of the hardest things in removing the engine was chiseling through the exhaust down pipes as close to the manifolds as possible as they were so seized. With the engine out I took the manifolds off and had to have the chiselled off down pipe stubs heated up with an acetylene torch and hit off from the manifolds with a club hammer. When the car came back with the restored engine bay it started to look like it was taking shape in a small but evident way.
I started replacing all the air pipes. I used copper nickel pipes instead of the green painted steel pipes. I know these are not original but I really wanted corrosion free air pipes. Some of the air pipes had been replaced over the years but it was obvious that they were not bent into the correct shape. This created another problem, as I had no pattern to get the new ones made. A Mercedes-Benz breaker and dealer managed to get some old rusty pipes taken off another Mercedes-Benz 6.3 and sent on so that I could use them as patterns. These air pipes in places were near on impossible to bend with extremely tight bends. Everything else, apart from the electronic ignition was replaced with original parts. The front air valves that I replaced came off the Mercedes-Benz 6.3 from Monte Carlo. Again bending some of these very acute pipe curves was very difficult. I replaced all the central locking servos. A fair amount of time was spent on the instrument cluster changing over and having clocks, speedometers restored.
Most people get frightened with the air suspension. Many often go out and buy at enormous cost new front and rear air valves and the car still goes down after a day!. In short there are many joints and valves that can leak. If you start working on the air suspension you must replace the rubber o-rings on the various joints, not just reuse the old ones. Likewise the air chambers must have good seats for the rubber bellows to sit on and not corroded surfaces.
Air chamber and bellows before and after
Finished front Mercedes air suspension
I also replaced the engine and sub frame mounts along with nearly all the rubber parts on the car ranging from grommets, bump rubbers, air reservoir mounting rubbers, shock absorber boots, splash panel seals etc.
The rear shelf on the car had two holes roughly cut out to make way for non-original speakers years ago. A breaker was able to help again as I asked for sections to be cut out of another Mercedes-Benz 6.3 so that I could have these neatly welded in. The shelf was then recovered in the thin sound proofing felt, this felt had to be ordered from Mercedes in Germany, through J Haynes. I ended up replacing much felt in the car all with original Mercedes felt's. The top parcel shelf was re-covered around the edges with the original piping sewn through the hardboard as had originally been done.
On first inspection I did not plan to spend too much money on the engine, which had just had a new timing chain put in it. When I took the engine out and put it onto a pallet to send off to David Taylor in Bradford to have the exhaust studs and oil seals replaced I fairly quickly got a phone call from him telling myself of a shattered piston and excessive bearing wear. It was at this stage that larger costs soon became apparent. We used Hindle Reman of Bradford who have been in business for over 80 years, and are considered to be first class engine reconditioners. David was to play a key part in the overall restoration. Many many thanks to him for all his hard, honest, knowledgeable work. This meant sending the engine to him at Bradford and then the body after I had fitted up all the air suspension and other steering etc.
Nearly all the exhaust studs had corroded into the aluminium heads and some had snapped off. This often puts people of buying these cars, as it can be very costly to have the heads, studs removed and then refitted. The studs are fairly cheap, it’s the labour cost of replacing them that normally puts people off. These were all removed, all the cylinder linings were replaced, with both banks ground off, the crankshaft was reground, valves reground, valve springs and, stem seals replaced.
The Pistons were ok apart from the broken one, this proved to be yet another headache as Mercedes in their wisdom had decided to replace the existing pistons with another type which was a different weight and had one less piston ring. Basically it would have meant replacing all the pistons (and not being original). I spoke to Keith (parts manager) of J Haynes who managed to locate one from a contact in Germany, the contact had the piston on the shelf for over 10 years and was sent over. A special thanks to Keith at J Haynes who really was very helpful. Hindles removed all the piston rings and inspected them for wear fortunately these were ok.
With everything back together I now had an excellent engine tight as when it left the factory. The exhaust was replaced with a genuine Mercedes one including a flexible balance pipe, which was missing when I bought the car.
The water pump was not that old so that was cleaned and painted, I had all the diodes In the alternator replaced, even though most were ok, the starter was stripped and inspected after blast cleaning. I also had the fuel injection pump overhauled.
Both front and rear windscreens were replaced, with of course the rubbers and clips along with the quarter light rubber. Both quarter light assemblies were also replaced as the corrosion turned out to be quite severe when they were removed. Getting hold of two decent secondhand ones was extremely difficult.
The Distributor was overhauled and new plug caps were fitted to the H.T leads.
All rubber hoses were replaced, along with engine belts. The radiator was sent of to Glasgow to be re-cored.
During the rebuild, I used all Wurth nuts, bolts and washers, as well as their jubilee clips, again using all German parts from Mercedes-Benz. I had most parts blast cleaned before being primed and re blacked, i.e. front roll bar, all brake back plates, fuel pump shroud, odd brackets, gearbox support bracket, brake servo, air chambers, front bumper strengthening, all bumper brackets etc. I dismantled both front and rear bumpers to replace some sections and chrome others befoe then getting them sprayed the correct Mercedes-Benz beige.Finally they were all waxed before I re assembled them. I bought a new interior strengthening for the rear bumper along with a new exterior rubber, and second hand rubbers for the front bumper. The various smaller items I decided to soak in a bath of acid to remove corrosion before re spraying.
I had the original brake calipers rebuilt and bought new discs and bearing seals on the front. I replaced all brake pipes and waxed over them in the under body wheel arch locations. I decided not to strip the front wishbones and kingpins as they had been replaced a few years before and kept well greased, basically there was nothing wrong with them. I black waxed the front wishbones and kingpins so that it provides good protection in the wet. The track rod arms were stripped and blast cleaned before being sprayed. I thoroughly greased all inside and outside the threads and outer on the ball joints on re-assembly. The steering box was sent away to have properly reconditioned. I fitted various new ball joints and rubber boots, along with a new brake master cylinder.
Work on the car body
The engine in place
A lot of engine ancillaries, and pipes I cleaned and clear lacquered to retain the original finish. All the box sections and underbody were black waxed.
While the engine was being rebuilt I had the car taken up on a Transporter to David in Bradford. At this stage I had rebuilt all the Mercedes-Benz air suspension, and located two rear doors from a Mercedes 6.3 originally from phoenix USA. These I stripped and had blast cleaned and then sprayed before I fitted them back up. I black waxed the inside of all the doors. David was then to finish nearly all the bodywork, respray and refit the engine. While the car was with David I made sure that anything he needed was sent to him, and again a special thanks goes to Keith Brown at J Haynes for his efficient on the ball service.
As can be seen below, David also removed the sun roof cassette and replaced the hardboard lining.
The removed sunroof cassette
At this stage I had located some replacement woods for the top of the dashboard and around the doors. I understand that some of this originally came from a Mercedes-Benz 6.3 in Hong Kong. I had also located a complete set of excellent quality locks (all keyed the same) from a dealer in Baltimore USA.
Particular attention was paid to all the clips, grommets, and screws in the engine bay and the entire car. This was very tedious and involved many phone calls to different people to establish what types of screws etc were used, again Keith Brown from J Haynes was extremely helpful in supplying the relevant spares.
I visited David Taylor twice while the car was with him and on the second visit dyed all the leather and vinyl trims, again this took ages. On the back of the drivers seat Donovan had stuck a ‘cosmic wheels’ sticker named after one of his albums, so I decided to dye around the sticker as it is part of the cars history. I had the car head lining replaced, and the leather on the door panels taken off and put bck on new hardboard panels. I fitted thick plastic door membranes to stop the damp warping the hardboard again. All the door panels were put back on with new clips. A new carpet was made for the boot, and new side paneling purchased from Mercedes-Benz.
I managed to get together two excellent sets of headlamp assemblies making them up from four different sets. I re-silvered these and clear waxed all the different components before I fitted them into the wings. All the headlamps were replaced, along with replacing the rubbers covering the wires under the wings.
The car was now looking good and at this stage the wood was sent off to a specialist who I was reliably told is one of the best in England. The wood came back both finished and repaired well, although it had been finished in a darker finish than original. This wood was fitted but after a short while and after comparing this darker finish with the original from the radio blanking plate i decided to remove all the wood, strip off this darker lacquer then re stain and lacquer with the correct clear lacquer. I have had quite a fair amount of experience in the finishing of wood and veneers, so this was not to much of a technical task for me and really something i should have done in the first place. Many compliments of the interior are regarding the wood. Compliments are also of the re dyed leather and vinyl sections, and of course the new headlining from Terry Pickering of A S Pickering Ltd.
I had the rear door handles and front bumper over riders re-chromed by Philip Lefelle of London Chroming Company. I last used this company back in 1982 and they are still excellent.
In this article I have briefly summarised the work carried out on the car. There was an enormous amount of time and monies spent locating many odd fiddly parts, visiting engineering works to get various parts re made or repaired. Many many hours were also spent on the telephone locating spares, and hundreds of hours of my time assembling different parts.
I met Donovan in June of 2005 with David, where Donovan had a drive of the car and photographs taken. Donovan is a really decent, friendly person. He told me that George Harrison from the Beatles and Bobby Whitlock from Derek and the Dominoes have also travelled in the car. Donovan was genuinely enthused to see the car after so many years.
During the restoration I acquired the original Mercedes-Benz sales brochure, and a service manual which I bought from Australia, along with the original German oval shaped number plates and a photograph of the car parked next a Rolls-Royce used by the Beatles. I have the original green logbook, with obviously Donovans name on it. I also have the service and handbooks in there wallets most MOT’S and tax discs for the car…along with some new toothpicks in the glove box which were used by Stewart (Donavons chauffeur and tour manager). Donovan also used the car in one of his promotional videos ‘Yellow Star’ of which I have a copy. The car also came with the air suspension spacers, which are used as an emergency if the air suspension fails. The tool kit is in its roll, and wheel wedges are also present.
Donovan and Stewart (his brother in law) and chauffeur, told me of the days they used to drive the car from Donovon’s Surrey home on the Wentworth estate to catch last orders at the Hard Rock café in London, at speeds around 110mph + where possible.
Apparently there were approx 650 of these cars made in right hand drive, and that there are only a few worldwide in a properly restored condition.
Donovan chose an ivory colour steering wheel, with quite a plain wood dashboard and trim finishes, which go together very well with the blue paintwork and blue leather interior. The ivory colour steering wheel is definitely different from the normal black.
I have the original radio fitted, which Donovan chose with single mono speaker in the dashboard. This original speaker was nearly impossible to find but I did eventually find one after ten months of looking. The speaker came out of a car from Arizona USA.
Like all cars these cars have their good and poor points. When all said and done though these are impressive, and many say beautiful looking classic cars. In general they are, and will remain one of the great classic Mercedes-Benz saloons ever made from a by gone era. The late 1960’s and then 1970’s when we had the benefits of post war technology and the fun sometimes simplistic outlook on life and fashions! Which made it a golden era before the button pushing age and more aggressive times took over.
When you sit in the car as a passenger or drive it you certainly do get the big classic V8 high acceleration vibe from this huge engine. The original restoration gives you the same feeling that Donovan and George Harrison amongst others would have experienced all those years ago.
I have been told it is now one of the best examples of this now rare and increasingly fashionable model Mercedes-Benz in Europe.
I presently have the car registered for wedding car hire and different car hire agencies for possible film /video work.
Chauffeured wedding car ready for hire
Donovan with the classic Mercedes after many years
Donovan behind the wheel of the classic Mercedes
Many thanks to the people below who helped in the main building of JMO 9K
Donovan and Stewart - For taking the time out of a busy concert schedule to see the car, myself and David
David Taylor - For all your dedicated, knowledgeable, friendly and honest work
David Seed - Who also greatly helped with the engine rebuilding.
Peter Thorpe - Who helped with the rebuilding and fitting up.
Mike Hill - For all your help with the engine bay, spraywork and other bodywork.
Andy Coultar - For all you help with the spares. Contact 07710 552220
Keith Brown - For being so helpful, friendly and on the ball with all the spares.
Goring By Sea
Nick Martin - For the excellent invisible repairs and finish on all the wood.
City Polishers Ltd
John Wilson - For your help in the work carried out on the engine.
Bradford West Yorkshire
Steve Rocket - For your quick efficient collection and deliveries of all the grit blasted items.
Rocket Blast Cleaning
Kingsteignton Newton Abbot
Philip Lefelle - For an excellent chroming of the rear door handles
London Chroming Co Ltd
735 Old Kent Road London
Alan Abraham - For the many hours put into the air pipes.
Rydon Industrial Estate
David Edwards,Ian Ryder
- For your speedy helpful friendly service with the spares and numerous nuts and bolts.
Matford Park Road
For reconditioning the power steering box.
Kelly Bray Steering
Martin - For making a new speedometer drive cable housing.
C+O Engineering Unit 11
Bill Richards - For reconditioning the alternator and electrical checks.