The Original

The Mercedes-Benz 300 SL is considered the ‘Car of the Century’ and Hans Kleissl its godfather. A visit to Upper Bavaria – a paradise for classic car enthusiasts.

thunderstorm of drums rattles from the earcups, guitars wail: Matthias Ulrich has dropped his headphones to his neck. He takes a drag on a cigarillo with such a satisfied grin on his face that you can’t help wondering whether he could possibly have inhaled a little too much of the paint thinner he’s just applied to his rag. Matthias laughs: “No, no, I just enjoy what I do here.”

The body shop assistant has been doing the same thing day-in, day-out for over four weeks: he dips the cloth into the nitro thinner and rubs it gently against the body of the visibly battered 300 SL Roadster, as if he were trying to free a genie from a bottle. In reality, though, he is freeing the vehicle of its bronze paintwork, centimetre by centimetre. And of the champagne-coloured coat underneath. And also of the silver coat beneath that. Until the original paintwork in which the Roadster left the factory in 1957 is revealed: Strawberry Red Metallic.

During these long hours, days and weeks, you develop a personal connection to the car, says Matthias. And his work is probably the best thing that could have happened to him: he has ADHD, but meditatively freeing a vehicle of its paintwork by hand, as it were releasing it from an appearance that was arbitrarily forced upon it, he is overcome by a deep sense of calm.

HK-Engineering in Polling, Upper Bavaria, is the only restoration company in the world that has dedicated itself entirely to the Mercedes-Benz 300 SL, the ‘Car of the Century’, as it is often referred to. Sixty people from ten nations work in the tastefully renovated former monastery complex: mechanics, panel beaters, engine builders, upholsterers, all of whom are experts in the specialist skills required by this unusual vehicle. There are only 1858 units of the Roadster version worldwide and just 1400 of the even more sought-after Gullwing: the Gullwing can’t be had for under a million francs.


Mercedes-Benz 300 SL
The 1954-vintage beau captivates hearts: the IWC Racing Gullwing returns home.


Five years ago, IWC set up a motorsport team. There was only one vehicle that came into question: the Mercedes- Benz 300 SL. At selected historic racing events, the Gullwing embodies the core values of IWC like no other vehicle – style, quality, originality and superb craftsmanship. But it is not only the 300 SL that makes the hearts of classic car fans beat faster, its drivers also have illustrious names: besides David Coulthard, Karl Wendlinger and Bernd Schneider, Laura Kraihamer has been at the wheel since 2021.

The best source for race reports, background information and other insights is the IWC Journal: en/journal.html


Careful restoration to the original condition takes easily a year, often longer. Matthias takes a drag on his cigarillo and points to a loose, brittle rubber seal: “Even that we won’t throw away, but rather care for and nurture it until it is soft and supple again and ready for another couple of decades.” Every single screw is sandblasted, galvanised and reused, and the original leather is carefully removed, nourished and re-upholstered in the upholstery workshop. Matthias pricks up his ears. His grin widens a little further. A distinctive roar can be heard from the other side of the building: “Oh, the IWC Racing Gullwing is here!”

A small crowd has gathered around the impressive vintage IWC transporter, from which the racing car now emerges with a guttural roar. The noise it makes is music to the ears of the bystanders, almost a triumphant howl: the IWC ambassador is returning home after completing another adventure at the Arosa ClassicCar hill climb. That the 1954-vintage beau not only turns experts’ heads but also captivates hearts so effortlessly is not least due to the elegant silver-grey outfit with the number 68, the year IWC was founded (1868). As after every race, the ignition and cylinder head of the Gullwing are first checked on the lift.

There won’t be much to do, says race mechanic Zoltan Szaveri: “The car is extremely sturdily built and can withstand almost anything.” It goes without saying that the racing cars are subject to their own criteria and that the credo of originality is interpreted generously. For safety reasons, for example, the side windows are made of Plexiglas. A roll cage and a fire extinguishing system were also installed and the engine was slimmed down by around 13 kilos. The model had 195 hp ex works, but today it has significantly more.

Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Werkstatt
Mercedes-Benz 300 SL


On the way back, we pass the picturesque tyre bay again and are about to ask Matthias how many square centimetres he has covered so far, when he stops, raises his hand – and listens. Another IWC racing car? “No,” he grins, “the boss!”

A squeaking sound approaches, then around the corner comes Hans Kleissl himself – on a rusty old bicycle. He found it in the loft of the barn when he bought the dilapidated property in 1978. Nostalgic as he always was, he afforded it his personal protection.

There’s no other way to put it: 71-year-old Kleissl is a legend. Rumour has it that he’s a car whisperer. Nobody in the whole world knows as much about the Mercedes-Benz 300 SL as he does. When an important model is delivered, he is the first to jump in and take it for a spin around Polling. He listens to every little sound the cars make, senses weak points while driving that others would spend a long time looking for, even in the workshop. He discerns the soul of the vintage cars; he says each one is different, drives differently and feels different.

Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Werkstatt
“You develop a personal connection”: Matthias Ulrich has been battling his way through three coats of paint for four weeks.
Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Steuerrad

Naturally we’re keen to know which his favourite car is. Romy Schneider’s roadster over there? Sophia Loren’s Gullwing next to it? The sublime convertible in Uranium Yellow, only three of which were ever made? Or even Frank Sinatra’s model that he has just sold? Kleissl, a reserved, quiet, almost slightly melancholic man who doesn’t waste words, shakes his head. Then his eyes flash, he smiles his mischievous Hollywood smile and says: “Come with me!”




Outside in the car park is a matt-silver Gullwing with a wine-red leather interior, a beast of prey in the rough, barely restored. It is the car formerly owned by Porfirio Rubirosa. The Dominican diplomat, polo player and playboy is thought to have been the inspiration for Ian Fleming’s James Bond. His dazzling female companions, from Zsa Zsa Gabor to Evita Perón and Marilyn Monroe, were happy to join him in the car. And he liked to show off a little. He covered the top speed of 270 km/h on the speedometer with a ‘360’ label. That was just one of many playful tricks he indulged in and, if the 300 SL we are now sitting in could talk, it would surely have no end of tales to tell.

While Hans Kleissl lets the ‘Rubirosa’ fly precisely along the back roads, he also begins to talk. About the day when, as a law student, he was standing in Munich’s Leopoldstrasse, saw a 300 SL Roadster drive past and knew in an instant: That’s it! From that moment on, his studies took second place. Hans worked hard, saved up, scraped together every last penny at the age of 27 and bought his first ‘dream car’. It was in a disastrous state. Realising he would have to strip it right down and rebuild it from scratch, he sought help. That was when he discovered that there weren’t any experts to ask. So he decided to dedicate himself to this work from then on. “The cars were cheap,” he says: “I bought my first 190 SL for 1,500 Deutschmarks.” There was just one problem: his relatives were beginning to lose patience with the many cars he was storing with them.

When he inherited an apartment from a deceased aunt, he decided to turn it into money and look for a place where he could house, repair and restore his cars. Nostalgic as he is, he was not interested in industrial buildings. So he enquired at the office of historical monuments about any listed properties for sale in Bavaria, then checked them out one by one. When he arrive in Polling and saw the dilapidated part of the monastery, he was shocked by its condition, but saw its potential. As he recalls, it was as if his future began at that moment. And the rest is history.

Ex works 195 hp, today it has a few more: the IWC Racing Gullwing being checked over on the lift.
It was not a marketing stunt that gave the Mercedes-Benz 300 SL its gullwing doors – it was an idea born out of necessity: Developed in 1954, stability and lightness were key features of the sports car. This was achieved with a tubular lattice frame on which the body rests. However, this prevented the use of vertical doors. So they came up with the gullwing doors, which resemble a flying seagull when opened.

Driving through the picturesque Upper Bavarian landscape and, thanks to the ‘Rubirosa’, through the good old days, we ask Hans Kleissl what fascinates him most about the cars to which he has dedicated his life. He dives into a bend, changes down, accelerates like he’s hoping to take off in the Gullwing, and says: “These cars are not unlike good watch movements: there is no machine that could breathe new life into them more reliably than a good mechanic. Sometimes it’s a matter of a few thousandths of a millimetre and almost always takes an incredibly fine touch. The best thing about these objects is that they need people: people who bring their beauty to life. And people who rejoice in this beauty.”

Mercedes-Benz 300 SL
He takes great pleasure in old cars, buildings – and bicycles: Hans Kleissl.
Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Polsterei
In the upholstery workshop, seats are reupholstered and covered with original fabrics.
Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Werkstatt
Every 300 SL comes with a luggage set.