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Restoring Classic Cars

Auto Restorers Paul Russell and Chuck Pierce Turn Old Mercedes Gullwings and Dodge Chargers Into Rolling Masterpieces
Tom Duffy
From the Print Edition:
Chuck Norris, Jul/Aug 98

Doors swung high like a silvered-steel bird of prey, the Gullwing beckons, dares to be mastered, doubts the ability to tame it. Above all, it toys with the imagination.

Behold the austere beauty of this 1955 Mercedes 300SL. Fold yourself into the driver's seat and absorb, for one sensual moment, the feeling of being coddled by supple leather. Finger the ignition key, turn it, and then listen to the three-liter, fuel-injected engine rumble restlessly to life. Forget that the car is still sitting in Paul Russell's museum-like shop in Essex, Massachusetts, there to be restored by a man who is more artisan than auto mechanic. Imagine, instead, guiding this luminous machine around the twisting mountain roads of Monaco. Or tearing across the American West, Kerouac-like, quotidian demands receding behind, the promise of the road spooling out ahead. * Or behold instead the burly '66 Dodge Hemi Charger. Listen as it utters a different call: the hectoring taunt of the playground bully. Hunkered in a garage at Chuck Pierce's restoration shop in rural New Hampshire, the muscled-up Charger knowingly scratches at your sense of inferiority, doubts that you are its equal. The 426 Hemi engine growls from beneath the hood. Too strong for its own good, it breathes through a pair of in-line, four-barrel carburetors. Given the chance, the tires would scream their rage as this beast hurled you from stasis to 60 miles per hour in less time than it takes to reach into its maw and check the oil. If this car could speak it would say, "Come on, let's get into trouble."

Classic cars have an unerring ability to evoke a moment, personal or epochal. The owlish headlamps of a Packard, aided by a few too many Hollywood films, fairly scream "Prohibition." The blur of a Gullwing conjures up visions of European sophisticates at play, spinning along twisting roads in machines as finely tuned as their blond, blue-eyed bodies. Bugattis equal Italian royalty. Deux Chevaux? French workers. Plymouth Barracudas? Restless American youth.

Cars can awaken memories and reignite passions dulled by the passage of time. Cool-to-the-touch vinyl seats can recall a chaste kiss or the passionate first embrace with a lover. Engine vibrations or the thrush of exhaust recalls the first acquaintance with the open road.

To lay claim to such a vehicle is to reach back to a time that in other ways is all but lost. For some men--and a few women--grabbing a piece of that past can be a consuming hunger. Fortunately, there are men such as Paul Russell and Chuck Pierce who will stop at almost nothing to recreate these mechanical marvels and make those fantasies come true.

Russell's shop is tucked away on one of those winding New England roads tailored for a weekend spin in a '50s-era roadster. The low-slung building is a sort of Plymouth Plantation of the automobile world, peopled by specialists with the skills and knowledge of true artisans. There are woodworkers who bend and shape the wooden frames on pre-Second World War, coach-built cars; upholsterers whose skill would be suitable for the finest homes; and engine mechanics who work magic on the mind-numbingly complex Mercedes power plants. The real attraction, though, is the cars.

In one part of the sprawling shop sits a rare 1954 Ferrari 375-Plus with a Pininfarina body. One of five such cars ever made, it hails from the days when race cars weren't yet being built like earth-bound rockets and when ordinary Joes could relate to the drivers. In another area you'll find a Ferrari California Spider 1962. Even stripped to its shell and dulled with primer, it manages to exude a high-test elegance. A red 300SL Gullwing stationed in the main work area took first in its class at the 1996 Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance. It shimmers with such grace that it hardly seems real.

Perhaps the best introduction to Russell's shop, though, is the 1938 Bugatti Type 57SC Atlantic. Picture a caricature of a Volkswagen Beetle, with the front section stretched forward, a sinister-looking riveted center rib running the length of a car and overgrown angry-looking fenders covering the wheels. Now, to get a sense of how much it's worth, picture a Beetle full of $1,000 bills. As one of just two such cars in existence, the Atlantic (pronounced "Atlantique") is among the most expensive cars in the world. Estimated value: in excess of $12 million.

Russell's restoration of the Atlantic captured the 1990 Best of Show award at the Pebble Beach concours, considered to be the premier competition of its kind. He won a second Best of Show in 1993 for his meticulous restoration of a 1930 Mercedes SSK. The award is the ultimate credential for anyone in the business of restoring vintage automobiles.

The raven-skinned Atlantic is a fitting introduction to Russell himself. Like the Atlantic, Russell exudes an Old World élan and sophistication. He measures his words with the same fine tolerance that a Mercedes engineer might apply to a cylinder bore. Yet beneath his well-tailored look and the well-chosen words there is a ruggedness to him. Russell's presence says that he is as comfortable beneath a Mercedes as he is behind its wheel.

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