Category Archives: Gray-Market Mercedes-Benz

Go Mercedes Team Road Trip: Operation Save a 1978 6.9 Mercedes

Go Mercedes Team: Search & Rescue Mission

Date: Sunday, September 18, 2016
Primary Mission:  Save a rare 1978 450 SEL  6.9 Mercedes Benz with Hydraulic Suspension from extinction
Challenge:  Car in the middle of a meadow near an abandoned soup factory and “ghost” 1931 vacation resort called Chalet Suzanne in Lake Wales, Florida
Super Challenge:  Trying to live through 100 degree heat,  a bizarre GPS that wouldn’t let us leave a “Bate’s” like motel, not much water and a whole lot of wasps.


Our primary Mercedes obsessionist, (I mean enthusiast), Angelo, had located the car about two months prior through his constant searches throughout the United States.  After connecting with the owner the proper arrangements were made and we were off to collect the newest found treasure.

The morning was bristling with excitement as the Go Mercedes team headed out to save this worthy classic  Mercedes from certain extinction.  We downed plenty of hair raising coffee at the local breakfast joint, gobbled down breakfast and quickly headed out for the central plains of Florida.

Moving quickly due east we headed through the sprawling horse country of Florida.  Upon arrival in Lake Wales our primary objective was to pick up a u-haul trailer to pick up the car.

motel on way to get mercedes

We pulled up to the Grove Motel which just happened to also double as the local u-haul rental establishment.  We nervously joked a little bit about  it’s “distinctive Bates motel ambience”.

As we waited for the u-haul manager to wake up.  It was afterall still 11:00 ish,  we busied ourselves with a little walk around.  We got some curious stares, as a little chihuahua scurred about, and a bored resident pulled wheelies on his bicycle in front of the place.  A little girl came running up excitedly to ask if we were going to move in.  “Naw sorry, we’re just here to rent a u-haul”, we replied.


We were informed that the manager was in room 5 but alas he wasn’t answering the door.  Not sure what to do at that point we continued our informal walkabout.

no vacancy with bullet hole

The Grove Motel is quite popular.  Here’s their official “Sorry No Vacancy” sign.  For added effect, if you look real closely you will see a bullet hole over the “A” in “Vacancy”.  Hmm, not sure whether a guest was thwarted from a cozy night’s stay or someone just didn’t care for the room service.


This sign says it all about what it’s like to stay here.

Finally the u-haul manager appeared scratching his belly and yawning, muttering something about a busted water pipe in the motel.

At last we secured the keys to the u-haul and trailer.  But trying to leave the motel was somewhat like trying to get out of the Bermuda Triangle.  The GPS had the caravan turning around and around and we passed the same Grove Motel sign no less than three times until we figured out we needed to just use common sense to get out.  At last we turned left instead of just doing circles and we were hot on the trail with the fresh scent of a new Mercedes capture filling the air.

About 20 minutes later we had the car within sights.  But we needed to make a pitstop in order to procure essential provisions.  The list included one giant bottle of Orange Crush, licorice whips, and a Mountain Dew super sugar instant diabetes drink.  (Later the purchase did seem rather frivalous on our part.  The 100 degree heat and humidity later proved quite a challenge.  Water  would of been a lot more welcome then a hot orange crush bottle on the floor board of the truck.)

At last making our way down the country road, we pulled  up and got our very first glimpses of the hidden German beauty.

Mercedes 450
Viola, the target: a Mercedes 1978 450 SEL 6.9

There it was, at last.  A 1978 450 SEL 6.9 with hydraulic suspension nestled in the grass.  This particular model in the 1970’s was considered to be at the pinnacle of Mercedes engineering.   In it’s day only a couple of Ferrari’s could match it’s performance.  (Unfortunately weighing in at over 4,500 lbs,  it was introduced right in the middle of the gas crisis in the US.  Oops, so not exactly the best timing market wise.)

450 SEL 1978 Mercedes BenzH
Hidden Treasure:  The Green Bean



adam and angelo happy with their new mercedes find
Adam and Angelo posing with their new find

Figuring out the logistics of pulling the Mercedes 450 SEL onto the trailer
Contemplating the logistics of moving the car out

Adam working his magic to get the 450 SEL Mercede loaded
Adam working his magic to get her loaded.

Affectionately called by the code name “Green Bean” the car was found in a very unusual area. Sleeping for awhile, she was resting in a meadow in  Lake Wales, Florida right next to an old abandoned 1931 chalet style resort, restaurant and soup cannery called Chalet Suzanne.

Chalet Suzanne - Lake Wales, Florida
Chalet Suzanne built in 1931 

This quaint Swiss style hideaway  was once where the rich and famous of the 30’s used to come for gourmet dining and rest.  Complete with it’s own private airstrip, grape vineyard, shooting gallery and soup factory, patrons were once served by waitresses dressed as Swiss maidens.

1931 - antique sign for Chalet Suzanne - Lake Wales Florida
Chalet Suzanne’s carved wooden sign from 1931

This quirky resort was owned by the same family for 81 years.  It recently “retired’ along with its owners in 2014.   Today it sits quietly resting nestled in overgrown flowers and butterflies.

The abandoned boiler area for the soup factory.

The  Mercedes was in nice condition but just happened to  be a bit ornery when it came to being taken out of the meadow. Adam, aka “Atom Bomb” cranked in the hot sun for 2 1/2 hours to get her loaded up onto the trailer.  In addition, the tires were flat and the suspension was decidedly unsuspension-like which didn’t help much in getting it loaded.  But as luck  would have it, Angelo had his trusty Mercedes tire inflator that came standard with his AMG black beauty.   Adam and Angelo were able to jockey the car around using the cigarette lighter powered compressor to fill up the tires enough to get it on the trailer.

Mercedes ready to go
At last the car is loaded and ready to go

Mercedes Benz made it home for restoration
At last we are back at the Go Mercedes Ranch.
Ready for restoration!

Stay tuned for updates!


Extra Bonus Scenes from the Adventure at Lake Wales

more barn find cars
A Ford quietly napping near the barn and in the weeds

old classic car barn finds

Another Mercedes on the property.
Sadly the condition inside & engine is too far gone for restoration
classic car barn finds
View of sleeping beauties from inside the barn

Trees vs Barn

air strip near where the mercedes was
Believe it or not this is an official FAA airport.  
Complete with freshly mowed runway.

Closeup of artwork from Chalet Suzanne
Closeup of exterior tile from Chalet Suzanne

Classic Ford Thunderbird
Classic Ford Thunderbird sitting in grape vineyard

classic car logo


Steering column of classic car
Steering column of Thunderbird


old statue from days gone by
An elegant lady waiting patiently.
Reminder of the glory days of the chalet.

Hawk with a snake he just caught in the lake
A hungry hawk flew past the photographer with his freshly caught dinner from the nearby lake.   

Chalet Suzanne Abandoned Soup Factory - Lake Wales, FloridaA

Assembly line of abandoned soup factory

Distressed Door of Barn where old Mercedes was found
Distressed door inside barn where car was found




Desirable Gray Market Mercedes

Resource: Mercedes Benz Club of America

According to the Mercedes Benz Club of America, the following cars are some of the most desirable gray market Mercedes.

  • R107 Roadsters
  • 280SL/SLC: The combination of a 6-cylinder engine and a manual transmission makes this R107 variant more fun than any U.S.-market 107 ever was. Even automatic variants are fun to drive.
  • 350SL/SLC: The V-8 350SL could be had with a 4-speed manual.
    380SL/SLC: European variants of all 380s had 205 horsepower instead of 155.
  • 500SL: This was the fastest W107 produced, with options such as headers or limited-slip differential.
  • W123 Sedans and Wagons
  • 300D: While these were naturally aspirated, manual transmissions were available.
  • 300TD: European wagons were available in turbo and naturally aspirated form. Turbo models had several great options, like 15-inch wheels and trailer hitches. Naturally aspirated vehicles were available with both 4- and 5-speed gearboxes.
  • W126 Sedans
  • 280E/280CE/280TE/280SE/280SEL: The M110 engine, with 185 horsepower, is fantastic with any transmission choice, manual or automatic.
  • 500SE/SEL/SEC: The 5-liter variants were gifted with 235 horsepower. The 500SEL was available with hydraulic suspension. AMG variants are even more fun.
  • 560SEL/SEC: The European 560SEL/SEC is even more powerful than the 500. The AMG version, with four valve heads, is the fastest version of the 126 series car.
  • W460 Geländewagen
  • 240GD/280GE/300GD: The W460 was built with 2.3- and 2.8-liter gasoline engines, and 2.4 and 3.0 diesels. These rugged 4x4s are well known in Europe. All were available with automatic or manual transmissions.
  • W201 Sedans
  • 190E: The European 2.3-liter, 16-valve produced 185 horsepower and had a better climate-control system.
    190D: The most frugal of diesels, a 5-speed 190D 2.0-liter will net 40 mpg.
  •  W116 Sedans
  • 280SE/350SE/450SEL/450SEL 6.9: All European 116 variants were blessed with extra power and did not use the troublesome automatic climate-control system unless optionally equipped.

The Ins and Outs of Gray-Market Mercedes Cars

What are Gray Market Cars?

Cars that are legally imported from other countries without using the maker’s usual official distribution channels are referred to as gray-market cars. Gray market cars particularly in the 1980’s were European cars engineered and built for European roads, but were shipped to the United States.  The cars were sold to US customers outside the normal dealer channels through a loosely formed network of independent gray market dealers.  Americans enjoyed the look and performance of European cars, and were more than happy to try alternative ways to obtain them.

Any Mercedes vehicle that was imported outside of the Mercedes-Benz of North America dealer network is technically considered a gray-market car.    Gray-market Mercedes-Benz (GMMB) cars were purchased in Europe, imported and then the modifications were made so that they would be legal to own in the United States according to federal law.  In dealing with a gray market car one had to contend with regulations from three different agencies: the Department of Transportation, The Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Customs Service.

The 1970’s:  Underpowered,  Unloved & Ugly  Bumpers

In 1973  the federal government mandated that every car sold in the US had to have bumpers that could withstand a 5 mph collision without damage.  Although well intentioned the bumpers of the time were notoriously ugly.  For almost a decade Americans had to contend with bumpers that no doubt were an embarrassment to  car design teams, and laughable to our European friends.   To add insult to injury, starting in 1974,  emission standards in the US were tightened so much that engine performance and efficiency were significantly reduced which actually increased the amount of fuel needed to get from point A to point B.

Gray-market cars however had significantly much more horsepower, normal looking bumpers and enticing options not available in the US. Such characteristics made them highly desirable over their American counterparts.  In addition, a particularly strong US dollar fueled demand.  Price savvy Americans figured out that they could buy a highly sought after Mercedes in Europe for about half the cost they would pay in the U.S. The only issue was getting them here and modifying the cars to meet U.S. Department of Transportation safety standards and Environmental Protection Agency emissions standards.

In 1981 Mercedes-Benz only offered the 380 SEL to the U.S. However the much more powerful 500 SEL was available to the rest of the world. This of course created a surging demand for what Americans couldn’t get. Mercedes afficianados yearned  for the more powerful European built Mercedes-Benz.  The gray-market provided opened the door to obtain such a highly valued automobile.

In 1980, an estimated 1,500 gray market cars were sold to US customers.  But by 1985 an estimated 60,000 cars were sold in the US.  Following that tens of thousands of cars were imported into the US each year during the decade. However, this kind of business did not go unnoticed by Mercedes-Benz of North America and their associated dealers. 60,000 cars even at a super modest value of say $20,000 each, would have an estimated value of about $1 billion dollars.   With forecasts of both unit and dollar sales doubling in 1990, gray market cars were beginning to take a serious bite out of potential profits.  As a result Mercedes wanted to put a stop to the practice of private importation of cars.

Automotive makers and official distributors suited up  to thwart gray-market importation.  Going on the offensive they invested in multi-million dollar campaigns to lobby congress.  Their ultimate aim was  to get federal regulations that either banned imports from certain countries or to get laws passed that required expensive car modifications like special exhaust or safety features to be added.  Of course adding special headlamps, sidemarker lights, special bumpers or catalytic converters would not only be inconvenient, but also add to the total price of a gray-market car.  The makers and the distributors hoped this would  make the “non-official” cars less attractive to buyers.   Even after the addition of these items the NHTSA and EPA could review the paperwork and had full authority to either approve or reject the possession of the vehicle.  If they were rejected they could order the car to be destroyed or re-exported.

The Automobile Importers Compliance Association was a non-profit trade association whose members imported, modified, tested or sold vehicles which weren’t originally manufactured to meet the US safety and emission standards.  The AICA in it’s day provided a “Packet Review Program” to it’s members for a preliminary review of their compliance packets to the EPA and DOT.    Preliminary reviews helped importers understand if there were any problems to be fixed in the forms.  “Once corrected, the packet is hand-delivered to the agency (EPA, DOT) and a signed, VIN-specific delivery receipt is generated and kept on file.  Computerized tracking records are maintained for each vehicle.”

The AICA handbook wisely notes:  “While it may be financially attractive  to purchase a vehicle in a foreign country and import it into the US, the complications imposed by the safety ad emission requirements may make the process seem impossible.”

“The commercial imports industry exists as an expression of free trade and freedom of choice for American consumers.  AICA was formed out of the desire by the commercial imports industry to oppose the efforts to change laws and regulations which would eliminate the activity of importing vehicles by other than the original manufacturer.”

Ending of the Gray-Market

In response, gray-market automotive importers tried to protect their livelihoods and formed an organisation called AICA (Automotive Importers Compliance Association).  The group of importers from California, Florida, New York, Texas, and elsewhere teamed up to fight back.  But despite their efforts to counter the actions by Mercedes lobbyists, the Motor Vehicle Safety Compliance Act was passed in 1988.  This effectively ended the private import of grey-market vehicles into the United States.

As a result of being practically banned, the grey-market declined from 66,900 vehicles in 1985 to a mere 300 vehicles in 1995.  Now it is no longer possible to import a non-U.S. vehicle into the United States as a personal import, with four exceptions, none of which permits Americans to buy recent vehicles not officially available in the United States.

Is the Car I’m looking at a Real Gray Market Import?
Want to figure out what a gray market car had to go through in order to be legally imported?  Try the Handbook of Vehicle Importation, put out by the American Importers Compliance Association in 1985. This rare book helps one figure out if a car that you are looking at is indeed a legal gray market import.  It carefully outlines all the procedures that were necessary to follow in order to successfully import a gray market car.