We enthusiasts are a bit of a fickle-minded breed. As individuals who claim to love cars, we often judge them solely by the summation of their parts, or accomplishments. But taking cars at face value is a double-edged sword. They become as easy to dismiss as they are to accept.
As Speedhunters, it’s our job to dig a little deeper and find the stories in cars others might pass over. Be it a car covered in dust at the side of the road in Japan, tucked away between trailers at a track day, or one that could fly right under the radar due to its relative normality. In many cases, it’s the vehicle that carries the story, but stories are often worthy of carrying a vehicle as well.
As you’ve no doubt already surmised in regards to this Polar White Mercedes-Benz SL 500, the latter is true.
Speedhunters’ North American nomad Keiron stumbled upon this low-slung roadster while unearthing a plethora of feature vehicles in Boston, Massachusetts a little while back.
Assassinating the breeze shortly after shooting this AE86, one of Keiron’s trigger phrases was uttered: Mercedes-Benz.
Though he does a good job of hiding it here (picking up a BMW E21 helps), Keiron is a Benz fanatic. As he would soon come to learn, despite owning one Paul isn’t.
“I’ll never not love this car, but sometimes I hate it,” are words lifted directly from Paul’s own Instagram feed. That little love/hate wrinkle piqued Keiron’s interest, and as Paul thumbed through photos on his phone, he explained his very personal connection with this Mercedes-Benz.Family Heirloom
Paul’s R129 was manufactured in November of 1995 and was originally owned by his grandfather, Salvator Balsamo, who purchased it new straight off the Massachusetts Foreign Motors West lot. Optioned out, the purchase price rang in just a hair under a hundred grand.
Unlike his grandson, Salvatore was a Mercedes-Benz aficionado, typically keeping at least one in his possession at all times. He owned a W140, W220, and W221 and others before eventually leveling up to a Rolls-Royce.
While Salvatore offloaded most of his Mercedes-Benzes after a few years of ownership, the SL managed to stick around. “I was six the first time I drove the car,” recounts Paul. “My grandfather sat me on his lap and let me take the wheel. I immediately drove it over a curb.”
In 2005, Salvatore passed the car to Paul’s mother Linda, who drove it for a few years until eventually wear and tear threatened to sideline it permanently. Paul’s parents have never really had an interest in cars, so the notion of selling an aging Mercedes didn’t faze them. However, selling it at a loss did.
In its deteriorating condition, offers hovered at or below the $1,200 mark. Bill, Paul’s father, didn’t want to let it go for such a low amount, so he tasked Paul with writing an online ad for the car. The thought was, a market outside the local one would fetch a higher sale price.
Cursor blinking and writer’s block fully engaged, Paul realized that he couldn’t be a party to selling a vehicle that had been such a prominent and permanent fixture of his childhood. Through his grandfather and later his mother Linda, the Mercedes was simply always a part of his life. It was purchased just months after he was born, and to that end Paul and the car were almost brothers.
So naturally he did the only thing he could do to make sure it would be around forever. He purchased it himself.Kintsukuroi
Kintsukuroi is the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with lacquer that is mixed/dusted with gold, silver or platinum. It’s a method of mending an item without drastically altering its appearance or removing its character. Essentially, the decorated repair becomes part of the item’s new form.
And it’s the mindset of kintsukuroi, preserving not recreating, that drove the choices Paul made with this car once the title was in his name.
The suspension was plenty worn by 2015 and the gold-laced epoxy stitching it back together starts with a custom air ride setup. The hard-lined system is built around Air Lift Performance management, twin tanks and dual compressors.
CAtuned W124 front struts and BILSTEIN B8 rear shocks damper the car, while Slam Specialties bags replace the factory springs. Piecing together a workable suspension setup involved a bit of trial and error, as it was reputedly only the second vehicle of its model type to be put on air, and the first in the Western Hemisphere.
Measuring 18×8.5-inches, the fifteen52 Tarmac wheels are not obnoxiously wide, nor do the tires fitted to them have an excessive amount of stretch. “I want to grow old with the car, so I didn’t want to do anything that wasn’t reversible,” Paul noted. “The fenders aren’t even rolled… flares, extreme camber… they date a car I wanted to make style choices that could go the distance.”
JDM clear corner lights replace the amber lights, and that’s quite honestly all Paul has done to the exterior. For now.
Paul has an authentic AMG body kit waiting in the wings, but until something forces that particular modification he’s fine leaving the exterior the same as when it left the factory.
Inside, an even lighter touch has been applied. It’s been cleaned up, but again only just enough to be presentable.
The high-touch areas show plenty of wear, signatures from its former owner. The carpet is frayed from Salvatore’s dress shoes, and the inner door handles are scratched from his rings. There’s also no doubt a scuff or two in the passenger foot well from Paul himself jumping in the moment his grandfather would pull up.
But polishing or repairing these areas would remove some of the car’s sentimental value, so they’ve been left untouched. Again, preservation prevails over alteration or restoration.Riding Into The Sunset
Salvatore is no longer with us today, but the legacy he has left with Paul and his immediate family is. From a young age, Paul’s grandfather instilled in him the importance of the human element. A very social person, Salvatore tried to bring people together to create memories in every instance he could.
Paul is using the Mercedes and his enthusiasm for cars in general to do the same.
As Paul has a Civic Type R and Nissan S-chassis for thrashing, the SL 500 is mostly used for special occasions, but it’s definitely no garage queen. It’s been to New York, Vermont and Ocean City – popular enthusiast destinations where Paul’s been able to reconnect with people he’s met throughout the years as his passion for cars has grown.
Many an afternoon turned night has been spent in and around the car, sharing laughs with friends.
At a time when cars are almost disposable among enthusiasts, it’s refreshing to tell a story of someone willing to keep a vehicle for an extended period of time. I’m sure each of us has a car from our past we wish we kept, and personally, I am envious of Paul for keeping this car for all the right reasons.
Photos by Keiron Berndt