One look at John Sarkisyan’s vintage 1955 Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing at the 2018 SEMA Convention, and you’d have to lift your jaw from the floor like the rest of its admirers. As the winner of the DUB’s “Best of Show presented by Amsoil” award, the Gullwing was literally a masterpiece in the eyes of many, with its classic exterior styling and all-modern AMG internals and handcrafted interior.
Almost every car enthusiast on Earth lusts after the classic Benz racecar from the 1950s, and John was no different. Its wide stance, long hood and gullwing doors make it an impressive vehicle that all add to its iconic demeanor and just a few reasons why it can sell for up to a million dollars when in pristine condition. “I’ve always loved the Gullwing, as most do,” John details. “It’s been a long time dream car for me. I even have a tattoo of a Gullwing on my arm that I got years ago, never thinking I’d actually ever get one.” When the chance of a lifetime came up to acquire such a beauty, John didn’t think twice. A gentleman had offered him an original Gullwing body made from a mold of a version that had only 12,000 miles on it (and is currently sitting in a museum in Connecticut). John was obviously blown away at the offer. The story goes that the gentleman had sent the car to Germany in the late-’70s to have the factory restore it to original condition.
With the SEMA crunch looming over his head the entire build, John knew he had to step up his customizing game in order to unveil his dream ride. The initial plan was to use the original frame that was given to him since he wanted to keep things as authentic as possible. “Then we found out that the R171 SLK (1998-2004 models) has the exact same wheelbase, to the millimeter, of the original Gullwing. So we decided to use an AMG model, which was an SLK32 AMG as the base car, with its more modern chassis, suspension, etc. and decided to go with the ‘modern classic’ idea, which incorporates modern technology, but with the classic looks of the iconic Gullwing.”
To get everything started, the SLK32 was completely chopped up, which didn’t end until all the necessary AMG parts were finally able to fit the gullwing body over the SLK frame. “It was a huge job that took over a month to complete! We realized that it was a bigger job than any of us imagined it would be and the car fought back every single step of the way. Nothing was easy on the build.” Although the initial idea was to keep the original interior, John changed his mind and decided to go custom with everything. They left the original console of the SLK32 to keep the important functions, but asked his friend Alan Iwamoto to build the rest of it. “Alan was the driving force in the design and ultimately the execution,” John mentions.
Because it was a Gullwing, it deserved the best of the best so the team went with Brembo brakes and HRE wheels wrapped inside Toyo tires. A KW suspension was added and Needswings provided the engine parts, which are second to none when it comes to the SLK platforms, John adds. “My good friend, Jose Reyes, of Reyes Upholstery in Tustin, CA, who I have done builds with for 15 years, wrapped the interior with real leather. We used a lot of hides of leather for this car. We also enlisted Pedro Valdez of Colores Powdercoating to coat everything. Very few people knew about this build, and virtually none of them thought we would finish the car in time for the SEMA show. We also had our doubts, but in the end Alan made it possible.”
But all that hard work, time and money was well worth it since he took home the special SEMA award. “It was amazing recognition of the hardest, most stressful car build I have ever dived in to. We were a couple of hours late to get to SEMA, so we were disqualified from the “Battle of the Builders” competition, which was a huge downer at the time, but then when we received the ‘Best of Show’ award from DUB/ Amsoil – that was incredible. We forgot all about the other award ‘Battle of the Builders’. To get a ‘Best of Show’ award at SEMA, is something I never thought would happen in my wildest dreams.” While the majority of people were impressed by the Gullwing, a few purists didn’t appreciate someone messing with perfection. “The car was surrounded with people and cameras the entire week. No one expected this car to show up at SEMA the way it did. People were as amazed as I still am with this car.” Now John plans to enjoy his creation, attending car shows and getting in lots of cruising miles!