Alex Dearborn, creator of the Deserter GS.
Boston Crème de la Crème
Article by Reed Hitchcock reprinted with permission of MERCEDES ENTHUSIAST Magazine. www.mercedesenthusiast.co.uk
I always figured Massachusetts would be something of a sore subject for Britons. After all, that’s where the revolutionary war started with a few colonists dumping tea in the harbour. Funny, then, that Massachusetts should be America’s greatest tribute to the UK – from narrow cobbled streets, to cold, wet weather, to the most British of all American accents. If Americans want to “pahk the cah at Hahvahd yahd” they do it in Boston. If they want that car to be among the finest collectible Mercedes-Benzes on the planet, they head 30 minutes North to Topsfield and meet Alex Dearborn.
Alex’s approach to Mercedes is summed-up neatly on his Website - “Mercedes collectable cars are inherently reliable. It is my conviction that they should be presented ready to use, and should be able to drive anywhere.” Now that’s the kind of logic I can get behind, so naturally I found myself knocking at Alex’s door on a rainy autumn day.
They say that first impressions are everything, and this was no exception. The Dearborn Automobile Company is located on a discreet side street, but there was nothing discreet about the silver-blue 300SEL 6.3 sitting outside. Stepping inside only improved the view. Filling the wood-paneled showroom were a 1965 300SE convertible, a 1967 250SL, a 1971 280SE 3.5 Convertible, and a 1960 220SE Convertible. Nothing too shabby, I should think.
I have seen his name pop up again and again in Mercedes circles – as concours judge, expert for numerous clubs and publications, even as Mercedes-Benz Club of America Member of the Year – but why? Over coffee and fig newtons, I learned about the passion that drives Alex Dearborn. “I look at these cars like pieces of fine furniture - take this desk,” he says, gliding his hand across intricate wood inlays. “It doesn’t do anything different than your average steel desk, but the craftsmanship…” And he’s right. Peering inside the Claret Red 220SE, I am immersed in acres of wood and leather finely crafted to become part of a greater purpose. It doesn’t do more than your average Civic, but it does everything so well.
From Racer to Restorer to Retail
Alex’s car career started during his military days in the 1960’s. Left with copious spare time in the US Army, he spent off-hours buying, selling, and racing Porsche 356s. Realizing an aptitude for the motor trade, he went to work for Ray Caldwell at Autodynamics while honing his competition skills. There, Alex designed the Deserter, a series of cars uniquely blending sports car and dune buggy with VW underpinnings. The original Deserter GS raced Pikes Peak in 1971, and examples were sold thereafter as kits. There is still a fanatical following for Deserters to this day (see www.deserter.com).
When Autodynamics went belly-up in 1972, Alex formed the Dearborn Automobile Company - the first marque-specific restoration shop - deliberately choosing to work with Mercedes because they only produced high-quality cars. He selected 300SLs exclusively for a few reasons: 1) the factory parts supply even for 30 year-old cars was extraordinary; 2) the cars were getting old enough that substantial demand existed; and 3) many owners were willing to spend the money for top quality work.
Over time the business expanded to include other Mercedes classics. Alex developed what is considered to be the single most comprehensive database of collectible Mercedes, including over 9000 540K, 300SL, 300S, 300Sc, 170v, 220, 220S, 220SE, 300SE, 280SE, 3.5, 190SL, 230/250/280SL cars listed by serial number. Where possible, the database includes service records, restoration history, color, model, location, and condition – usually as appraised personally by Alex.
Not Just Another “Used-car Guy”
Alex eventually decided to sell his restoration business and focused on pairing drivers with automobiles. With such a comprehensive listing at his fingertips, he can locate just about any model in any color. You say you want a red Gullwing? Alex knows of over 50 of them – and of course – anything is for sale, for a price.
While an immaculate and interesting coupe or saloon may be an exception (such as the aforementioned 6.3), Alex deals only in the most collectible Mercedes because owners seem to justify lavishing extra care more readily on more valuable convertibles and sports/touring cars then the average coupe or saloon. He believes that there is no reason that a client should not expect to drive their “new” 1960 220SE convertible across the country and back without incident, because a properly maintained Mercedes was built for exactly that purpose. Alex “would rather a car has been maintained steadily over time, than ‘hasn’t cost a dime in over 10 years’” simply because these cars require proper, careful, regular maintenance.
However, even the finest examples tend to get a little “Dearborn magic”. Alex drives every car in his inventory extensively. Anything awry is noted and corrected. The 1965 300SE is a perfect example; The car is immaculate – from the spotless paint to the perfect leather – but upon driving it Alex immediately decided to replace the air suspension, stating that “the only way it will ever drive as new is with all new components. Cars with partial air suspension replacement work, but they do not drive as intended.” The suspension overhaul cost around $8,000. The 300SE also has a fresh ZF 5-speed gearbox, making it the perfect tourer.
Meanwhile, Alex has also remained active in SCCA racing. Notably, he built a 190SL racer to take on road-racing circuits including Lime Rock and Elkhart Lake. “It was a great project,” Alex says of the 190SL, “normally those cars can’t get out of their own way, but with their low centre of gravity and wide track, they make an excellent basis for a track car, and handle quite well against their peers.” Indeed, with a 15% increase in power and some chassis tuning, Alex’s 190SL was competetive against Alfas, MG’s, and Jags in the same class.
Alex Dearborn insists that his “old cars” look, feel, and drive as the factory intended. To the extent possible, he buys them in top condition, but he is rarely completely satisfied – and he should know. As a racer, restorer, concours judge for the Mercedes-Benz Club of America, Sports Car Club of America, Museum of Transportation, and Castle Hill Concours, and Member of the SL Market Letter panel of experts, Alex Dearborn knows collectable Mercedes, and he knows where to find the right one for you.Article reprinted from MERCEDES ENTHUSIAST magazine
Dearborn Automobile Company, Inc.
^ back to top ^