Rudi Koniczek’s Vancouver Island farm is separated from the outside world by a pair of iron gates, flanked by stone walls and grassy mounds. “It’s like our own private country,” says the German-born entrepreneur. The four-hectare compound is where Rudi & Company’s clients first come to meet the man behind the 40-year-old business. “We cook, we drink wine and we get silly,” he says. “I want to make sure that I can laugh with them, otherwise I won’t work on their car.” When you’re one of the world’s foremost car restoration experts, particularly of the iconic Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Gullwing and Roadster, you can afford to be choosy. “When one of our cars comes up for auction, it seems to sell for the most,” he says with a chuckle.
Koniczek fell in love with the Mercedes-Benz 300 SL as a child growing up in Toronto. As a teen, he worked in a hobby shop and, in lieu of a salary, asked to be paid in model car kits – many of them versions of the SL. Soon his miniatures, which he displayed in the store, started netting him far more than his 25 cents an hour. One day in 1965, with an invitation to meet then-president Rainer Lange-Mechlen, he took a subway ride up to the Mercedes-Benz Canada headquarters on Eglinton Avenue.
Lange-Mechlen was so impressed with the 15-year-old’s passion and handiwork that he helped him find a job as a lot boy at a Mercedes-Benz dealership. From there, he became the only factory-trained apprentice in Canada, studying under three meisters who had come directly from the brand’s headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany. It was his third meister who encouraged Koniczek to strike out on his own. “He said that I was a natural, that I was destined to be more than a mechanic.”
A trip to Western Canada in 1969 inspired him to move to Victoria, British Columbia, where, in 1971, he slowly began building one of the busiest restoration businesses in the world, with clients hailing from as far away as Japan and Bahrain. To date, his shop is responsible for more than 100 complete SL restorations, including the silver Roadster that Justin Trudeau inherited from his PM father Pierre, and four of the 29 alloy-bodied 300 SL Gullwings in existence. He famously unearthed one of these specimens, #21, in a Santa Monica barn and spent two decades convincing the owner to sell it to him. Buried under piles of junk for 40 years, the 1955 special alloy-bodied Gullwing is now completely restored. “It’s one of our best,” says Koniczek.
Vision and hard work
Rudi & Company’s garage is a far cry from your typical auto repair shop. The light-filled space is welcoming, and classical music plays in the background while Rudi and his eight full-time staff take apart the cars and put them back together again. It’s a labour-intensive process that lasts anywhere from a year to a year and a half and typically costs upward of $350,000. Vision is a necessity – Koniczek has dealt with SLs that come to him after being crumpled in collisions or sustaining extensive fire damage. “We can fix anything. The SL in particular is like an airframe; you can rebuild and rebuild and rebuild it,” he adds.
Admittedly, that’s the best part for Koniczek – taking something on the edge of demise and making it new again. “It’s like automotive art.” But Rudi & Company doesn’t just make art: They make sure that what’s under the hood is just as authentic and true to the original as the colour of the upholstery or the paint job. In fact, the shop is so busy (in spite of never having advertised) that Koniczek has earned the right to be uncompromising in his restorations. “We once had a fellow from Los Angeles who wanted us to put an ostrich-skin interior in his SL, and I declined. It just didn’t fit the car’s lineage,” he says. “In the end, I won out.”
Passion and dedication are what inspire such loyalty, both from his crew of restorers, five of whom have been with the company for over two decades, and his clients, who help spread the word. “We encourage our customers to pick the cars up in person so that they can actually drive them,” Koniczek says. That’s why a good part of the restoration process is dedicated to break-in procedures, where Rudi and senior members of his staff test the cars to ensure there are no unusual squeaks or hisses. “We basically deliver a brand new old car,” he says.
Vancouver Island provides ideal terrain on which to put these vehicles through their paces. One of Koniczek’s favourite drives is from his farm up to the Saanich Peninsula, where he often stops for lunch at the Deep Cove Chalet. Koniczek never thinks of his restorations as showpieces destined to languish in a garage. “These cars are meant to be driven,” he says. “This is a lifestyle.”