A new podcast: Time travel through the Mercedes-Benz classic cars collection

When people ask me where I work, there’s only one right answer: “At the Daimler.” That’s what we say colloquially in Swabia, South of Germany. I was born here in Swabia, in Esslingen near the Headquarter in Stuttgart. Here and in our Daimler-Podcast HeadLights (this epdisode only available in German) I show you my work for the Mercedes-Benz Classic collection at the Classic Center in Fellbach (Stuttgart). This is the company’s big car collection, comprising about a thousand vehicles.

In addition to maintaining the cars in the collection, we also fulfill orders from customers. They bring their classic cars to us from all over the world, because we’ve got the know-how that’s required for repairing and restoring them faithfully to the original plans. We do everything from small repairs to complete restorations.

In my job I have to constantly reinvent myself, because there are almost no surviving written documents for the very early models. As a result, we’re forced to look for solutions ourselves. We can find the solutions we need only through the right mix of creativity and experience, and we then document everything so that our knowledge is preserved for later generations. For me, this process is fascinating.

Mercedes-Benz classic cars from 1885 to 1960

I take care of the engines and vehicles built between 1885 and the late 1960s in particular. My special field of expertise is the 300 SL, which is familiar to many people as the legendary “gullwing model.” In my opinion, it’s one of the most beautiful cars ever built. On the one hand, it’s got these round and harmonious shapes, and on the other there’s this fascinating technology from the 1950s, which still works so well that you can drive these cars in today’s traffic without any problems.

Around the world with the Mercedes star

You can often see me in the repair shop, but I do lots of traveling all over the world. That’s because we service the automobiles at classic car events such as the Mille Miglia. We go there with several service teams to provide support for our factory cars and our customers’ vehicles. And if we see another disabled Mercedes Benz classic car pulled over at the side of the road, of course we help out there too. I’ve seen a lot, and I’ve already been on every continent — always with a clear focus on our classic cars.

A lot of the knowledge I have today came from experienced master automobile mechanics. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, they used to work on these cars in their completely normal jobs in auto repair shops. For them and their colleagues back then, these cars were everyday items — but for us they’re classic vehicles. That was really a dialogue between different generations. And that’s exactly what we’re still doing today. Those of us who have been doing this job for many years are handing down our knowledge to our young and eager colleagues. I always think it’s better to get advice directly from another person than to read it somewhere.

This kind of knowledge transfer takes place not only between generations but also between continents. I’m in regular contact with Nate Landers, the supervisor of the repair shop at the Classic Center in Irvine, California. Twenty years ago he did an internship at our repair shop in Fellbach. I’m also in touch with colleagues in England, Australia, and New Zealand. This kind of knowledge sharing is very important, because there are good specialists all over the world. If you share your experiences with them, your work moves along in the right direction and you find solutions more quickly. I like to give my colleagues tips that can help them solve a problem.

It’s all about the originals

In my work as a specialist for classic cars, my top priority is to be true to the original. We make small exceptions only in certain areas, especially when it comes to safety. For example, we no longer install brake linings consisting of combinations of materials from the 1930s. Besides, of course classic cars drive in denser traffic today than they did in 1900 or 1950.

Traffic congestion is an interesting example. In the past, there was simply no such thing. Old cars don’t like congestion, because in many cases their engines are only cooled by the headwind. We always want the cars we return to our customers to be capable of daily use. That’s why we’ve sometimes installed an electric cooling fan, depending on the car’s purpose or the customer’s wishes, so that the engine wouldn’t stall in a traffic jam.

Back on the original route: 100 years later

One absolute highlight of my career was the complete reconstruction of a Mercedes Grand Prix racing car, only ten units of which were built back in 1908. A few years ago, a customer came to us with some almost unidentifiable fragments of a racing car and asked us to tell him what they were. We did some research at the workshop and in our Group archive, and we found out that these fragments were the chassis, transmission, and front axle of a Mercedes Grand Prix racing car that had competed in the Grand Prix de l’Automobile Club de France auto race held at Dieppe in Normandy in 1908. That required some real detective work, for which we could make use of the entire archive of Daimler knowledge.

We reconstructed the vehicle from the ground up, staying completely true to the original specifications. Because the engine no longer existed, we had a new one built at the workshop of the foundry in Mettingen — the very same place where the car’s original engine had been built a hundred years before. My colleagues were really excited about this project, and we got lots of support from all of our supervisors. When the car was driven once again on the original racing track in Dieppe on which it competed in 1908, it was an indescribable moment for me — especially because I could see how happy we had made the car’s owner.

Tinkering with cars at an early age

I realized when I was just a boy that one day I would do some kind of work with cars. My father and my grandfather both worked “at the Daimler” and later became self-employed. I practically grew up with cars and technology, and I started tinkering with cars at an early age. When I began to work “at the Daimler” myself in 1982, on my very first day at work I felt right at home, and I knew this was exactly what I wanted to do for the rest of my working life.

Making my job my hobby

People might be surprised to find out that even in my leisure time I like to disappear into my private garage — after I’ve taken our two dogs for a walk in order to unwind. When I’m in my garage, I pick up my tools and relax by tinkering with beautiful cars from Germany, England, Italy, and France. They aren’t precious treasures, but I’m fascinated by the technical solutions that auto mechanics came up with in the past. It’s simply something I love to do — my passion.

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Michael Plag is a restorer at the Mercedes-Benz Classic Center in Fellbach – the global center for Mercedes-Benz automotive authenticity. Here he not only takes care of the Group's restoration projects; he also deals personally with customers who want to see their historical Mercedes-Benz vehicles shine in new splendor. Plag has a reputation for being a distinguished expert among the Mercedes restorers. He says that his extensive specialist knowledge is thanks in part to the many conversations he had with his more senior colleagues who were working on the old models back when he was a trainee.