On The Road
Watch as Mercedes-Benz restoration specialist Mr J G Francis puts a 1973 250C Coupé through its paces in the California desert
About a two-and-a-half-hour drive east of Los Angeles along the Twentynine Palms Highway, a tiny intersection states your arrival at the town of Joshua Tree, population 7,414. Sharing a name with the unusual Yuccas that punctuate the rocky desert skyline, the town and its highly Instagram-able neighbouring National Park are about as close to a road- (and other) trippers’ paradise as they come.
In a rare morning fog you’d be forgiven for mistaking these 10ft trees for lost hikers roaming the plains. For Mr J G Francis, founder and owner of classic restoration specialist Mercedes Motoring, they signal the passage to a very unique set of dirt roads he has been driving regularly ever since he first knew how.
Specialising in renovating low-mileage diesel models produced between 1968 and 1985 back to their original factory condition, Mr Francis has managed that enviable feat of evolving a hobby into a career. Finding near-perfect specimens worth the timely investment isn’t easy – but find them he does, whether behind the doors of long-forgotten barns or via slightly less romantic channels, such as online car forum listings or eBay. Once fully renovated, rather than spend the rest of their days behind showroom glass or under cover in a look-don’t-touch garage, they get back on the road. “Our cars are meant to be driven, not just sit looking pretty,” explains Mr Francis when we meet at his headquarters in the LA suburb of Glendale, California. “I’m not that big in the car scene because a lot of those cars aren’t put to use, and I’ve never connected with that side of the industry.”
Classics are not exactly known to be perfect run-about material, but driveability and raw craftsmanship is, in fact, what makes these majestic survivors so special to Mr Francis. As such he puts many of them to the test by taking them on a road trip or two of his own. “I always take the back roads,” he explains with a smile. “I avoid the Interstate at all costs. It’s all just Walmarts, Chilis and Targets anyway.” Early years spent growing up in Nevada (where he lived next to a Mercedes-obsessed car mechanic; “That’s where it all started”) makes the desert a place he often seeks out on such solo drive adventures.
So what was it about classic Mercedes cars from that era that saw him choose to sit behind a wheel instead of a desk, or as he describes it, his decision to “become a corporate drop-out”? “Working with my hands every day is really therapeutic,” explains Mr Francis. “You can get lost in the moment, you can focus on the task in hand, but your mind can drift off into other parts of your life. I find it relaxing in an odd kind of way.”
The perfect pit-stop: a wind farm at the edge of the Mojave Desert Elizabeth Brissenden
Walking around his garage certainly helps put his unusual career move into perspective. “There’s a sense of design and durability that lies in things that are vintage, which, sadly, we don’t have any more,” he explains as we take a look at a grand old 1962 Mercedes-Benz 300D Adenauer he is currently working on. “I also love the colour palettes of cars from the late 1960s and 1970s; Colorado Beige, Apricot Orange, Pastel Blue – it’s hard to find that in modern cars. They defined the era.”
Ten years on and business is ticking over nicely. While familiar show biz faces might be lost on Mr Francis (rather charmingly, he barely recognises anyone, relying on his team to point out the well-known to the lesser-so; “Er, that was Eva Mendes, J G – didn’t you recognise her?”) he’s just happy for his projects to find a good home. “I’m a car builder now. That’s what I love most about the job but, sure, having famous people drive our cars doesn’t do us any harm”.
A rare 1962 Mercedes-Benz 300D Adenauer sits proudly in Mr Francis' Glendale HQ Elizabeth Brissenden
His current car and co-star of our second On the Road film in collaboration with Belstaff is a 1973 Mercedes-Benz 250C Coupé in a rather lovely shade of avocado green. It’s one of seven he currently owns, but is clearly his favourite. “I’ll never sell it. I’ve been offered crazy money for it but it’s by far the most beautiful car I’ve ever owned,” he says.
MR FRANCIS’ MOTORING TIMELINE
The current model:
1973 Mercedes-Benz 250C Coupé – green exterior with parchment interior
“I purchased this European model from the second owner in North Carolina. It’s an extremely rare colour and options configuration. A European model, only 64,000 documented miles since new and lowered on ultra-rare 15in steel wheels and hubcaps. Nearly 100% original down to the paint.”
1960 Chevrolet Bel Air
“I bought this two-door hardtop in 1993 when I was 19 years old and was living in my hometown of Las Vegas, Nevada. If I remember correctly I paid $4,500 for it, which at the time seemed like $45,000. I’m a real sucker for coupes, and this love definitely began when I bought my Bel Air.”
1957 Volkswagen 23-window microbus
“Bought in 1994 while at university in Austin, Texas. I paid a mere $3,400 for it. If I owned it today it would be worth 20 times that amount. I sold this little nest egg in 2003 to a gentleman in London, and used the proceeds to start Mercedes Motoring – so it still means a lot to me.”