- The Washington Times - Friday, February 16, 2001

Long before Ralf Berthiez became fleet and buying service director at J. Koons Pontiac he personally was hooked on both sporty and sports cars.
Mr. Berthiez was living in Asheville, N.C., when he entered his teen-age years and promptly became enraptured with Ford Mustangs. His father, William, witnessing his son's auto enthusiasm, offered encouragement and before his son was of driving age he bought him a used 1965 Mustang convertible.
Father and mostly son worked on the pony car until it sparkled and was winning almost every show in which it was entered.
Eventually, the restored car was sold and a succession of other Mustangs followed. The young Mr. Berthiez had each and every car apart and back together again, winning trophies and awards right and left.
He became so adept at restoring Mustangs and developed such a remarkable knowledge of Mustang parts that he was named a registered Mustang judge at the age of 15.
Restoring old Fords was lucrative and helped finance his passage through Western Carolina University.
Years later, with the Mustangs of his youth a memory, he encountered a friend with one more car than he needed. He was the second owner of a 1975 light blue metallic Mercedes-Benz 450SL with a dark blue fabric top.
Relying on his experience restoring Mustangs, Mr. Berthiez examined the German sports car. Seeing the unbelievably good condition of the car, he decided to buy it with an odometer reading almost 88,000 miles.
It was June 1997 when he took delivery of the luxurious sports car. Now that he was the third owner he delved into the car's history. He learned that a California doctor had purchased the car, which carried a base price when new of $17,056. Mr. Berthiez also discovered that in in 1979 the car was caught in a Palm Desert sandstorm. With most of the paint scoured from nature's sand blasting, the owner traded it in on another car at a Newport Beach dealership.
After being refurbished and repainted by the dealer, the car was kept in coastal California until 1989 when the second owner moved to Virginia.
Since Mr. Berthiez has owned the car he has replaced the blue leather on the seats and the sand-storm-pocked windshield. A latter-day replacement radio was itself replaced with a Becker Mexico radio like the original one in the 450SL. The two push buttons on the left operated AM signals while the three push buttons on the right are labeled FM.
The tiniest bit of rust found on the right front fender at the rear of the wheel well was quickly excised and the surface refinished.
The dark blue carpeting enshrouding the drive shaft hump surrounds the automatic gearshift lever on the floor, which indicates gears front to rear of:
Park.
Reverse.
Neutral.
Drive.
Second.
Low.
"I love to drive this car," Mr. Bethiez concedes. The 180 mph speedometer is always enticing as is the 7,000 rpm tachometer with a 5,800 redline. The top speed reportedly is 134 mph. "I know it'll go at least 120 mph," Mr. Berthiez said.
The 275.8-cubic-inch V-8 is fed from the 24-gallon fuel tank and delivers 225 horsepower, more than sufficient to move the 3,495-pound sports car.
The 450SL is so nimble on its 96 1/2-inch wheelbase that it can be turned in less than 38 feet. The steering wheel turns only 2 3/4-times lock to lock.
Mr. Berthiez continued detailing chores on the 14-foot, 4 1/2-inch-long car tightening what was loose and replacing what was worn until his 450SL was in outstanding condition. Still, he did not want to turn the beautiful Mercedes-Benz into a trailer queen.
"Other cars come and go," he said, "but this one stays." This is a car he wants to drive for fun and to compete in rallies and shows.
The Amelia Island Concours d'Elegance in March near Jacksonville, Fla., has attracted hundreds of breathtaking antique automobiles including Mr. Berthiez and his pristine Mercedes-Benz the last two years.
He has also driven the sleek open car for exhibition in Greenwich, Conn. Having others enjoy his car is more important to him, he said, than winning a trophy. Often, he will enter his 450SL in a show with a label of "Do Not Judge" attached to the windshield.
Keeping the Mercedes-Benz 450SL in like-new condition is his ambition, making it always roadworthy. That way, Mr. Berthiez explains, "I'll grow old with this car."

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