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Putnam retirees share love for vintage Mercedes roadsters

Lawrence Pierce
Rolling down a winding drive in Putnam County are antique Mercedes SLs owned and driven by Brian Smith (top), Charles Kuhl (left center), Dick Daugherty (right center), Carroll Hutton (left front) and O.C. "Hobby" Spaulding (right front).

TEAYS VALLEY, W.Va. -- Retired Putnam County Circuit Judge O.C. "Hobby" Spaulding wanted a two-seat Mercedes roadster all of his adult life, but it wasn't until 2003 that he managed to buy the car of his dreams.

In 1968, during his first post-college job as a systems engineer for IBM in Baltimore, he saved diligently to buy his first new car, which he wanted to be a Mercedes 280 SL, due mainly to what he called its "James Bond" image.

"I went to the Mercedes dealership to price them," he said. "They were $13,000 - about two years of my salary, so I bought a new Pontiac instead."

Spaulding put his automotive dream on hold until 2003, when a cousin decided to part with a 1984 Mercedes 380 SL to free up garage space for a restoration project. The flashy roadster had been garage-kept and seldom driven, racking up a total of only 48,000 miles by the time he bought it.

"It turned over to 60,000 miles last week," said the veteran judge and former prosecuting attorney. "It's all original equipment. Everything about the car is as it was when it was first built. I drive it only in good weather."

 For Spaulding, who was forced to retire from the bench in January after he was diagnosed with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, spending time behind the wheel of his dream car has been good therapy.

"I feel like the king of the road when I'm driving it," he said, speaking with the assistance of a specially programmed laptop that converts his words into a computer-generated voice. "My wife hates that it blows her hair and that people seem to be staring at us, but she's much more private than I am. I love it."  

Spaulding is in the bulbar onset stage of ALS, in which about 20 percent of ALS patients begin to notice problems with speaking, swallowing and controlling some muscles of the neck.

Other than not being able to speak, "I feel fine, and I'm completely mobile," he said, and plans to keep driving his roadster as long as possible.

Spaulding was among several other owners of vintage Mercedes SL roadsters who gathered last week at the Teays Valley home of the judge's long-time friend, Carroll Hutton, whose car collection includes a 1970 Mercedes 280 SL.

"We've known each other since we were fingerlings," said Hutton, who lived in the same apartment building with Spaulding when both were starting their careers. Hutton credits Spaulding with helping him launch his second career as an underwater salvage contractor after working for Kroger for many years.

Also on hand were retired coach, teacher and school administrator Charles Kuhl of Scott Depot, retired Tag Galyean and Smith Motor Car employee Brian Smith of Hurricane, and Dick Daugherty of Dunbar, co-owner of West Virginia Used Auto Sales of Cross Lanes, and operator of the Spirit of West Virginia excursion sternwheeler.

Kuhl worked briefly with Hutton at the same Kroger store in Kanawha City in the 1950s and remained a friend since then. Kuhl became acquainted with Spaulding several years ago, when he pulled into the parking lot of a Teays Valley restaurant in his 1983 Mercedes 380 SL as Spaulding walked by, and the two began trading tips on the care and maintenance of their vehicles.

"I always wanted one of these," Kuhl said, as he stood near his two-seat roadster, "but I didn't get mine until 2004. I bought it online from a guy in West Palm Beach and had it shipped up here. ... I keep it in the garage a lot, and just drive it up the street once in a while."

"Having worked at a Mercedes dealership, I always liked these cars," said Smith, who owns a 1985 380 SL. While most owners of the vintage roadsters drive them on a limited basis, "you can really put some big miles on these cars, if you keep up with them on maintenance."

Sightings of roadworthy Mercedes SLs from the '70s and '80s aren't all that rare, said Daugherty, who bought his 1988 560 SL from a car dealer in Richmond. "We have a couple of 1979 450 SLs on our lot now," he said.

Hutton jokingly called the informal meeting of local owners of the iconic German-made car "the first gathering of the Putnam County Panzers. I'm sure we'll be doing some Sunday afternoon cruises to go get a hot dog and see some country in the months and years ahead."

Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelhammer@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5169.


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