Helps Keep Old Mercedes Rolling And Rolling And Rolling

April 12, 2002
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SPARTA — Now let’s say you’re the proud owner of a prized old, ollllld Mercedes — say that it dates from the ’70s and still runs like a top.

But three decades of West Michigan winters and their attendant salt have made the skin at the bottom of the door panels a bit lacy. Moreover, you’ve got a piece of plywood on the driver’s side floor because the metal there is rusting through and paper-thin.

And the bad thing is that Mercedes-Benz no longer makes the parts in question.

But Tim and Pat Kidder do.

The husband and wife team are president and vice president-treasurer, respectively, of K&K Manufacturing, a 12,000-square-foot manufacturing operation at 951 9 Mile Road, in Sparta.

The firm happens to be the sole American manufacturer of body parts for vintage Mercedes cars — cars dating back to 1954, in fact.

“Most of the cars we make parts for are convertibles and sedans from the ’70s through the mid-’80s, but occasionally we get an old one,” Tim Kidder said.

And one could say that the Kidders are in the niche market of all niche markets. “As it stands right now,” he told the Business Journal, “our only competitor in Mercedes work is located in Poland.”

He stressed that the firm manufactures no parts for the cars’ engines, suspensions or drive trains.

“We could,” he said. “But it’s the liability insurance. It’s just not worth it.” Explaining that no catastrophic accident ever occurred because of a defective fender, Kidder said,  “We focus on body parts: floors, fenders, seat mounts and side rails — that sort of thing.”

He said that the only parts that K&K produces associated with Mercedes running gear is the rear axle support. “That’s the only suspension piece we fabricate,” he said. Typically, he said, the rear axle support is a weak point on the aged cars.

Kidder told the Business Journal that when the supports are rusty and subjected to severe shocks — the sort of thing associated with skidding into the ditch during bad weather — the supports tend to snap, causing the axle and car at that point to go their separate ways.

Another of the old cars’ weak points replaced by K&K, he said, is the jack port. The port is the site into which one inserts the car jack’s tubular pin when one must raise the car to change a tire.

“When that port rusts out, and you try to jack up the car,” Kidder said, “the pin will tear through the port and just rip right up through the door panel.”

He said K&K operates with six presses, two mills and other manufacturing and fabricating gear. Tim runs the shop, and he and the firm’s office manager collaborate on business decisions.

And it’s an operation founded, K&K’s president said, largely on the knowledge and experience gained in the school of life. Kidder said that he’s had no formal training as an engineer or a machinist — and he stresses the term formal.

“I call myself a ‘Jerk of all Trades,’” he cracked.

“I’m the kind of guy that just kind of picks up on things as I go along,” he explained. “I used to drive my dad nuts when I’d take something apart and have it scattered all over the place. But I always got it back together.”

He said his father’s exasperation neared the explosion point when Kidder became frustrated with the unsatisfactory way that his motorbike was running.

“I decided to take it apart,” he said, “and when Dad came home I had it all over the front porch. He couldn’t believe it.” He also predicted that the bike would never run again.

By the following day, Kidder says, he had reassembled the motorbike and got it running again.

“It didn’t run any better than it had before,” he laughed, “but it did run.”

And he said that’s pretty much been the style of his training over the years. “I’ve learned by my mistakes,” he said, “and when you learn that way, especially when it costs you money, you really learn well.”

K&K was conceived in the early ’80s when he took a part-time job with another man, Barry Stuart, who was making floor parts for the Mercedes 190SL. In 1982, he and Pat — then expecting their second child — acquired the business and incorporated it as K&K Inc.

The firm’s Web site says that initially it was necessary for the couple’s 3-year-old son to wear protective glasses when watching TV “because of my hand-cutting steel parts in our living room.

“We grew from our home into a 12,000-square-foot building on 11 industrial acres by 1986.”

At first, Kidder said, he was involved in restoring old Mercedes autos. But, he said, the couple quickly found out that it was extremely labor-intensive, customizing work and the clients tended to get more and more tense as the bills piled up.

“You can easily put 500 hours into restoring parts on an old Mercedes,” he said, noting that as one does so, however, the owner’s appreciation for his collector’s gem tends to dwindle. “And besides that,” he added, “you just don’t make that much money in restoration.”

He said it was his firm’s experience that manufacturing production not only is simpler than restoration, but in terms of revenue, it far outpaces restoration by several orders of magnitude. “We found we’re much better off supplying replacements for parts that rust out.”

The firm supplies parts for the 107, 111, 116, 113 and 190 series cars, which includes everything from the 190SL to the 500SL.

Many of the parts K&K produces, he said, go to a broker in Europe who, in turn, sells them to Mercedes-Benz in Stuttgart, which, in turn, markets those parts or uses them directly to restore aged cars that are sent to them.

Ironically, one of the Mercedes Web sites refers to spare parts with a subheading saying, “There’s none more original,” which certainly is true since none of the parts is original at all. The site also refers to “over 150 suppliers,” one of which K&K happens to be.

Kidder has managed to build the business in part through what might be termed epoxy marketing. If some client requires a sheet metal part or two that he hasn’t produced before, he will use an epoxy tool to produce them.

“That saves a tremendous amount of money,” he said. “But then, when other people see that part and start generating orders, then it makes sense to have the steel tool made.” And with the more ready availability of such items, he said, the demand tends to grow even further.

K&K also manufactures a similar line of parts for Porsche, vehicles that are prey to the same rusting problems that afflict the Mercedes — the nasty jack port problem included. Too, the firm makes parts for some old domestic models.

“We just finished a quarter panel for a ’66 Plymouth,” he said.

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