A Special Kind of Love
Baroness Josephine von Krieger was purchasing a graduation gift when she placed an order with Mercedes-Benz in April 1936 for a 540K Special Roadster. The recipient, her 19-year-old son, Henning, shared his mother’s passion for luxury automobiles—Josephine owned a Franay-bodied Packard Cabriolet and a Rolls-Royce Phantom II—and he had come of age driving elegant, high-performance sports cars. Henning inherited the family’s Mercedes-Benz SS when he reached the legal driving age, and in the years that followed, his family’s wealth and social status provided him with opportunities to own numerous other German sports cars.
Von Krieger drove the Special Roadster until the outbreak of World War II, at which time he returned the car to the Mercedes-Benz factory for service and repairs, and later he arranged for the car to be garaged in Switzerland, where his mother and sister, Gisela, were living. Given the car’s elegant appearance, it’s not surprising that, in her brother’s absence, Gisela made it her daily driver.
Gisela von Krieger was widely recognized for her elegant style, and she was aptly named one of the 10 most fashionable women in the world. Among the elite of international society, she enjoyed a privileged life for many years, residing at the Ritz and Le Meurice hotels in Paris and at Hotel Martinez in Cannes, and frequenting the best European destinations and social events, including the coronation of King George VI.
Gisela continued to drive the car after the war, and she brought it to New York City when she moved to the United States in 1949. When her brother’s untimely death in 1959 took Gisela back to Switzerland, she relegated the roadster to storage in Greenwich, Conn., where it remained for three and a half decades. During that period, Gisela, who had grown accustomed to men’s persistent attempts of courtship throughout her life, fielded equally passionate suitors for the car. She later noted that the “love of good cars is said to be men’s purest passion.”
Gisela kept the car until her death in 1989, but because she left no will and had no heirs, her estate proved difficult to settle. It wasn’t until 1992 that classic auto specialist David Gooding, then working for Christie’s in Beverly Hills, Calif., learned from a Connecticut attorney of the existence of “an old, black, two-seat Mercedes” with “two pipes coming out of the side and a really long tail.” As Gooding recalls, finding the Special Roadster in a nondescript building in Greenwich has been one of the highlights of his career.
“It was an amazing discovery,” says Gooding, now the president of his namesake auction house, who remembers finding in the car old driving maps, Gisela’s white driving glove, and her lipstick-marked cigarette butts in the ashtray. “Of all the great, long-lost cars I’ve ever seen, the Special Roadster was, by far, the most memorable. It was truly a time capsule from a bygone era and had an incredibly haunting presence.”
Eventually, the car exchanged hands twice through private sales and later underwent a complete restoration in 1999. The roadster earned best-in-class honors at the Pebble Beach Concours in 2004, and although collectors and enthusiasts recognized it to be one of the superlative examples of the marque’s coachbuilt grand tourers, for years its monetary value could only be speculated. Definitive value came a year ago, when Gooding & Co., during its Monterey Weekend auction, sold the car for a record $11.77 million, surpassing the previous mark for a Special Roadster by more than $2 million.
Known as the “von Krieger Roadster,” the vehicle is equipped with numerous unique features, including a Telefunken radio, a full-leather dashboard, and a burl wood writing table, which stows neatly beneath the glove compartment. It also offers a beguiling combination of automotive elegance and an intoxicating history, and for that reason, it isn’t shocking that the car set a new benchmark for the marque and the model. After all, many collectors agree that sometimes they’re buying a car, other times they’re buying a story, and in the most desirable of circumstances, they’re paying for both.
“The von Krieger had the best of all the features of all the Special Roadsters, and that’s what set it apart from everything else,” says Gooding. “Its complete restoration, beautiful story, and thoroughly documented history make it absolutely extraordinary.
“We were thrilled,” he continues, speaking of the roadster’s record-breaking price, “but we expected a world-record number because it’s a great car. You never take world-record prices for granted, but it wasn’t shocking.”
Given the sense of attachment that the original owners, like the von Kriegers, displayed for these cars, and considering the prices that pristine examples recently have achieved, it’s clear that Mercedes-Benz Special Roadsters are growing more desirable as they age. As collectors, restorers, and classic automobile specialists explain, the reasons for that are many.
Numerous factors during the 1920s led Mercedes-Benz to its lofty pedestal among luxury auto brands. First came the merger of the Daimler and Benz companies, two independent automotive and aeronautical engineering powerhouses; and that merger gained traction when Ferdinand Porsche joined the company’s ranks and reengineered its product line. Chassis designs were remodeled, more powerful engines were produced, supercharging efforts proved successful, and the new company took all of those accomplishments to the racetrack. Inevitably, success soon followed.
The Great Depression slowed the company’s momentum a bit, but the brand survived the economic turmoil and set out once again to distinguish itself from the competition. New straight-eight engines supplanted the previous in-line sixes, though not without some consternation from the critics. Some considered the previous engines, although smaller and less powerful, to be more technologically sophisticated and advanced. In other areas of design, the company unveiled a lighter—though superlatively strong—chassis; and independent suspensions evolved from the previous cars’ frame architecture. Bodywork lengthened, with the engines set further back in the chassis for better weight distribution; and coachwork designs grew more flamboyant, though still tasteful. Five-liter models were dubbed 500s, while the 5.4-liter cars were known as 540s, and both were marked with a K to designate their supercharged status.
Hermann Ahrens left Horch to join Mercedes-Benz in 1932 and he further refined the company’s aesthetics. As head of the special-vehicles section, he oversaw the design and construction of all limited-production Sindelfingen coachwork throughout the 1930s. Ahrens earned distinction for the Special Roadsters that he designed, which were produced in three variations, though only the first two styles are sought-after today. The first variant incorporated low-slung doors, flowing fenders, and exposed, rear-mounted spare tires, while the second included a higher door frame, a hood that extended past the center of the car, and a swooping tail. “They’re far more voluptuous and beautiful and exotic,” Gooding says of the Special Roadsters when comparing them to standard 500K and 540K Cabriolets. “Each one is slightly different-looking than the next.”
Despite these roadsters’ popularity during the 1930s, Mike Kunz, the director of the Mercedes-Benz Classic Center in Irvine, Calif., acknowledges that they had minimal influence on Mercedes-Benz’s future stable of luxury, high-performance automobiles. “Although they were very advanced for the time and some of their engineering principles lived on past World War II, they were more representative of the end of the coachbuilt era,” he says. “They didn’t influence future product very much. But when you speak about where the Special Roadsters fit in the pantheon of great Mercedes-Benz automobiles, I’d say they’re right at the top. Each car was bespoke, they are all beautiful, outstandingly engineered, and crafted to the very highest standards of quality.”
“The notion of ‘a rising tide lifts all boats’ is likely true of 540K machines that don’t wear Special Roadster coachwork, although mechanically they are somewhat similar to them, but true Special Roadsters are leading the value charge,” says Paul Russell, the owner of Paul Russell and Co. (www .paulrussell.com), a restoration shop in Massachusetts that specializes in classic Mercedes-Benzes. “They’re a bit of an anomaly in the classic car world. The fact that Mercedes-Benz had a coachbuilding entity in Sindelfingen that could compete with the finest boutique coachbuilding concerns in the world is somewhat unusual, therefore the factory-bodied cars are the most valuable, sought after, and collectible.
“Much of the initial wave of collectibility is driven by nostalgia,” he continues, sharing some of the expertise that he’s gleaned from years spent judging the world’s best collector cars at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance. “Once that begins to dim, then a car really has to stand on its four wheels in terms of design, quality, performance, and all the other factors that make a car collectible. Most 500 and 540K Mercedes do that to a high degree—the rare Special Roadsters more so than the rest.”
Slightly more than two dozen Special Roadsters emerged from Mercedes-Benz’s Sindelfingen factory during the mid-to-late 1930s, and according to Gooding, only about 16 are known to have survived. Such limited numbers can explain the cars’ collectibility; however, the intricate engineering that produced the grand tourers only increases the challenge of caring for one today. Jack Nethercutt, the second-generation owner of a classic car collection that was started by his father in 1956, can attest to that. The Nethercutt collection includes a rare, right-hand-drive, 1938 Mercedes-Benz 540K Cabriolet, and while it’s not a Special Roadster, the mechanical work that’s required to maintain it is the same.
“These cars are highly overengineered, and that presents a few unique issues for the mechanical restoration,” says Nethercutt. “For example, you don’t use the clutch when shifting from third to fourth gear; there are some extra bits in the transmission that give that capability. So you have to get that stuff right, or the cars just don’t work properly. You have to work a little extra hard to get it all sorted out properly, but [if you do] they are magnificent pieces of design, engineering, and construction, and they’re beautiful to drive.”
“When you tear one of these cars down for a complete restoration, it’s interesting to note the very specific, Germanic ways Mercedes-Benz went about certain things from an engineering and construction standpoint,” adds Russell. “When we have to replace something like a trunk floor, replicating the look of those production-style, stamped panels is a challenge. We also have to be very careful when painting metal pieces and refinishing wood trim, because these cars are assembled with such close production tolerances that too much paint, lacquer, or even chrome plating that’s too thick can cause fitment problems as we’re putting a car back together. That’s the level to which these cars were engineered and built, truly ‘to a standard and not to a budget.’ That’s not just a slogan, it’s what I’ve witnessed taking so many of these cars apart, down to the very last nut and bolt.”
Prior to 2011, Special Roadsters routinely were selling for around $2 million whenever they would appear at auction. That’s significant money for an automobile, but considering the limited numbers available and knowing the history of these particular roadsters, it begs the question: Why not more? After all, about the same number of Series I Ferrari 250 GTOs were built, and today those examples all flirt with eight-figure price tags. Has public perception changed, and would that explain the recent uptick in Special Roadster values? Nethercutt doesn’t think so. “The cars didn’t just become great or significant; they’ve always been great and significant,” he says. “It is only recently that we’ve seen several great examples come to market. The demand is high, the supply is fixed, and we’re only just discovering what their current desirability and price levels are.”
The current marketplace for these German classics likely will be revealed in greater detail later this month at Pebble Beach, when RM Auctions offers a 1939 540K Special Roadster, which last sold for $4.6 million in 2011. Alain Squindo, a specialist with the auction house, is certain that collectors will continue to seek out cars of this quality. In fact, he wouldn’t be surprised if their values continue to climb. “Given the absolute significance of these Special Mercedes, it’s almost a wonder they don’t cost far more,” he says.
As for Gooding, he acknowledges that in most cases a record-breaking sale leads to other significant examples coming to market shortly thereafter. Could another significant Special Roadster emerge in the aftermath of last year’s von Krieger sale? It wouldn’t surprise him, although he doesn’t believe another one exists that can compare. As it is, he says it’s rare that any example crosses the block. “People who have them are pretty fond of them,” he says. “They’re pretty highly prized.”
Custom coachbuilders defined automotive excellence during the 1930s. Based throughout Europe and the United States, each of those automotive artists had their own style and approach, but they all shared a dedication to the customer’s vision. Addressing its affluent customers’ desires for individuality, Mercedes-Benz appointed an in-house coachbuilder of its own to create one-off examples of the brand’s 500K and 540K grand tourers. Fewer than 30 of those Special Roadsters were made, and they represented the ultimate in exclusivity.
These days, even the most affluent Mercedes-Benz enthusiast will find it difficult to acquire that type of personalized craftsmanship from the company. Although custom coachbuilding may be extinct—at least as the practice once existed—today’s aftermarket industry continues that tradition. Numerous qualified firms are ready and willing to transform a modern-day Mercedes-Benz roadster into a vehicle that stands out from the crowd. "We can basically execute anything that someone wants done; it’s just a matter of time," says Brandon Grantham, the director of Kleemann USA (www.kleemann.dk) in Colorado Springs, Colo. "I want to make something that I’m still proud to have our name on, but something that also makes them happy. That’s what a lot of the original coachbuilding was."
The company specializes in two distinct areas of work—performance upgrades and bespoke styling. In the SL65 AMG (a car that Grantham often sees in his shop), the standard 6-liter, V-12 biturbo engine provides 621 hp, but Kleemann modifications can increase that output to as much as 740 hp, depending upon the selected package. From a performance standpoint, all Kleemann components are standardized, but when it comes to aesthetic improvements, Grantham says they’re limited only by the customer’s imagination. "Historically, our customers don’t care so much for being overtly obvious from the exterior of their car," he says. "It’s more about the experience of the individual from inside the car. The interior is where they spend most of their time interacting with the vehicle, so we want to make that area of the car just what they want."
Kleemann customers can expect to spend anywhere from $20,000 to as much as $200,000 for a bespoke package, but according to Grantham, they’re often seeking the same assurances and expecting the same level of customer service that the world’s foremost coachbuilders offered during the early 20th century. "People who want this want a very personal experience," he says. "They want intimate contact with the person in charge of the project, and they look to that person to put together [a package that is] a reflection of what they’ve told them that they want."
Most of the time, Grantham is happy to appease his customers. Only when a customer wants to drastically alter the bodywork (to the point of safety liabilities) will Grantham veto a request. "If I feel like what they’re requesting is executable without having a negative impact on the structural integrity of the vehicle, then I’m happy to do it," he says. "But I’m not going to give a car back to someone that’s more dangerous than they think it is."
According to Sev Kasbarian at RTW Motoring (www.rtwmotoring.com) in North Hollywood, Calif., there are varying degrees of exclusivity, and he points to Mercedes-Benz’s SLS AMG GT Coupe and GT Roadster as proof. Starting at $199,500, the car already is somewhat limited in its production (and limiting in its price), but certain aftermarket packages further decrease the likelihood that two examples of the same car will be seen on the road. As Kasbarian explains, Mansory offers two packages for the SLS: a soft option, which allows customers to pick and choose the elements of personalization that they want, and the Cormeum, a limited-edition package that, as Kasbarian describes it, turns the car into a "modern-day Batmobile."
Only 15 Cormeum packages are available, through which the car essentially is rebuilt as an all–carbon fiber Mansory automobile, doubling the cost of a new SLS. It’s an extreme option, and one that Kasbarian says is rarely selected. More often, a customer is enticed by the softer package, which he says can include a few minor changes for $5,000 or $10,000, or a significant overhaul, which can exceed $100,000. "Even if we built two SLSs, the details are never the same," he says of the projects that highlight the Swiss-made components. "There are so many things that can be done differently. You can have matte carbon, we can smoke the lights. If somebody does a full build, the color schemes are endless, so it’s tailor-made to each specific customer.
"In Los Angeles or the Newport Beach area, you’ll run into several [aftermarket] cars," Kasbarian continues, citing various manufacturers, "but Mansory cars are a bit rarer. It’s a very affluent group of people that are driving Mansory cars."