What car deserves veneration? For the organizers of the world’s most prestigious car show, it’s one rumored to be a gift from Hitler, the top model of his closest ally in the automobile industry.
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Let’s get two things cleared up before we continue. The first is that while the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance is certainly far from the most momentous cultural event of the year, it is the most prestigious car show anywhere in the world. For a few days in late summer, the 18th fairway at the Pebble Beach golf course is the very highest point for any rich person who covets vintage cars, and the highest honor for any person working in the business of restoring classics.
The second is that Mercedes was not just a car company that was busy at work doing normal car stuff during the time in which Nazis were in power in Germany. Mercedes was an early and direct supporter of Adolf Hitler long before he took power, helping him out while he was still an outsider figure in Bavarian politics. When Hitler got out of prison in 1924, he got picked up in a Mercedes. From the New York Times:
The three-pointed Mercedes emblem and the Nazi swastika were paired in the eyes of the German volk, according to the evidence in the book. ‘’The company itself was a personal favorite of the Fuhrer, who generally rode in Mercedes cars, as did the rest of his entourage,’’ Mr. Bellon says. Jakob Werlin, an associate director of the company, was a personal friend of Hitler whose ties with the Fuhrer dated back to the 1923 putsch. When Hitler left the Landsberg penitentiary in 1924, the author notes, Werlin picked him up at the prison gates. According to American intelligence documents obtained by Mr. Bellon under the Freedom of Information Act, Hitler held a portfolio of Daimler-Benz stocks, which Werlin personally administered for him.
It is with those things in mind that we must look at this year’s Best In Show winner, as the Classic Car Journal reports:
The immaculately restored black Mercedes led a field of 235 concours entries and was one of four finalists vying for the coveted prize, all of them European cars, two of them pre-war and two from the post-war years.
The three others were a 1937 Bugatti Type 57S Corsica drophead coupe, a freshly restored 1956 Maserati A6G Zagato coupe, and a 1966 Ferrari 365 P Pininfarina Berlinetta Speciale, known as the Tre Posti for its three-passenger configuration, the driver positioned in the center.
The 540K earlier won the concours’ Mercedes-Benz pre-war class (all the finalists were class winners), and unusually, the Kellers had another car entered in the same class, a 1927 Mercedes-Benz SS Armbruster cabriolet, leading one of the show’s commentators to quip that they had been competing against themselves.
This is supposedly the sole-surviving 540 K Autobahnkurier, and was rumored to have been a personal gift of Hitler’s, as The Star reported in 2004:
Not surprisingly, this car is the subject of legends. Some claim that [the original owner] Professor Ignacio Barraquer received the 540K as a personal gift from Hitler. Other rumors have it that the giver was a German government minister whose eyes [Barraquer, an ophthalmologist] had successfully operated on. Yet another legend claims it was the gift of an Arabian prince whose eyesight the doctor saved. Professor Ignacio Barraquer’s son, Professor Joaquin Barraquer, brushes aside these rumors and explains, “At the time, my father had been working for a while in Germany, and that is when he bought the car.”
I found that article linked on the web page of the car’s restoration shop, which also includes this blurb about the historical import of such a car:
“ The Berlin Motor Show opened in February 1934 with President von Hindenburg on his deathbed and Hitler preparing to take the final step to absolute power. With dramatic Reichs-Autobahns coursing relentlessly across Germany and the heavy tax on new cars abolished, a fresh era had dawned for the motor industry. No car at that March exhibition encapsulated the optimistic mood in manufacturing more than a magnificent black coupé on the Mercedes-Benz stand. Streamlining was all the rage and the special 500K, with its pontoon wings, long aggressive bonnet and lithe, fastback cabin, was the talk of the show. ”
This is exactly how this car is seen in this world of the mega-rich: an encapsulation of “the optimistic mood” of Germany in 1934. Let us ask: for whom was this an optimistic time, and who is the kind of person who looks back on that time now, remembering its icons for their ... optimism? Rich people, that’s who.
The real humor of all of this is that this car wasn’t even great in its time. The pieces venerating the 540K Autobahnkurier all come from the past few decades, after the car had gone through painstaking and costly restoration. If you look back to earlier sources, there is a less fond remembrance of the vehicle. Let’s dip into Ralph Stein’s The Great Cars, published 1967 and sitting in my personal reference catalog. Stein spends a great deal of time in his history of Mercedes venerating the “S” series of sports cars: the S, the SS, the SSK, and the SSKL. These were race-bred machines, designed by Porsche himself, and in some cases, faster than the Grand Prix cars of their day. When Hitler took power, these trim, light “S” cars gave way to the loaded “K” series, and became a bit more cartoonish:
After the Germans embraced Adolf Hitler in. 1933 Mercedes-Benz embarked, with government help, on a campaign to win in Grand Prix racing for the honor of the Third Reich. In this they succeeded. But now the character of the sporting Mercedes-Benz’s changed. No longer were they the lean, clean, fast cars Dr. Porsche had envisioned. The production sports cars which took their place were the eight-cylinder, pushrod-engined 500 and 540 K’s. They were fat and heavy (about 5,500 pounds) and vulgarly curvilinear. I thought at the time that if you draped them with medals, they’d look like dear old Herman Goering himself. If he’d had wheels.
Stein goes on to remember a time when he beat one in a street race in a contemporary British Invicta.
Again: to whom is this a car worthy of restoration, adoration? Ask yourself: what kind of person showers this car with praise? And why?