1936 Mercedes-Benz 540K
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1936 Mercedes-Benz 540K von Krieger Special Roadster : 'The Price of Perfection'Life is full of tragedy and comedy and 'all the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players' (Shakespeare 2.7). Rarely can the fullness of life, with all of the emotions and intricacies, become captured in an inanimate, unfeeling object. However, there are those special moments when true pieces of art are created. And though they may be, in and of themselves unfeeling and cold, they have the ability to take on the identity of their creator or possessor and become alive, a silent story-teller. One such piece of art that narrates a story full of nobility and destitution, of love and loss, would make its way to auction at the 2012 Gooding and Company event held in Monterey, California.
While the Gooding and Company auction in Monterey is all about exquisite automobiles with incredible pedigrees, to fully understand and appreciate the 1936 Mercedes-Benz 540K offered one needs to know and understand the story of the players in the drama for which the car would be custom made and delivered.
Just one look at the exquisite and voluptuous lines designed by the brilliant visionary coachbuilders at Sindelfingen and it immediately becomes clear who the clientele for this particular 540K Special Roadster would have been.
Some of the last of German aristocracy, Baron Benno von Krieger and his wife Josephine came to be settled in a suburb of Berlin during the Golden Era of the Weimar Republic when the Junkers family still exerted considerable influence on German politics and society. Amidst this world of glamorous parties and improbable prestige, the Baron and his wife would raise their two children, Gisela and Henning.
By the early 1930s the economic crisis felt all over the globe was putting tremendous strain upon families, no matter what their rank or situation. The rising tide of the Third Reich was also beginning to come into play and the strain on the German nobility would only increase. In the base of Benno and Josephine, the pressures would come to bear on the family itself and would become too much and the two would file for divorce.
Also, by the early 1930s, there was a shift happening amongst the noble families. The days of being chauffeured around in horse-drawn carriages had come to an end. The early fantastical coach-built designs around the early decades of the 20th century still lent to aristocracy being delivered to and from important engagements. However, motor racing would open up a whole new world, and it would become a considerable influence on the von Krieger's son, Henning.
R. H. Johnson would write in a 1952 edition of Motor Sport, 'The noise of a Mercedes blower is, to the occupants of the car, bloodcurdling and diabolic… After the first terrifying bursts of boost have been attempted and it is found that the engine does not blow up, the experience becomes extremely exhilarating.'
The only ones that could afford to experience such exhilaration were those with the means to do so. Therefore, the world of the luxurious and exotic automobile would change. No longer would the big, square designs of most coachbuilders do. The owner would now be in the driver's seat. Every aspect of the car now needed to portray the sense of wealth, affluence and artistry to which one would be accustomed. Perhaps for the first time the whole of the automotive experience came to speak of one's wealth and position. Whereas before it had all been about comfort and appointments around a big and luxurious car, it would now change to become an amalgamation of artistry and sport with the kind of performance necessary to also speak of one's position and command.
Henning would be born at just the right time and would emphatically demonstrate the new era in aristocracy. Like others in his position, Henning had the wealth and the means to partake of only that which the best motor racing drivers in the world had the privilege. The early 20th century was certainly a period of invention and adventure. Like the jousting knights of centuries past, aviation and motoring, especially cars built for motor racing, belonged to a certain aristocracy of its own—the ones that either had the means or the talent to take part. Everyone else had to watch and admire from the sidelines. Henning wasn't one of them.
By the time he reached driving age, Henning would be given a Mercedes-Benz SS the family owned and used. Supercharged, Henning would become accustomed to the whirling siren sound of the Roots-type supercharger and would be forever hooked on cars with the looks and the performance to match.
The car that fit Henning perfectly was Mercedes-Benz's 500-Series of automobiles. And, as a graduation gift for the then 19 year old Henning, Josephine would put in an order for a Special Roadster.
Originally ordered to be a 500 chassis, Mercedes had already made the switch to the 540K and just used that chassis instead of what had been ordered. Therefore, because of when the car was ordered by Josephine, Henning's new Special Roadster, when it was built, would be one of the first fifty 540Ks ever to be built.
Though only a graduation gift, Josephine would spare no expense when it came to her son's new car. After separating from her husband, Josephine would, by no means, become a woman without means. She would become an extremely influential and wealthy real estate dealer around Paris, France, which is where she and the kids would move to after the divorce became final.
Henning's 1936 Mercedes-Benz 540K Special Roadster would be finished and delivered to the young man with an entirely black finish and pigskin leather upholstery. Featuring such elegant touches as a burl wood writing table, full-leather dashboard and an extremely expensive and extraordinary Telefunken radio, the Special Roadster certainly was to be something special in which Henning would be seen riding around the streets of Berlin.
But Henning wasn't the only one in the family to make use of the Special Roadster to help emphasize their social standing. Henning's sister, Gisela would be an enduring figure in the Paris social scene. She would be noted for her ability to be at the right party and always in the right company. An elegant beauty in her own right, Gisela would attract many a suitor, and would turn them all down. Her elegant grace and exotic looks would claim its share of victims, with one even going so far as to throw himself out of his plane over the English Channel after Gisela refused his hand in marriage. And at the wheel of the 540K Special Roadster, she certainly knew how to torture her most ardent admirers.
But while it would seem that life would be most tragic for everyone but the von Kriegers, the course of events would turn and the carefree days of the noble family would be turned upside down and it would seem the only suitor the family would welcome from then on would be that of tragedy. Instead of living out their days in comfort and ease, events would transpire that would eventually leave them destitute and struggling to retain their sanity.
It would all begin when Germany invaded Poland in 1939. Amidst a life spent living summer months along the French Riviera, Paris and London, the von Krieger family would soon find themselves amidst suspicion from French authorities because of their German roots and the influence they possessed. This would lead to the family being taken from their plush surroundings and spending a period of time in an internment camp.
Henning would not believe in the cause of the Third Reich but would be forced to return to Germany to take up a rank of corporal in the German Luftwaffe. Josephine and Gisela, however, would manage to escape to Monaco and, eventually, neutral Switzerland.
With their European world totally turned upside-down in a war-torn Europe, Josephine made arrangements for her and her children, and the Special Roadster, to make the journey to the United States in 1949. Arriving on the Queen Elizabeth, the family would settle in Manhattan's Upper East Side.
The family would live just a couple of years in the United States before Josephine would fall ill and would return to Europe. Unfortunately, there would be nothing that could be done for her and she would die in December of 1951 in Lausanne, Switzerland. Then, in 1958, Henning would become diagnosed with melanoma. He would, unfortunately, pass away in January of 1959.
The dark side of the apparent 'perfect' life was beginning to take its toll and by the 1960s, just Gisela and Benno remained. But the dark clouds had already formed over Gisela's world.
The traumatic experiences during the Second World War would cause the socialite to begin a process of retreating within herself. The move to the United States would actually be in an effort to change the environment around the young baroness who, by that time, had already been diagnosed with depression and bouts of tension.
Throughout those early years in the United States, the Special Roadster would be seen turning heads travelling up and down streets in Manhattan. But whereas the car once symbolized freedom and zest for life, it would later represent something else entirely.
By the mid-1950s, Gisella and Henning now lived in Connecticut and were both granted American citizenship. The move to Connecticut was to be a move back to simplicity and tranquility, but Henning's illness in 1958 transported Gisela back into a veritable prison of depression and exhaustion. After returning to Europe with her brother as he underwent treatment for his melanoma, Gisela's world began to shrink and shrink. The car too would find itself locked away, caged just like the baroness.
Throughout its time in New York City, Gisela would take great care of the Special Roadster having it serviced by Zumbach's in Manhattan. Once Henning and Gisela moved to Connecticut, she would continue to look after the car sparing no expense, just as her life was filled with no expenses. However, when Henning fell ill and Gisela returned with him to Europe, the once proud and grand roadster would find itself locked away awaiting Gisela's return, the return that would never happen.
Whereas in days gone by the Special Roadster seemed to remind of elegant parties and a life of luxury, like a bearer of bad memories, the car would soon become a neglected family member. Once intended to be revisited but never again receiving any members of its family, just like the noble lady in which it carried around for so many years, 130949 became a recluse, a distant memory always beloved but seemingly destined to never again regain its senses and state of nobility.
Gisela's life, out of the whole of the von Krieger family, would be the most tragic. Left all alone and with no husband or family of her own, she would never again return to the United States and would never again see the Special Roadster that had represented clearer, care-free days as one of Germany's most affluent families.
Instead of enjoying her wealth and those finer things surrounding her, Gisela would remain locked away with literally no means of communicating to the outside world with the exception of sending and receiving mail. Such was her seclusion in the last decades of her life that her body would go weeks before being discovered dead in 1989. Surrounding her body in her disheveled apartment would be jewelry and expensive dresses, lying around like waded pieces of paper. It was clear these pieces of finery, including the one nearly forgotten about locked away back in Connecticut, could not save her.
Unlike Gisela, the 540K Special Roadster would not die alone. And throughout its years of being locked away, unable to receive visitors and live its life, there were still would-be suitors trying to pull the car out of its prison trying to let it, once again, breathe the fresh air of life. Gisela von Krieger herself would say, 'This love of good cars is said to be men's purest passion.' And the stark differences in the life of Gisela and the Special Roadster would bear this truth out. While Gisela would continue to lock herself away and would never accept the hand of any of her suitors, the Special Roadster would find a number of suitors pursuing it toward the later stages of Gisela's life. Among them would be Daimler-Benz, George Maley and Harold C. Bott. But just as she had with all of the men in her life, Gisela would turn down every possible suitor for her prized Special Roadster. And who really could blame her, for it was the finery that was maintaining the aura of perfection, the lie hiding the reality.
It seemed the car would never escape its prison even after Gisela's death. Tied down in litigation problems and issues with the von Krieger estate, the car would still remain locked away with some not even aware of its existence anymore.
Then, in 1991, Mr. Gooding would receive an intriguing phone call from a man unsure of what he had found. All the man knew is that 'it's an old, black two-seat Mercedes.' But what Gooding would find behind the last door in an unassuming building in Greenwich, Connecticut would be 130949.
Issues with the estate would delay the car from being sold. Finally, in 1998, the von Krieger Special Roadster would find its way into the hands of its current owner. The current owner, an East Coast collector of perhaps the finest coachbuilt automobiles, would commission Chris Charlton of Classic Car Services to undertake a complete restoration.
When discovered in Greenwich, the car was a veritable time-capsule as it still contained lipstick-stained cigarettes in the ashtray and a map. Though covered in dust and bearing some obvious signs of wear and aging, the car's grand presence was still undeniable and demanded restoration. So much of the car was original, including the matching chassis and engine, but still, Charlton would have an incredibly difficult task ahead of himself as he fought to return the car to its original state.
Mr. Charlton would be beyond meticulous. He would catalogue every aspect of the car and would take hundreds of photographs of the car in its un-restored state so as to maintain an exceedingly high level of originality and perfection.
No expense would be spared throughout the process of the restoration and the result would be one unparalleled beauty of a car. Formal and raw at the same time, Charlton would remain true to the essence of the car. Finished in a tuxedo black with a rich tobacco leather upholstered interior, the car is elegant inside and out and certainly would be the perfect car in which to arrive at one of the social events of the year, whether it be back in the late-1930s, or today. Tastefully accented by brilliant chrome brightwork, all of the right aspects of the car stand out amongst the dark black background of the Sindelfingen body.
Charlton would remain true to the original vision of the car in many, perhaps not so obvious, ways. One of those elements particularly significant to this particular car would be the flat lenses on the headlights. Seeing that the car would be driven around the streets of Paris, the headlamps on the car would have to be of yellow hue. It was found the flat lenses worked much better with the yellow headlamps than the more normal convex lenses.
When all finished the old 1936 Mercedes 540K would shine with a brilliance not seen in decades. Like the von Krieger family itself, the car had come to overwhelmed with aging and neglect. But now… now the car shown with a brilliance reminiscent of the days when Gisela and the car were the belle of the ball.
Charlton's meticulous process had taken years, but when it made its debut at the 2004 Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance the collective gasp would make it clear all of the work had not been in vain. The emperor had some new clothes and was stepping out in them.
The car, with its tall, long nose covering the 5.4-liter inline eight cylinder engine, sweeping fenders, ivory fixtures, incredible chrome brightwork and that long, contoured rear end would hold the attention of onlookers throughout the event. As a result of the incredible work achieved by Charlton, and the high originality of the car itself, 130949 would go on to Best in Class honors.
Mr. Gooding would remember the moment when he would discover the Special Roadster in the storage room in Greenwich. He would state, 'It was an amazing discovery…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.' But thanks to the work of Mr. Charton, the Special Roadster would emerge from the darkness and back into the light, the pain of the past being a portion of its sum worth.
Though the von Kriegers would be passed and gone, the Special Roadster would be one former member of the family that would live on, and amongst the social circles that would have made the family proud. In 2010, the von Krieger Special Roadster would be selected as the only pre-war Mercedes-Benz to be chosen for a special exhibit held by the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Georgia. The exhibit would be called, The Allure of the Automobile: Driving in Style, 1930-1965, and would bring together 18 of the world's finest and most rare automobiles.
While already honored as one of the world's finest automobiles, its current owner of some 14 years was still interested in maintaining the original essence of the car. Therefore, the car would be returned to Mr. Charlton to have the car refinished. The decision was clear: to return it to the state it would have been when Henning took delivery of the car back in 1936. Therefore, Mr. Charlton would have the livery refinished in its original black and would tweak some other aspects of the car to bring it back to its nearly original form. Accented by double-whitewall Firestone tires, the von Krieger Special Roadster demands attention anywhere it shows up and is, rightfully, expected to command top dollar at the 2012 Gooding and Company auction in Monterey.
But the prospective buyer isn't just buying a 540K. The buyer will be welcoming the car's past, the light and the dark of it all. Materially, the buyer will also be welcoming, perhaps, one of the most well-researched and documented of all 540Ks. Complete with a treasure trove of correspondences, invoices, photographs and other pieces of information, the authenticity of 130949 cannot be denied. Just the momentous amount of material from the von Krieger family itself commands a noteworthy sum and just adds to the legacy of this Special Roadster.
A true work of art is said to evoke every kind of emotion. And this particular Special Roadster has that ability in spades. All of the elegance, all of the luxury, and too, all of the pain, the heart-break and loneliness of perfection can be experienced when partaking of this beauty. Every bit the tragic saga of the von Krieger family itself, the true sense of worth, of its captivating beauty comes not in and of itself, but through the lives of the family it had been a part. Behind the charm, the well-rehearsed manners and the opulence are the emotions, experiences of an aura of pain and loss, seclusion and tension. And it is this captivating, unspoken of emotion this car evokes when it is truly beheld by the onlooker.
The car is telling the story without a script. Filled with beautiful lines, remarkable appointments and comforts, there is also stark feelings of pain, neglect and seclusion. Obviously rare and worthwhile for its obvious provenance, it is the not so obvious that saves this amazing car. It well and truly is the one member of the von Krieger family that has survived. It has made its journey through the darkness, the depraved moments of existence and has truly returned to its carefree days. It has managed to do what neither of its owners ever could.
Perhaps never before, or since, has there been a car evocative of so many emotions and speak so much. In its own right, the Mercedes-Benz 540K is evocative for it has all of the necessary elements of a truly remarkable story. In its own right, the car is a car of significance and great influence. It is elegant and graceful, and yet, diabolic and terrifying at the same time. It is rich and simple. It is a piece of art that united the masses. And in the case of the von Krieger Special Roadster, it too is filled with love, joy, pain, loss and neglect, all of life's experiences blended together into something far more simple but hard to define—perfection.
Brynan, David. 'The von Krieger Special Roadster', Pacific Grove: Gooding and Company, 2012.
'Lot No. 123: 1936 Mercedes-Benz 540K Special Roadster', (http://www.goodingco.com/car/1936-mercedes-benz-540-k-special-roadster). Gooding and Company. http://www.goodingco.com/car/1936-mercedes-benz-540-k-special-roadster. Retrieved 14 August 2012.
By Jeremy McMullen
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