The three French police officers did not look amused as they pulled alongside at a traffic light in Place de la Concorde. Window rolled down, the driver asked if we knew that we’d run a red light only moments before. Erm, yes, but only at the last second (a partial truth), was our response. A dramatic pause of two seconds, maybe three, ticked away before the driver instructed us to be careful, to follow road rules and pay more attention. ‘Yes, yes, of course officer.’ ‘By the way, that’s a beautiful car,’ he said with a nod and a smile before sprinting away to chase adversaries who had a firmer grasp of French road rules and the French language.
A 1936 Mercedes-Benz 500K Cabriolet is simply the kind of car that opens doors to the most exclusive clubs, attracts a crowd, and makes life altogether more glamorous. It doesn’t hurt matters that it also gets you out of the occasional bind with law enforcement. This car, chassis number 105383, is set to be auctioned by Bonhams on Saturday, February 9, during the annual Rétromobile show in Paris. The venue is not accidental, since this example has been owned by renowned French artist Georges Mathieu for over 50 years. Pre-auction estimates by Bonhams for the grand old Merc, which was restored by the celebrated André Lecoq some 15 years ago, value it at around one million euros.
In the heart of Paris well after midnight, we had little time to think about the car’s immense value. Sub-freezing winter temperatures had turned our feet to stone and our hands into icicles. Yet, even in these frigid conditions, the car drew a crowd. Groups of tourists, dragging themselves back to warm hotel rooms after a day of trekking through countless museums, absolutely beamed upon seeing the car. Grabbing their cameras quicker than a Wild West gun-slinger going for his pistol, they surrounded the 500K with grins and camera flashes. Slightly tipsy Parisians were a bit more restrained. Standing further back, they basked in the satisfaction that such a beautiful car demands a backdrop as sublime as their city at night.
Illustrious it might be, but when the 500K was debuted it had been a rapid response to the total sales failure of its underpowered predecessor, the Mercedes-Benz 380. Introduced in 1933, the 380 had an advanced fully independent-suspension chassis with coil springs. But the power from its single overhead camshaft, supercharged straight eight proved unsatisfactory. Only 154 380s were built before production ended after one year and the W29 500K arrived to take its place. Having successfully used supercharging on its SSK and SSKL racing cars, Mercedes applied not only the technology but also the K (for Kompressor) nomenclature to its new luxury car. The 500K boasted a larger, 100bhp, 5-litre straight-eight engine coupled to a driver-engageable Roots-type supercharger. This swelled power to 160bhp at 3400rpm and gave the 500K a top speed of 100mph.
From 1934 to 1936, 342 500Ks were sold during their brief production run. A range of bodies was available in a wide variety of cabriolet, sedan and tourer styles. Those interested in researching the myriad options and variants (or even buying one of these cars) are advised to source a copy of Mercedes-Benz: The Supercharged 8 Cylinder Cars of the 1930s, Volume 2 by Jan Melin and Sven Hernström, a veritable bible of supercharged Mercedes history.
Many 500Ks received custom touches and specific trim to meet the whims of their demanding clientele. However, standard equipment alone placed the 500K amongst the automotive elite. Dashboard lighting, a full complement of gauges, a 12-volt electrical system, electric indicators, chrome bumpers and even safety glass were all standard issue.
Of course, there is no ignoring the fact that the 500K (and the even more rapid 540K that arrived in 1936) was a favourite of high-ranking officers in the Nazi party. After all, part of its raison d’être was to make full use of the arrow-straight and billiard table-smooth autobahns then being built throughout Germany under Hitler’s orders. After World War Two, these magnificent supercharged Mercedes still carried the Nazi stigma as Europe set out to rebuild itself.
This is where the story of chassis no. 105383 begins, in post-war Paris and in the hands of one of France’s most prolific modern painters. Born in Boulogne-sur-Mer on January 27, 1921, Georges Victor Adolphe Mathieu was on the cusp of his greatest fame when he bought this car in 1951. Typical of his flamboyant image, Mathieu is likely to have relished the controversy created by his large German luxury car on the streets of Paris. For over 50 years the 500K would serve as his daily driver. Mathieu’s artistic technique favoured speed and style – fitting character traits for a 500K owner – as well as a touch of the theatrical, such as when he would paint before large crowds, paint and brushes flying through the air and onto his canvas. His work transcended art galleries, and eventually could be found in advertisements done for Air France, television stations, and even the design of a 10 Franc coin.
Walking around the black Mercedes, it’s easy to see why the car appealed to an artist known for intense and impulsive painting with no predictable outcome. Depending on the angle, it appears menacing (when seen from directly in front), alluring and Hollywood-style glamorous (viewed in profile), and nearly always as though it’s in high-speed motion. All sweeping wings punctuated by delicious chrome details – like the twin exhaust pipes on the right-hand side of the bonnet – the 500K looks a mile long despite its two-passenger layout. In reality, it measures roughly the same length as a modern Mercedes S-class sedan. Yet, viewed alongside today’s luxury cars, the 500K makes them look apologetic and deadly dull. This is a machine that makes no pretence about its owner’s wealth, power and taste.
Fittingly, climbing into the cabin feels like sliding onto a throne. Step on the running boards, swing yourself onto the soft red leather seats, and you’re immediately faced with copious amounts of timber, a mother-of-pearl dash, and (with the lights on) the gold-like glow of the illuminated central gauges. Ahead of you is an ocean of bonnet, with the wings flowing off to either side and the Mercedes emblem pointing the way forward. Once underway, the in-line eight emits a refined yet aggressive purr as the Mercedes-Benz double-updraught carburettor feeds the engine its rich diet of petrol. An occasional sputter in the carb suggests the one thing this car needs is some regular exercise.
Unfortunately, busy Parisian traffic is not the ideal setting for getting acquainted with a million euros-worth of pre-war Mercedes. Mastering the four-speed transmission is challenging enough, never mind any thoughts about clicking the supercharger into action. With synchromesh only on third gear, double declutching is necessary. So is a degree of familiarity – and luck – when it comes time to finding the correct gear. The thin wand of the floor-mounted shifter has a gratifyingly solid metal-on-metal feel when you get things right. But finding that sweet spot takes patience, and the 500K does not tolerate rushed changes. If anything, the car feels like it’s straining for wide open roads, where the supercharger can wail as it pushes the 5000lb Mercedes to triple-digit speeds.
The ride proves comfortable in city traffic and a match for Parisian cobblestones that shake even late-model hatchbacks to pieces. The worm and nut steering is difficult from a stop, where you steer more with your shoulders than you do your fingers. Things get noticeably lighter and more fluid as speed increases. Even the hydraulic brake system – drums at all four corners, aided by a Bosch-Dewandre vacuum booster – does a surprisingly effective job of bringing the car to a stop. Only that baulky gearshift gets in the way of smooth progress in what is a remarkably modern-feeling blueblood classic.
A German luxury car owned by a renowned French artist, this Mercedes-Benz 500K is undoubtedly going to appeal to a wide audience of well-heeled collectors. Its days as a daily driver are over, but it’s too dynamically engaging and visually stunning to keep locked in a garage; that it gets smiles from the police even after ploughing through a red light is merely an added bonus.