1929 Mercedes-Benz 38/250-hp SS Roadster-Cabriolet
Coachwork by Castagna of Milan
Registration no. TBA
Chassis no. 14034
Engine no. 321096
With specially commissioned fully opening drophead coachwork by one of Italys most aristocratic coachbuilders, this handsome supercharged Mercedes was originally owned by one of the most iconic figures in the cinema world during the golden age of Hollywood. Completely restored at a cost stated to be in excess of three-quarters of a million Euros, this must be one of the finest examples of this highly sought-after model ever to come to market.
Its first owner, Roxy Rothafel, was one of the great American showmen. His career in the entertainment industry began in 1905 when, as a 23-year-old former bartender, US Marine and baseball player, he had opened a picture palace in the back room of a Pennsylvania saloon, showing silent movies to drunken miners. The local undertaker rented Roxy 250 chairs, which he removed whenever the town held a good funeral
Like so many first-generation Americans, Roxy was driven by the need to succeed, and he mirrored the growth in popularity of the movies by managing a succession of ever-larger theatres until in 1927 he opened his flagship Roxy Theater in New York. It was claimed to be the biggest theatre built since the Fall of Rome and seated an audience of 10,000. It had six box offices, a hospital and a waiting room large enough to hold 2000 people.
Roxy, who created the world-famous Rockettes dance troupe and later managed New Yorks famous Radio City theatre, opened in 1932 with backing from John D. Rockefeller Jr, was also the first man to show widescreen movies, on the giant screen of his sumptuous Roxy Theater in New York on St Valentines Day 1929. For a man who dealt in superlatives, only a superlative motor car would do; and in the summer of 1929 Roxy ordered the magnificent Mercedes-Benz Roadster-Cabriolet offered here.
Mercedes had led the way in putting supercharged cars into production in the early 1920s, making full use of the lessons the company had learned from building aircraft engines for high altitude operation during the Great War. The S Series, introduced as a 6.8-litre fast tourer in 1927, was the work of the companys new chief designer Ferdinand Porsche, and, like all pre World War Two supercharged Mercedes-Benz cars, it employed an on demand supercharger that only came into operation when the throttle pedal was fully depressed, which clutched in the Roots-type blower to boost acceleration and raise power output from 140 to 200 brake horsepower, accompanied by a distinctively piercing sound that Motor referred to as a threatening high-pitched whine.
Mercedes-Benz hailed the 7.1-litre SS version of its supercharged line, launched in 1928, as the car par excellence for the sports driver and the tourist who appreciates a sporting performance far above the average. It was also a highly exclusive model: total production of the SS was just 102 units, costing the same in chassis form as a Rolls-Royce Phantom II.
To clothe this thoroughbred chassis, Roxy Rothafel commissioned the top Milanese carrozzeria, Castagna to create a two-seater coupé body of surpassing elegance. Dissatisfied with the profile of the coachwork as originally built, Roxy had it sent back to Milan to be subtly modified to fulfil his dream. The result was one of the most stunning bodies of its day, incorporating the ingenious transformable patents that Castagna had acquired from French coachbuilder Baehr. The changes replaced the original vertical windscreen with a split screen raked back some 15 degrees from the vertical and eliminated the external top irons, diminishing the cars profile and making its long bonnet look even longer.
The revised top had a neater profile when folded, while, thanks to the Baehr patents, the side windows disappeared into the door beneath unobtrusive piano-hinged chrome strips, transforming the coupé into a roadster.
Roxy died in New York in January 1936 aged 53 and his Mercedes was lost to sight for many years. Some 30 years ago, it was said to be in the ownership of one Gene Rousse of Phoenix, Arizona; by then it was painted black and yellow and the spare wheels had been transferred from the rear of the car to its running boards. In the 1980s the car came to England. It was later sold to a German collector, and at some stage was parted from its engine and gearbox. Though the vendor acquired the car in 1989, restoration did not begin until a suitable power unit and transmission from a 1929 SS Mercedes were acquired ten years later.
Restorer Jurgen Swoboda spent more than 6000 man-hours in rebuilding the SS to its original specification, including the complete rebuild of the power unit using a combination of original and reproduction parts. The crankshaft was reground and new pistons, conrods and cylinder heads were used, and new kingshaft and timing gears were fitted. Steve Langley of Macclesfield. rebuilt the 20-inch wheels, the front and rear axles were completely overhauled and the brakes were renewed.
All the aluminium panelling was removed from the wooden body frame, which was restored before the panelling was refixed. The incorrect spare wheel mountings cut into the wings were filled in and the wheels restored to the correct position on the tail.
The original internal wood trim was restored, with new veneer on the dashboard, which retains its original instrumentation apart from a new Bosch ignition and lighting panel. The only departure from the original specification was the replacement of the lost Grebel headlamps with more appropriate Zeiss units with stylish cut-glass lenses.
The result, concluded Octane magazine, is a stunningly handsome car of near-perfect proportions.