Mercedes-Benz's Legendary S-Type
The "threatening high-pitched whine" of the iconic supercharged Mercedes-Benz cars of the interwar years had first been heard high in the skies over the Western Front during the Great War, when Mercedes had learned how to supercharge their aero-engines for operation at high altitudes. With the war at an end, the company applied the lessons learned in the air to increasing the performance of their sports cars, a process that led to the creation of the famed "S" Series by the company's new chief designer Ferdinand Porsche.
The S-Type was introduced as a 6.8-liter fast tourer in 1927 and, like all pre-World War Two supercharged Mercedes-Benz cars, it employed an "on demand" Roots-type supercharger that only came into operation when the throttle pedal was fully depressed, boosting power output from 140 to 200 brake horsepower for a few glorious seconds. It was a car that excelled in endurance racing and hillclimbs: for instance, the great Rudolf Caracciola enjoyed many successes at the wheel of an early "S", winning his class in the opening meeting at the Nürburgring in June 1927 and setting "sensational times" at that year's Baden-Baden Automobile Tournament. In the United States, Ralph de Palma drove a Mercedes S to victory in the 15- and 30- mile races at Atlantic City, averaging 128.5kmh (80mph).
Total output of the S-Type was approximately 170 cars in four series between 1927-30; the 7.1-liter "SS" version of 1927-34 added a further 173 examples, while the short wheelbase "SSK" and "SSKL" variants amounted to some 45 and 7 units respectively: these were exclusive cars for rich sporting enthusiasts, among them Barney Oldfield, Al Jolson, André Dubonnet and Harold Vanderbilt.
The list included some of the great British sporting motorists of the interwar years, of whom perhaps the most dedicated were the sons of the famous novelist Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (who himself owned an S-Series Mercedes-Benz). Between them, Denis Conan Doyle and his elder brother Adrian ran a stable of four S-series Mercedes-Benz cars, which they actively campaigned in sporting events, such as the Skegness Sand races of 1936 where the two brothers were entered in similar S-series sports tourers by Denis's wife, the glamorous Princess Nina Mdivani.
Other high-profile owners included titled racing driver the 5th Earl Howe, whose racing S-Type tourer was fitted with a special lightweight touring body built by Royal coachbuilders Barker and framed in Birmabright light alloy rather than timber. Though Lord Howe scion of a famous British naval family did not take up racing seriously until he was 44 years old, he became one of Britain's best known drivers.
Speed king Sir Malcolm Campbell, many times holder of the land speed record, was another notable S-Type owner, as was former "Bentley Boy" Tom Thistlethwayte, who set fastest lap in the 1928 Ulster TT in his S-Type. Yet another S-Type enthusiast was wealthy English sportswoman the Honorable Dorothy Paget, daughter of the Earl of Queenborough and American heiress Pauline Payne Whitney, famed as the a successful racehorse owner and the sponsor of the Blower Bentley race team. She owned several blown "S" series Mercedes-Benz, entering two of them for the 1930 Shelsley Walsh hillclimb, to be driven by herself and Brooklands ace Jack Dunfee; reputedly the Hon Dorothy managed to "wrong-slot" and left the startline at full boost in reverse!
Mercedes-Benz have confirmed that chassis 36257 left their factory on April 11, 1930 wearing factory sports tourer coachwork and was sold new to the U.K. It was supplied to one of the UK Agents, British Motors Ltd. of London, who sold it to a member of the Bird Family of the 'Bird's Custard' fame. Bird's Custard was a successful food producer, whose success was largely founded on the manufacture of a simple instant dried custard powder mixture, which Alfred Bird had invented in 1837 as an alternative to egg-based custard, his wife being allergic to eggs. Bird's Custard, is still a household name in the UK today, while the brand itself is the property of Kraft Foods. His son, Alfred Bird was one of a number of pioneering automobile enthusiasts in the family, he was founder member of the Royal Automobile Club and founder of The Midland Automobile Club in 1901, with Herbert Austin, J.D. Siddeley, George, Fred and Frank Lanchester while one of his sons, Christopher Bird campaigned a 60hp Napier and partnered Louis Coatalen on a specially built Sunbeam racer at Shelsley Walsh.
The listing for the ownership of this car is simply Sir Alfred Bird which given that the company name was Alfred Bird & Sons and that Alfred himself had died in 1922, is assumed to be one of his four sons. The handful of successive owners, before the current owner's brother are recorded by the British Mercedes-Benz Owner's Club registrar Ronald Johnson. They were:
Edward Mayer, a serial Mercedes owner, who it is said owned more than 60 pre-war Mercedes in his life, it was he who purchased the car in 1938 from the Bird Family
Mr. Rymer of Sussex, U.K. who owned the car between 1940 and 1946
F.A. Roberts of London from 1946-1954
Throughout this time the car remained in its original sports tourer form. It was advertised for sale twice in 1941 in Hove, U.K. by Mr. Rymer - one advert lists the car as 'Supercharged Mercedes-Benz Type S.S. Short 4-seater, magnificently maintained in its original brand new condition, finished in deep red and black, outside exhausts etc. 120mph performance, 70 on second gear, 60mph at 1,500 revolutions per minute, 12 miles per gallon; there is definitely no more superb automobile in this country'! Another listed it as: 'striking Supercharged 1930 Mercedes-Benz S.S. 38-250 Sports 4-seater, red, 120mph, immaculate, modern appearance, mechanically perfect, late property of a millionaire and used in films'
At some point around 1952, while with F.A. Roberts the car's top was re-worked from its standard lightweight form, to a more rigid structured drophead coupe top. From inspection today, it seems likely that much of the chrome metal top bows were incorporated into this top, but that it gained enclosed fabric panels and 'pram irons'. Fortunately this seems to have been the sum total of the work and the top was engineered to meet up with the original beautifully crafted windshield pieces. This modest alteration is perhaps easiest understood by the chain of photos that exist from the 1930s, 40s and 50s and which are illustrated on these pages.
magazine in March 1955, one of London's top car dealers of the time, Jack Bond listed that he was 'negotiating for the purchase of the following immaculate carriages' these included this Mercedes-Benz Drophead Coupe 38/250, which was recorded as having just been repainted in Ivory and all parts re-chromed. The car is listed in his ads for May and August that year. It was around this time that the late owner's brother happened to walk through Jack Bond's Vintage Autos Showroom in Tooting, London. A handwritten note in the car's extensive history file can be presumed to have been turned into a letter to Jack Bond on his return to America. It reads 'Although I was rather pressed for time while looking the car over, I believe that it is what I want and wish to make arrangements to purchase it and ship it to the States'. It was purchased on August 20, 1955 for GBP485.
The car was duly shipped to Charlottesville, Virginia and became the owner's daily transport while he studied at the University of Virgina. It passed to his brother in the late 1950s and remained with him until his death last year. The 'SS' was regularly used in the early days, every journey being noted as well as its maintenance, interestingly this included being sent to Mercedes specialists Zumbach Motors in New York for an engine rebuild. Some time in the 1970s the car was laid up until the mid-1990s when the owner decided to cosmetically refurbish the car and to use it once again. Frank Garnett of Newport News, Virgina was initially entrusted with the work, which was the result of diligent correspondence with known authorities on the marque and the S/SS models. During the refurbishment it was found that the car was red originally and it was chosen to return it to this color scheme, the top was left in its current configuration. Since that time its use has been relatively modest.
The car was discovered by Bonhams in South Carolina last year. In preparation for its sale the 'SS' has been lightly re-commissioned, with the fuel system thoroughly cleaned, cooling system flushed and fluids renewed etc. This proved to be a straightforward process and revealed the engine to be running very smoothly and the car driving well generally, with positive road handling and good power. Closer inspection of the car during this work, has allowed Bonhams to draw the conclusion that the car's 'rebuilds' over the years have amounted predominantly to its engine rebuild and systematic cosmetic refurbishment, rather than full restoration. Fortunately this has ensured that the car is highly original and unspoiled, even details such as the metal valances and inner fender linings appear to be the originals, while naturally the principal mechanical aspect has matched numbers as it left the factory.
The mid-1990s cosmetic work has aged a little, there is light damage to the rear passenger side fender, and the door shut lines have some paint loss. The chrome is very good order and despite statements that it has been redone, does appear to be original also. Beneath the hood the engine presentation reflects its age and use. The interior leather is in good order as is the top. While there were various parts, including original wiring and some ancillaries removed during its rebuild these were retained and remain with the car.
Mercedes S, SS and SSK automobiles rarely arrive on the market, being one of a handful of 'upper crust' cars that were prized from day one, their advanced performance remained competitive long beyond their expected lifetime and they tended to be retained by their original owners for many years. With a handful of owners from new, 36257 offers an wonderful prospect for its next custodian, with light attention it would make a fine touring car. Or perhaps it could form the basis for a concours level refurbishment, its long, low lines being one of the most elegant factory bodies of its generation, which would lend itself well to such competition.
Its potential on the road, is perhaps best summed up by a Motor Sport
journalist when reviewing the model in period: 'Words fail me, this is the most amazing motor car it has ever been our fortune to drive'
This is an exceptional automobile, built by the luxury car builder of its day and offered for the first time publicly since.