1936 Mercedes-Benz 500K Sports Phaeton
Chassis no. 209421
Engine no. 123724
5,018cc OHV Supercharged Inline 8-Cylinder Engine
100bhp or 160bhp with Supercharger Engaged
4-Speed Manual Transmission
Independent Front Suspension - Rear Swing Axles
4-Wheel Servo-Assisted Hydraulic Drum Brakes
*Rare derivative of Sports coachwork on the 500K chassis
*Offered from the Estate of Ralph W.E. Cox Jr.
*In the present family ownership since 1951, more than 60 years
*Long-term museum exhibit
*Sympathetic restoration during the 1990s
The Mercedes-Benz 500K
The sensation of the 1934 Berlin Auto Show, Mercedes-Benz's legendary 500K supercar cost a small fortune when new and today commands a king's ransom, such is its rarity. The 1930s were a period of unprecedented innovations in motorcar styling, of which the sublime 500K represented the very pinnacle of excellence. Its timeless appeal endures to this day.
The 500K, which boasted an ingenious swing-axle independent rear suspension layout, was created by Hans Nibel who, having started with Benz in the early years of the 20th Century, succeeded Marius Barbarou as chief engineer in 1904 and designed (and raced) the huge Benz cars of the period, culminating in the 200hp 'Blitzen' Benz. After the merger with Mercedes, he replaced Ferdinand Porsche and created the most sophisticated chassis of their day for road and track, including the first of the 'Silver Arrow' racers. The supercharged road-going Mercedes of the 1930s are a wonderful tribute to his engineering skills.
Together with its successor, the 540K, the magnificent Mercedes-Benz 500K was arguably the most noteworthy production model offered by the Stuttgart firm during the 1930s. The 500K was powered by a 5,018cc supercharged straight-eight engine that featured the company's famous Roots-type supercharger system in which pressing the accelerator pedal to the end of its travel would simultaneously engage the compressor and close off the alternative atmospheric intake to the carburetor. This system had been thoroughly proven on the preceding series of Dr. Porsche-conceived S-Type cars, and in effect the 500/540K was the last supercharged production Mercedes until relatively recent times.
Beneath its seemingly endless bonnet, the 500K's straight-eight engine developed 100bhp un-supercharged or 160bhp with the compressor engaged. The gearbox was a four-speed with overdrive top ratio. With the supercharger engaged, the 500K had a top speed approaching 110mph (177km/h) matched by servo-assisted hydraulic braking. Its performance potential was such that Mercedes-Benz in the UK retained racing driver Goffredo 'Freddy' Zehender as technical adviser and demonstration driver, since the supercharged Mercedes was one of the few genuine 100mph road cars available in the 1930s.
Although the 500K/540K chassis attracted the attention of many of the better quality bespoke coachbuilders of the day, the company's own Sindelfingen coachwork left little room for improvement.
The cabriolet came in a variety of styles. This example has the Cabriolet A option with two-door, left-hand drive coachwork and is outstandingly handsome, boasting wire wheels, twin boot-mounted spares, exposed landau irons, twin horns and a center spotlight. The work of the gifted Hermann Ahrens, design chief at Mercedes-Benz's in-house Sindelfingen coachworks, the Cabriolet A offered two-seater accommodation allied to breathtaking performance. After testing a 500K Cabriolet in 1936, The Autocar declared: "This is a master car, for the very few. The sheer insolence of its great power affords an experience on its own."
The manufacturing record of the 500K reveals its exclusive nature: 105 were produced in 1934, 190 in 1935 and 59 in 1936. In recent years, the rarity, style and performance of these big supercharged Mercedes have made them one of the most sought-after of all classic cars on the few occasions they have come on the open market.
The Motorcar Offered
According to its data tag, Mercedes-Benz order number 209421 was delivered with engine number 123724, which it retains to this day. It is thought to have been equipped as new with the 'Tourenwagen' 2-door coachwork it still wears, a design which would have cost its first owner some 22,000 Reichsmarks. This style owes much to the earlier Sindelfingen bodies that can be found on six-cylinder supercharged cars, being more lithe, vintage, open and sporting, than the better known series of Cabriolets. At the time of cataloging, the early history of the car was not documented, until it was discovered by American aviator and car enthusiast Dr. Ralph W.E. Cox, Jr. while on his honeymoon.
Cox was a true pioneer. Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, he graduated as a Doctor of Dental Surgery from Pittsburgh University in 1937. But once this was achieved, he felt he'd backstopped a career in case his real desire fell foul and chose to pursue his real passion of aviation. He tried to follow his brother into the Army Air Corps but was unsuccessful, and so he sneaked in the 'back door' by joining the Navy instead. This would lead him to a colorful career-long association with the air industry. It would start with American Export Airlines, then as the war ended and ex-military pilots were encouraged to use their talents to start their own independent airlines, he purchased a Douglas DC-3 with a friend and began flying the Eastern Seaboard.
At first they based themselves at McArthur Airport on Long Island, and then Laurenburg, North Carolina, as it was a convenient stopping point on South American runs. But when traffic dried up, they took the advice of one of their mechanics who was familiar with the former Naval Air Station at Cape May Country Airport, New Jersey and said it was empty and would be a good base for them. After a careful check out, in the summer of 1949, they founded U.S. Overseas Airlines at the location which would become Dr. Cox's business and home base.
It is certain that the next decade proved to be the most fun and successful period in his life as the business developed into a major passenger and commercial aviation concern flying all over the country and further afield to Europe, South America and beyond. Throughout this period they ingeniously flew and provided service for their clients, all the while battling the rather confusing red tape that the Civil Aviation Board implemented. At their peak some 18 planes were flying under the banner of US Overseas Airlines, but by 1964, Cox was forced into bankruptcy.
From the early 1950s, Cox also began to collect vintage cars. He had a particular interest in Model T Fords among other things. Frequently his travels would take him into Europe, and he chose to go there on his honeymoon; it was there on a sales lot in Munich in 1951 that he found the 500K. After befriending a local, he was able to negotiate with its owner, a Mr. Unholzer, and secure its purchase. Dr. Cox drove the Mercedes up to Paris, then to the port at Le Havre from where it was shipped to New York and eventually home to New Jersey.
The car would reside for many years in the Frontier Village Museum at the Cape May County Airport, and was later restored in-house in the mid-1990s, by Cox's son in law. Its restoration was clearly sympathetically carried out, and to judge from its condition today may not even have included replacement of the upholstery, as it appears to be correct and original. Later the car was transferred to the Museum of Automobiles at Petit Jean Mountain, near Morrilton, Arkansas, where it has resided on public display for the last few years.
Far less numerous in production than the more commonly found series of Cabriolets, just a handful of Tourenwagens survive today. A rare and supremely elegant touring car, it is at the top of pre-war European styling and performance, and has a certain cache that will distinguish its occupants wherever it travels.
- Please note that both the chassis and engine numbers for this vehicle are 123724.