Lifestyle

1928 Mercedes-Benz S-Type Saoutchik Roadster


The underbidders stopped bidding when they thought the car wasn't selling—bad luck, as it was

The 6.8-liter S-type was produced in four series from 1927 to 1930, with a total output of some 170 cars. This car is from the original 1927-28 series, of which just 26 were built. It was ordered new from Mercedes-Benz Inc. in New York by Mrs. Charles Levine, believed to be the wife of the millionaire Charles A. Levine, backer (and passenger) of aviator Clarence Chamberlain, who flew the Atlantic in 1927 shortly after Lindbergh had made his successful solo crossing.

Mrs. Levine opted not to have the standard factory bodywork on her car, choosing instead a daringly low-slung "Torpedo Roadster" body by Saoutchik of Paris, France's most fashionable coachbuilder. The Mercedes was fitted with one of Jacques Saoutchik's finest creations, whose long bonnet and short rear deck make the most of the dramatic proportions of the chassis. Subtle chrome (actually nickel) spears accent the sweeping curves of the fenders, while a daring break with tradition was the lack of running boards.

Nevertheless, when the Mercedes arrived in New York, Mrs. Levine failed to take delivery, apparently because the style and color of the car did not appeal to her "irascible, pompous, difficult" husband. Whatever the reason, the S-type remained in the New York Mercedes-Benz showroom until an enterprising salesman persuaded an existing Mercedes owner, Frederick Henry Bedford Jr., a director of the Standard Oil Company, to buy the car. It remained with his family until 2006, when it was purchased by the current owner.

Romance was in the air for Frederick Bedford, too: when he drove his S-type to Pittsburgh, he met a young lady named Margaret Stewart at a party at the Rolling Rock Club in Ligonier. She abandoned her date, accepted Frederick Bedford's offer of a ride home in his Mercedes-Benz that evening, and they subsequently married. Perhaps because of its romantic associations, Bedford never sold his Mercedes; he kept it until his untimely death in 1952, after which it was laid up in the family garage.

It remained there for almost 30 years until 1980, when his widow was about to celebrate her 75th birthday. Her granddaughter baked a special cake shaped in the image of the Mercedes, which was delivered along with a poem about the car.

This inspired Margaret Bedford to commission a restoration by Gus and Rich Reuter, who had been maintaining exotic European automobiles since 1929. After two years, the S-type emerged from the Reuter shop, carefully restored in its original livery of cream with dark red frame and suspension, red leather interior, and tan cloth top. The only departures from the original specification were the substitution of leather upholstery for the original reptile skin and the omission of the discs that had covered the original wire wheels.

The SCM Analysis

This car sold at the Bonhams Rétromobile auction in Paris on February 9, 2008, for $3,360,375, including premium, which was less than the $3,300,000-$4,700,000 catalog estimate, before premium.

There's rather more to this sale than meets the eye from the catalog text, so let's do what SCM does best and give you the inside track.

Special coachwork, special buyer

First of all, the catalog rightly states that Jacques Saoutchik was France's most fashionable coachbuilder at the time. Before Paris-based Italians Figoni and Falaschi pooled their talents to produce "Phoney and Flashy" bodies (as rival Brits nicknamed them) in the mid-1930s, Russian-born Saoutchik was probably your man if you wanted rakish individual design to clothe your luxury chassis and had deep enough pockets to match.

Most Mercedes-Benz clients shied away from such flamboyance -- even those bold enough to purchase a 6.7-liter sports car with a six-foot-long hood and chrome exhausts protruding from the side. Nobody is certain how many of these high-performance chassis left Saoutchik's atelier, but estimates range from seven to twelve for the S-type, plus around six of the evolutionary SS model, and it's unlikely that any two cars were identical. Other coachbuilders penned body styles on the chassis, of course, and the factory offered a handsome offener tourenwagen (open tourer), which is popular with collectors, especially if it's one of the most prized lightweight rennsport versions intended for racing.

In short, today as then, there are probably more buyers out there for a factory-bodied open tourer than a special-bodied car, which one might associate more closely with concours d'elegance rather than driving events of the type so popular in Europe (think Mille Miglia, et al). But that shouldn't take away from the fact that a handsome, custom-bodied S-type clothed by one of the finest coachbuilders of the era should, to the right man, be worth more than the equivalent factory-bodied car. The correct Saoutchik name for this body, incidentally, is a Cabriolet d'Avant Garde.

Buyers don't like frequent flyers

Christie's now defunct car department offered this Mercedes as the star lot at its 2006 Monterey sale, where I watched it sell for $3.6 million to a telephone bidder who was shortly afterwards identified as a respected U.S. collector and philanthropist. The catalog description described its availability as a "once in a lifetime opportunity," but unless you're in a particularly hazardous line of work, you probably expected a lifetime to be longer than 18 months.

I have no doubt there is a perfectly good reason why the 2006 buyer decided to resell having put barely a mile on the odometer. From the presale estimate, profit clearly wasn't his motive (I suspect an even bigger purchase was). But a prominent car returning to the market so soon after a high-profile sale is never easy to explain to other buyers and rarely sees the previous price exceeded by much, if at all.

Secondly, and this was very obvious when cars bought at the 2001 Elton John sale were later resold by buyers at far lower prices (despite a rising market), it's one thing for a buyer to proudly announce, "I bought it from the original owner," but it's not quite as exciting when you have to explain "I bought it from the man who bought it from&"

Ideally, this car would be original

In an ideal world, this car never would have been touched and would still be original down to its tired 1928 paintwork and reptile skin upholstery (a Saoutchik favorite -- Greenpeace hadn't yet been founded). But of course, in the flashy 1980s, when the original family decided to freshen up grandfather's old car, tastes in most things were very different from today. The pale yellow livery and red leather with matching wire wheels may seem rather Gatsby-esque, but they do it no favors today and mask the fact that underneath this is a largely untouched car with probably just 31,500 genuine miles.

Although Bonhams published stunning studio shots of the Mercedes in the catalog, one more photo would have been very helpful -- a period shot of it proving to any whispering doubters (and I heard a couple) that the ultra-low windshield of this car was original. I know such a shot exists, as I'm looking at it in Christie's 2006 catalog.

Know your clients

The French like to do things differently. Although the European Union has existed for well over a decade, France did not implement until recently the free trade law that would allow foreign auction houses to do business there; the government was still haggling over compensation terms with French auction houses who saw their centuries-old monopoly under threat from "les Roast Beef."

A hangover from this legislation is that only French-licensed auctioneers who have gone though the national system can wield the gavel in a French saleroom, and this meant that for this event, Parisian newcomers Bonhams found themselves obliged at the last moment to employ a local auctioneer. She was a charming lady with plenty of experience, as it happened, but anyone in the business knows there is no substitute for recognizing your buyers in the room, knowing when to encourage them if a price is low, and above all, making it clear to hesitant bidders that the object of their desire really is selling and they're not just bidding against an over-ambitious reserve.

In this case, I watched as the underbidders, a pair of English-speaking dealers, kept their hands in their pockets thinking that the reserve had not been reached and they could strike a better deal later. Unfortunately for them, the unseen rival bidder was very real indeed, and as madame's gavel sealed the deal, the consensus among many experts present was that this was the buy of the auction.

Okay, so now add the buyer's premium, 5% import taxes into Europe and, if you're a perfectionist (as the new owner is), allow a further $500,000-$1,000,000 for an "as it left the showroom" restoration in the original elephant gray livery, and you won't be left with much change from $5 million. But when the finished car is unveiled at Pebble Beach in 2010, where, to paraphrase Jay Leno, "mere millionaires get a chance to play against billionaires and win," I expect its new owner will be feeling rather smug. Lucky him.

Details

Years Produced: 1927-30

Number Produced: Probably 7-12 (Saoutchik-bodied)

Original List Price: 28,500 Reichsmarks ($6,800) for chassis only

SCM Valuation: $3m-$4m

Tune-up Cost: $6,000 (three days of a good mechanic's time)

Distributor Caps: $25,000 (complete magneto) or $2,000 (remade cap)

Chassis # Location: Front left chassis rail and top of main cross-member (under driver)

Engine # Location: Left-hand engine mount

Club Info: Mercedes-Benz Club of America, 1907 Lelaray Street, Colorado Springs, CO, 80909

Website: click to visit

Alternatives: 1928-30 Bentley Speed Six, 1928-31 Bentley 4-Liter Blower, 1931-34 Alfa Romeo 8C 2300

Investment Grade: A


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