My father told me a while ago a short story about a Mercedes-Benz that was found behind a butcher’s shop in the UK. It sounded like an interesting story, so I wanted to find out more details about this car and its story. That is why I am now publishing this story about what I like to call the ‘pearl’, because of its stunning pearl dashboard!
The 500K Spezial Roadster from 1936 is known as one of the most prestigious cars that Mercedes-Benz has ever built. Less than 30 of these great cars were built. But the ‘Spezial Roadster’ which is the subject of this article was not always as liked as it is today, because this car was immured behind walls at a British butcher for 32 years! Unfortunately I have to tell you that this ghost story was just one big delusion, which doesn’t make this story less interesting!
‘The butcher’s car’ became famous in the 1980s, after it had been liberated from its hiding place behind a butcher’s shop in Walsall in north-western Birmingham. It was taken by its new owner to a Christie’s auction at Beaulieu in 1988 where the unrestored roadster – which was complete and in its original barn find condition but also quite neglected – yielded an astonishing record amount of 1,585,000 Pound sterling (3.6 million euros)! At the time it was by far the most expensive Mercedes–Benz that had ever been hammered down and the second most valuable car in the world! Of course it was big news around the globe.
But before its sale at the auction the Mercedes-Benz 500K had been sold to an antiques-dealer for far less money. This didn’t happen as easy as it may sound…
Arthur Dawson, the butcher, absolutely didn’t want to sell his roadster for one reason or another. A friend of his had tried to get the car for several years, but without success. Other people also had tried to grab the car for little money. After numerous failed attempts the man called an antiques-dealer for help. The dealer finally succeeded in convincing the stubborn Dawson to sell the roadster. It seemed that the antiques-dealer knew perfectly well what he was doing and was very much aware of the value of the car. Only a few months later he made what you can call a handsome profit!
Obviously the butcher wasn’t really aware of the value of his 500K! He must have overlooked that some cars had increased tremendously in value by that time, as had happened with the car he had kept in hiding for over 30 years. But let’s dig a bit deeper into the history of the ‘Spezial Roadster’.
It was Friedrich Geiger, a young talented designer, who drew the lines of the Spezial Roadster, supervised by his senior, Hermann Ahrens, who was at that time design chief at Mercedes-Benz. In 1933, Geiger had become part of the Mercedes-Benz ‘Sonderwagen’ department. In the fifties Geiger did another great job by designed the legendary 300SL ‘Gullwing’.
It was the technical director Hans Nibel who developed the advanced chassis for the 500K, beginning with its predecessor, the 380K of 1933. The chassis was very revolutionair, with independent suspension allround, double wishbones at the front and coil springs and hydraulic shock absorbers. All this was to improve the driving experience, but the 380K wasn’t a succes, unlike the 500K which had the same revolutionary chassis. The reason was that the customers were not satisfied with the performance of the 3.8 litre eight-cylinder engine, despite its compressor. After only one year of production Mercedes-Benz replaced the 380K by the 500K, which they proudly presented as their new promising topmodel.
The alluring 500K was by that time one of the more expensive models on the market. Its cost was 28,000 Reichsmark (10,433 in euros), while the price for an average Mercedes-Benz model was around 6,000 RM (2,236 in euros) less. Despite its high price-tag it was selling very well and the 500K was well appreciated by its extremely discerning and wealthy clientele.
The car was also much loved by women, probably because of the combined features of comfort, speed and its most elegant appearance. The roaster attracted quite a large audience among movie stars, royalty, ect., as well as Nazi-officers.
The graceful model that succeeded the 500K, the more powerful 540K, was an equally great success.
The ‘K’ in 500K stands for ‘Kompressor’. The Roots-type compressor is able to increase the power of the 4-litre eight-cylinder in-line engine with more than 50%! It takes the power from 100 hp to a whopping 160 hp (the 540K achieved 180 hp). When accelerating hard, to overtake the much slower DKWs and Opels, the mixture to the compressor engine for a moment was so rich that the car left the slower cars in a screen of black smoke.
For use on the fast ‘Autobahn’ network, which was built during those years, the 500K had a special ’Schnellgang’ or overdrive.
The ‘Spezial Roadster’ was an excellent long-distance car and it loved to cruise on the ‘Autobahn’ with the biggest comfort possible, supported by its excellent chassis. Modern worm-gear made the 500K steer quite easy. Vacuum assisted brakes on all four wheels made the huge car brake very well. The patrol tank housed a gigantic 110 litres, a neccessity to cope with its impressive gasoline consumption of about 1 to 3.3 litres/km!
As far as is known ‘the butcher’s car’ is one of only very few right-hand drive ‘Spezial Roadsters’. The only other right-hand drive ‘Spezial Roadster’ was a showmodel that was shown at the Olympia Motor Show in Londen in 1935. The right-hand drive makes the driving experience even better because of the view on the breath-taking chrome-plated exhaust pipes on the right side of the hood, which is about half the total length of the car.
It might sound like an excessive car, but there is more… a highly detailed dashboard, inlaid with pearl, the highest level of luxury. ‘The butcher’s car’ is also special because it contains all the styling elements possible, i.e. long flowing wings, a long flowing tail, the V-shaped two-piece windshield, the pearl dashboard, etc.
But that is still not all! There is a lot of chrome to be found on this roadster. To name some, the giant headlights with in the middle a smaller fog light and below two huge chrome horns, two spotlights beside the windscreen (with integrated rearview mirrors), etc. Even the cylindrical balancing-weights in the spoked wheels, as well as the mounting-holes for the bumper supports have a chrome-bezel.
But the roadster is not too excessive at all! It is a most elegant and refined piece of craftsmanship.
To return to the true story of the actual ‘butcher’s car’, marine-insurer W.L. Quartermaine from Londen was its first owner. He noticed the show model at the aforementioned Olympia Motor Show. After a short period he sold the 500K again, because he preferred a 12-cylindre Lagonda drophead coupé. After two more owners the ’Spezial Roadster’ was acquired in 1950 by a man called Arthur Lane who sold it a couple of years later to his nephew Arthur Dawson, the butcher from Walsall. But after only two years of usage the butcher left his ‘Spezial Roadster’ behind in his garage and let it sleep for 32 years!
The reason why Dawson locked up this marvelous car after such a short time is still a mystery.
Perhaps it was due to a complicated technical defect or its high gasoline consumption in times of scarcity. Maybe fear of losing patronage because of the wealth emanating from the car or just because of the fact that it was wrong to drive in a ‘symbolic German car’ in the heavily ravaged UK after WW2.
‘The butchers car’, now fully restored, can be admired in the Louwman Museum in The Hague! This could be the final destination of this ‘Spezial Roadster’ (one of the ‘pearls’ of the collection). It was Swedish collector Hans Thulin who spent the 1,585,000 Pound Sterling at the Christie’s auction to acquire the car. He had it restored to absolute perfection in Germany, which of course was very fitting for a ‘symbolic German car’. Then Thulin sold the roadster to a Japanese collector. He showed the ‘Spezial Roadster’ at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance in 1994 and the magnificent restored roadster was appreciated as best in class, not Best of Show.
Unlike the French high-class cars in the previous article about stockcars, the butcher’s 500K ’Spezial Roadster’ has seen a happy end! I enjoyed writing this story very much and once I am going to visit the Louwman Museum, I will look at this 500K knowing what it has been through before it grounded here and of course how special this car is!
Written by Rosemarijn Atalante Veenenbos