The 1930s were a tumultuous time for many of the world’s premier automakers; as a crippling economic depression loomed over much of the global economy, Packard, Cadillac, Rolls-Royce, Hispano, and many others continued rolling out increasingly glamorous, sophisticated, and expensive automobiles. Mercedes-Benz carried the pride of Germany with their magnificent eight-cylinder supercharged models, starting with the 380 of 1933. Nearly as soon as the 380 hit the market, engineers in Stuttgart began developing its replacement, the mighty 5-liter, 160-horsepower 500 K. The ultimate evolution of the series arrived in late 1936 with the 180-horsepower, 5.4-liter 540 K. The 500 K and 540 K are among the most coveted of all 30’s motor cars, offering breathtaking performance, exquisite quality, and impeccable style in abundance.
Customer demand for Mercedes’ flagship was sufficient enough to see the production of 342 500 K chassis and another 419 540 Ks. The vast majority of these cars were bodied at the factory’s own Sindelfingen body works, a facility renowned for impeccable build quality and excellence in design. Even after more than 85 years, these cars remain among the most coveted collectible automobiles.
There was no definitive point when the 500 K ended, and the 540 K began as one model gradually evolved into the next. The first thirteen 5.4-liter cars (from chassis 130901) were technically still 500 Ks, and many late 500s had visual and technical features that were standard on the 540. According to comprehensive research compiled by Sierakowski Classic Car Advisors, our featured example, chassis 130885, is one such “transition model” 500 K with the 5.0-liter engine and 540-style details. Visual cues include hood grilles in place of the earlier louvers, two-piece bumpers with wide rubber strips, bright trim pieces fitted to the lower front fender skirts, and painted metal spare tire covers.
Aside from its appealing interim specification, chassis number 130885 is particularly intriguing as it is one of just a handful of these cars delivered new to the United States. The overwhelming majority of 500/540 Ks were sold new in Europe, especially with home-market examples, many can possess clouded narratives during the war. In the case of 130885, the history is exceptionally well-documented, back to factory build records. The Mercedes-Benz Zertifikat and works commission papers show this car left the factory in left-hand drive, finished in black, and fitted with Sindelfingen’s handsome “Cabriolet C” body style – typically referred to as a “convertible Victoria” in American parlance. The open four-seater design features blind quarters in the soft top, exposed landau irons, and a taut, close-coupled body that maintains the elegant, subtly sporting proportions for which these cars are so widely adored. Of the 301 Sindelfingen-bodied 500 Ks, about 90 wore the Cabriolet C body, and it is estimated that approximately 20 survive today.
Chassis 130885 arrived in the USA in May 1936 via the official distributor, Mitropa Motors, in New York, New York. A sales order dated June 25, 1936, lists the buyer as Mr. V.H. Borsodi, an oilman from Houston, Texas. The sales price is listed as $9,800, with a trade-in allowance of $4,000 for a 12-cylinder Packard LeBaron Speedster! Mr. Borsodi likely bought the car for his son, Victor H. Borsodi, Jr., who resided in New York at the time. By 1939, Victor Jr. married and moved to Houston to work at his father’s oil company, leaving the Mercedes-Benz behind in New York City. Copies of period advertisements show the car was likely consigned with high-end car dealers L.F. Jacod & Co., which described it as black with a red interior and in “equal to new” condition.
While the war years typically cloud the histories of many similar Mercedes, we know that 130885 was in California in 1944, where it (ironically) made a brief cameo in the Hollywood propaganda film Enemy of Women. A still from that film shows the car’s 540 K style hood grilles, fender strips, and covered side mounts, and that someone added American-style bumpers and fog lights. In the late 1940s, the 500 K was advertised for rent by Joe Reindl, a well-known Mercedes-Benz mechanic in Los Angeles who supplied cars to the movie studios. Several photos from the late 1940s and into the early 1950s reveal the 500 K was kept in excellent condition, with minimal alterations to its original specification. By 1951, it was in the hands of an enthusiast, who displayed the car in various concours d’elegance events.
Documents show that William and Frances Cockrane of San Diego, California owned 130885 from the early 1960s through the early 1980s and that by 1984 it was in the care of Jack Rowe of Denver, Colorado. A photo dated 1984 shows it still in its black over red livery and essentially unchanged since the 1960s. Between 1986 and 1988, Mr. Rowe undertook an exhaustive body-off restoration, bringing the car to concours-quality standards. In 1992, Rowe sold the Mercedes to the Blackhawk Collection in Danville, California, who, in turn, sold it to Mr. Alphonse SanClemente of Shrewsbury, Massachusetts, in 2001. The SanClemente family were no strangers to caring for a supercharged Mercedes-Benz, as Al’s father owned a 540 K for more than 30 years, putting 130885 in excellent company in Al’s impressive collection of significant automobiles. Alphonse expected the most from his cars, and he continually improved the restoration of the 500 K to ensure it performed at its peak – with service notes revealing how he demanded it to be smooth and refined at 65+ mph. Photos on file document much of SanClemente’s work, including fitting a new top, repainting the wings and running boards, and extensive mechanical work totaling $300,000. Al showed the car extensively in Classic Car Club of America events, earning 1st Place, Primary Division in 2004, with 98.5 points, and then earning 1st Place Senior Division in 2008 with a 99.5 point score.
The most recent owner acquired this 500 K in 2019, adding it to his extensive collection of pre-war automobiles and maintaining it in superb order. It remains a splendid machine, with exquisite paintwork and detailing that belies the age of the initial restoration. The aubergine paintwork is in excellent order, accented with gorgeous brightwork and trim. The chrome wire wheels are shod with appropriately sporty black wall Michelin tires, and the side-mount spares wear the correct body-color metal covers. The black canvas top was fitted during Al SanClemente’s ownership and is pristine. Tan leather upholstery has taken on a slight character from use while remaining supple and well-presented. Other cockpit details include exquisite woodwork, fully restored VDO gauges – including the speedometer in miles – and a breathtaking Mother of Pearl instrument panel.
With desirable attributes including left-hand drive, US history from new, and unique factory specification, the availability of this outstanding example represents an unrepeatable opportunity, even in the rarified world of Kompressor Mercedes-Benz.
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