When Gisela von Krieger died in 1989, the legal team sorting out her estate found a car hidden in a Connecticut barn.
Untouched for three decades, the vehicle was an automotive time capsule. Old maps of New York and Connecticut filled the door pockets. A woman’s driving glove rested in the glove box. Pink lipstick-stained cigarette butts sat in the ashtray.
This wasn’t any old car, though. It was a 1936 Mercedes-Benz 540K Special Roadster, one of perhaps a dozen left in the world, representing the height of prewar German automotive engineering. “Every little detail was over-engineered” to create “a tour de force of technology and quality,” said McKeel Hagerty, who heads a company that insures classic and rare cars.
Von Krieger’s brother Henning originally paid about $7,000 for the Mercedes. This Sunday, it’s likely to fetch at least $10 million and could break the $16.4-million record for any auto sold at auction when it’s put up for bid at the splashy Gooding & Co. auction that follows the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance car show. The vehicle is owned by New Hampshire businessman Lee Herrington, who made his money through catalog sales of preppy clothing, shoes and gadgets.
How it got to the auction is the story of a German aristocrat who defied the Nazis and saved a glossy black Mercedes-Benz two-seater that today is rarer than a Stradivarius violin. Experts have dubbed it the automotive equivalent of a coveted Picasso.
“It is one of those cars that exemplify everything that is desirable about a classic automobile,” said Leslie Kendall, curator of the Petersen Automotive Museum. “It is gorgeous, it is powerful, it is rare and it was expensive.”
Known as the Von Krieger Special Roadster, it was the favorite ride of Baroness Gisela von Krieger, a member of the Prussian nobility. She had a prewar romantic dalliance with a mysterious Jewish Englishman and, when the war started, refused orders from the Third Reich to return home from France.
Instead, Von Krieger and her mother fled to Switzerland. But the prized Mercedes was stuck at the Daimler-Benz plant in Germany where it was undergoing repairs after an accident. The baroness settled the bill and had the automaker ship the car by rail to Switzerland.
Von Krieger, who dressed in Chanel, lived an aristocratic lifestyle with her brother Henning and divorced mother, Josephine, while living in Paris in the 1930s, said George Maley, an auto collector and historian. Fast and expensive cars were a big part of that.
Maley met the baroness several times in Switzerland in the late 1970s and early ‘80s after hiring private detectives on two continents to find her. He had heard tales of her exceptional Mercedes, rumored to be housed at a Connecticut inn. Maley kept the secret from other collectors to block rivals from trying to buy the vehicle.
But he quickly learned that Von Krieger would not part with the beloved car even though there was little chance she would ever see it again.
At more than 17 feet long and 6 feet wide, the roadster is roughly the dimensions of a new Chevrolet Tahoe sport utility vehicle. The front is highlighted by a split grille offset by a pair of large round headlights that top a thin, polished chrome bumper. The long, glossy black hood hides an inline, supercharged eight-cylinder engine.
The car oozes elegance. The interior is brown leather, wood and chrome. Fenders cover the front wheels and then undulate downward under the doors to serve as a footstep. The car’s lines then curve upward over the rear wheels and finish in a wide, low tail. A chromed Mercedes star ornament rises from the top of the hood. A tiny Von Krieger family crest is painted on the driver’s door.
Maley said Von Krieger refused to sell the car because it was her last link to a carefree era when she socialized with European royalty and film stars.
Today’s modern royalty — wealthy entrepreneurs, celebrities and racing legends — will see the Mercedes at the Pebble Beach auction managed by Gooding & Co. of Santa Monica on Sunday. Herrington, the car’s owner, is selling the roadster to focus on his Ferrari collection. What he paid for the Mercedes was never made public. He did not return calls seeking comment.
First held in 1950, theConcours d’Elegancehas grown into what many now consider the most prestigious car show in the world, where luxury brands show off their new models, enthusiasts race vintage cars, and the rich and famous ogle one another’s fancy rides. The festival includes collector car auctions by Gooding and rival Canadian firm RM Auctions.
The highlight is Sunday, when more than 15,000 spectators wander along the course at Pebble Beach Golf Links, viewing more than 200 entries in a judged collector vehicle show that includes the world’s rarest cars and motorcycles.
The day concludes with one overall winner chosen from the class winners and given the prestigious Best of Show award.
“You have to be a millionaire to be in the game,” said “Tonight Show” host and avid car collector Jay Leno, who plans to attend the Pebble Beach event this weekend.
Only the best cars make it to the Concours lawn for judging. At the auctions, “people are bidding $4-, $5- and $6 million for these cars,” Leno said. “It is pretty crazy — millionaires against billionaires.”
He said the Von Krieger Mercedes represents the “best of the best,” but he won’t bid on Nazi-era German cars.
Indeed, a June 1936 letter from Daimler-Benz confirming the car’s delivery concludes with a “Heil Hitler!” salutation. The stationery has the Mercedes star in red and black to reflect the colors of the Third Reich.
Whoever buys the car will get a file of documents, a log book of service appointments as well as the maps, the glove and the lipstick-stained cigarette butts, said David Brynan, a Gooding vehicle specialist.
No doubt there will be plenty of bidders.
“This is arguably the best [540K] ever built,” said Hagerty, the rare-car insurer.
While the vehicle’s dramatic back story is riveting, Hagerty said, classic car collectors are obsessed with a seemingly arcane detail: that the roadster’s engine and chassis numbers match. That’s extremely rare in prewar-era Mercedes because the finicky supercharged engines often needed to be replaced, sometimes more than once.
The Mercedes came into the Von Krieger family when the baroness was 23 years old and World War II was rapidly approaching. Maley said this was about the time that the baroness’ love affair with the unnamed Englishmen ended. He surmised it was a combination of Von Krieger’s indecisiveness, pressure from her mother and the political awkwardness of a German noblewoman being romantically involved with a potential enemy who was also of Jewish descent.
After the war, the family and the car moved to the U.S., where Von Krieger obtained citizenship by claiming that she was stateless. She drove the vehicle in New York and had it serviced in Manhattan before moving to Greenwich, Conn.
The family moved back to Switzerland in 1958 so that her brother Henning, who became ill, could be treated by doctors there. She stored the roadster in a barn at the Homestead Inn, in Greenwich, and paid $8.70 a year for $1,500 of insurance. Henning died a year later, and Von Krieger never returned to the U.S. The car sat untouched for years, growing ever more valuable as vintage cars became collectibles.
Von Krieger died at age 75 without a will. Her estate — which also included Cartier diamonds and other jewelry as well as the Mercedes — was tied up in litigation until 1994. The vehicle was eventually sold by heirs for an undisclosed sum, ultimately finding its way to its current owner, Herrington.
At last year’s Pebble Beach auction, Gooding set a record by selling a 1957 Ferrari 250 Testa Rossa for $16.4 million. Some think the Mercedes will top that.
“If there is a car out there that would break a record for sale price, this is the one,” said the Petersen museum’s Kendall.
Mercedes 540Ks have a “mystique” just from their elegance, power and design, Kendall said, but this roadster also “has this connection to this dashing figure of society in the 1930s. She was this pretty noblewoman and very glamorous. This car is just everything.”