A Ford sets record at Pebble Beach auction; a Mercedes falls short

A prized 1936 Mercedes-Benz 540K Special Roadster, one of a handful of such cars by the German automaker left from prewar Nazi Germany, was sold Sunday for $11.77 million at an auction in Pebble Beach, Calif.

However, vintage car history was made Friday when a 1968 Ford GT40 was sold for $11 million, making it the most expensive American car ever sold at auction.

The Ford was sold by RM Auctions on Friday night, but the real star of the weekend’s 2012 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance auto show and auction failed to meet expectations.

Santa Monica auctioneer Gooding & Co.'s highly anticipated sale of the Mercedes failed to break the world record auction price set last year when the auction house sold a 1957 Ferrari Testarossa for $16.4 million at the company’s 2011 Pebble Beach auction.

Meanwhile, like many of the cars at the auction, the record-setting Ford GT40 also has somewhat of an intriguing back story.

Not only was it an accomplished racer and exceptionally rare (one of only two surviving lightweight production GT40s), but the car was also used as a camera car by Steve McQueen for his 1971 film “Le Mans,” removing the entire roof section to do so.

McQueen wanted scenes to be filmed at actual race speed the race cars were driving. This GT40 served that need. Later, the car was sold, and a replacement roof was added.

The Concours d’Elegance car show each year draws thousands of the world’s wealthiest car enthusiasts, owners and collectors to Pebble Beach. Several major car auctions occur during the weekend, as well as races of classic sports cars, road rallies and new product launches from the likes of Ferrari and Aston Martin.

Sunday’s Mercedes bidding drew a capacity crowd to Gooding & Co.'s tent and the audience let out a cheer as the car was driven onto the auction stage. Bidding started at $8 million, but quickly slowed once it reached $10.6 million.

The final price was $10.7 million, and the buyer will pay the additional 10% premium that all U.S. auction houses charge on top of the car’s sales price.

Despite being less sought after than postwar cars, Mercedes-Benz 540K Roadsters are exceptionally rare and the handful that exist are prized by collectors. The one sold Sunday is widely considered the finest example in existence and had only two previous owners. The fascinating back story of the car’s first owner, a Prussian baroness, helped pique interest in the roadster.

Gisela von Krieger, who moved in high social circles in the years preceding World War II, owned the car for more than 50 years. After emigrating to the U.S. with her family after the war, Von Krieger drove the car in New York and Connecticut.

When her brother fell ill in 1958, the pair moved back to Switzerland, where she stayed after his death. The car sat in storage in Connecticut until her own death in 1989. It then fell into a protracted legal battle for ownership because the reclusive baroness died without a will. It was eventually sold to Lee Herrington of New Hampshire, who decided to sell the car this year to focus on his Ferrari collection.

In another auction highlight, Gooding & Co. on Saturday sold Jay Leno’s Fiat 500 Prima Edizione for an eyepopping $385,000, despite a presale estimate of $25,000 and $35,000.

All proceeds from the sale will go to the Fisher House Foundation, a nonprofit that provides services and support to the families of wounded American soldiers.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Army Gen. Raymond Odierno joined Leno on stage for the sale for that auction. In addition to the car’s price, charitable contributions from those at the event brought the total for the foundation to $600,000.