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A 1928 Mercedes-Benz 680S Saoutchik Torpedo took top honours. (Royce Rumsey/Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance)
A 1928 Mercedes-Benz 680S Saoutchik Torpedo took top honours. (Royce Rumsey/Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance)

Classic Cars

1928 Benz wins Best in Show at the 2012 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance Add to ...

A rather sombre grey but exceedingly stylish Mercedes-Benz ordered by the wife of an American high-flier in the uber-exuberant days of the late 1920s emerged from the traditional fireworks smoke and tinsel shower as the Best In Show award winner at this year’s prestigious Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance.

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Hidden by that swirling cloud were the disappointed owners of the other three glittering nominees for that honour, among them a Canadian couple.

The top prize went to a 1928 Mercedes-Benz 680S Saoutchik Torpedo – a special-bodied example of one of the greatest sporting cars from this German marque – owned by a Texas couple, Paul and Judy Andrews.

The nominees, from among the 220 entries from 15 countries that graced the fairways of the Pebble Beach Golf Links in mid-August, included a pair of Duesenberg J models, a 1935 Gurney-Nutting Speedster and a 1931 Duesenberg J Derham Tourster. And the 1933 Alfa-Romeo 6C 1750 Gran Sport Figoni Coupe owned by David and Adele Cohen of West Vancouver, B.C., that had dazzled judges and spectators alike at the Ville d’Est concours in Italy earlier this year to take triple awards, including Best in Show.

This was the 62nd staging of the week-long, world-renowned Pebble Beach extravaganza, which includes historic racing at nearby Laguna Seca, driving tours, shows and exhibitions, major auctions in Monterey (that saw punters pop $260-million for 750 vehicles) and the concours.

The Mercedes-Benz 680S Saoutchik Torpedo that captured the votes of judges responsible for originality and authenticity and those with a broader brief encompassing design, style and elegance, was the seventh Mercedes to win Best in Show at Pebble Beach.

The 680S was the successor to, and an evolution of, the supercharged Model K – claimed to be the fastest touring car in the world – designed by Ferdinand Porsche, then the company’s chief engineer, shortly after Mercedes and Benz merged in 1924.

The 680S appeared in 1927, the number relating to their 6.8-litre inline single-overhead-cam six-cylinder engines, and launched a family of Mercedes sports cars, the SS and SSK and SSKL, that would go on to win fame in races and hill climbs.

The 680S’s big six produced 120 hp when aspirating normally and 180 hp at 3,000 rpm with the supercharger engaged, which made it good for better than 160 km/h. The engine and four-speed gearbox were slotted into a low-slung chassis with solid axles, front and rear and drum brakes.

Its first competitive outing was at the 1,000-kilometre Nurburgring opener in 1927 where, with fast-becoming-legendary Rudolf Caracciola at the wheel, it finished first.

It’s unfortunate that the crowds at Pebble Beach, while getting an eye-full of the S, didn’t get an ear-full. The S’s supercharger blew through its twin carbs, rather than drawing the mixture in as was more common, which resulted in, as one contemporary described – “that beloved, ear-assaulting, scalp-lifting scream” – when the blower was clutched-in. Not something to be indulged in for more than 20 seconds or so at a time to avoid the engine “macerating itself into bits small enough to exit through the exhaust.”

Mercedes says only 146 S types were made and most were bodied in its Sindelfingen factory as open four-seaters. Some, however, left the factory as rolling chassis destined to be fitted with bodywork by the top custom coach builders of the day, including the Pebble Beach winner.

As the story goes, it was originally ordered by a Mrs. Levine of New York City, almost certainly the wife of Charles A. Levine, who’d made a lot of money selling First World War surplus.

Levine was determined to become the first to fly the Atlantic, but was beaten to the punch by Charles Lindbergh in 1927. He did manage to become the first trans-Atlantic passenger, however, while backing an attempt to at least outdistance Lindbergh. He and pilot Clarence Chamberlain made the crossing and actually flew further than Lindbergh, running out of gas not far short of Berlin.

But all this used up a quite bit of Levine’s surplus cash and his personal tank was beginning to run dry.

Mrs. Levine had ordered the S with bodywork from famed Ukrainian-born designer Jacques Saoutchik, who had established his carrosserie in 1906 in Neuilly-sur-Seine, a suburb of Paris. He was noted for the flowing lines of his creations and their beautifully finished interiors.

It was completed late in 1928 and soon arrived in New York looking stunning in gracefully swept-fendered, running-board-less, cut-down wind-screened two-seater Torpedo roadster bodywork, finished in the grey Mrs. Levine likely considered chic.

But by this time, the Levines didn’t want to know about it and it sat in the Mercedes showroom until sold to Frederick Bedford, a director of Standard Oil. He had it re-sprayed in a more cheery light yellow, which apparently appealed to a young lady named Margaret, who became his wife. Bedford died in 1952 and the car was put into storage, until Margaret decided to have it restored in 1980 following her 75th birthday.

The car went on to win awards and spent many years on loan to the Owls Head Museum in Maine before being sold at auction (for $3.6-million) in 2006. It was acquired by its current owners a couple of years ago.

It has since undergone what has to be one of the most painstaking two-year restorations ever undertaken – even the exact position of each upholstery staple was replicated. Apparently the toughest decision made during the process was opting for the original grey paint rather than its previous pretty yellow.

The angst, the no doubt considerable money, the time and energy obviously weren’t misspent as it bedazzled the judges at Pebble Beach.

“It’s probably the most wonderful feeling I’ve had in my life,” said owner Andrews after his win. “It’s the culmination of a lot of hard work by a lot of people. We’re all excited, we’re tickled to death.”

Back in 1928

  • Mickey and Minnie Mouse make their debut in the Disney animated short, Plane Crazy. However, Steamboat Willie is released first later the same year.
  • The summer Olympics are held in Amsterdam and Coca-Cola ships 1,000 cases of its popular pop overseas, fuelling the U.S. team to 56 medals, including 22 golds.
  • Ford introduces its Model A as a successor to the legendary Model T. It, too, proves a hit, with almost five million sold when production ends in 1931.
  • North Americans are listening to Cow Cow Blues by Cow Cow Davenport, Doin’ the Racoon by Ray Klages and Diga Diga Do by Dorothy Fields.

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