Awesome might seem an overwrought descriptive for the two Best In Show winners at the recent Concours d’Elegance of America, the “domestic” 1933 Duesenberg SJ Riviera Phaeton and the “foreign” 1938 Mercedes-Benz 540K Autobahn Kurier, but the alternatives would have been dazzling, stupefying or flabbergasting, tailing off to just plain wonderful and impressive.
These two supercharged “supercars” from opposite ends of the 1930s but similar in terms of glamour, rarity and performance topped a field of 331 entries in the first Concours d’Elegance of America in Plymouth, Michigan, the new venue for the famed Meadow Brook Concours held in Rochester, Michigan, for the past 32 years.
The Duesenberg was one of the finest creations of brothers Fred and Augie Duesenberg of Iowa, self-taught tinkerers-turned-engineers who set up shop to build racers in 1913 and in 1914 saw one of their cars finish 10th in the Indy 500 (they won in 1924, 1925 and 1927).
The brothers were side-tracked into aero and marine engines during the First World War, but were building racing models again soon after, including the car that won the French Grand Prix in 1921, by which time they were also building high-tech, high-spec passenger cars. But despite buyers such as Tom Mix and Rudolf Valentino, the company didn’t fare well and was bought out by entrepreneurial E.L. Cord in 1926, mainly for the Duesenbergs’ name and talents.
He tasked the brothers with building a luxury car to rival Europe’s finest and what he got in 1928 was the superb twin-cam, four-valve-per-cylinder, 420-cubic- inch, straight-eight-engined and prodigiously powerful for the time 265-hp Model J. The chassis sold for about $8,500 and buyers could more than double that by the time custom coachbuilt bodywork was fitted. Supercharged in 1932, they became SJs, of which just 36 were built. Only about 500 Model J and SJs had been made when production ended in 1937.
It was this 1933 SJ that Jacob Schick – inventor of the clip-fed cartridge-style Schick Razor and the first electric “dry razor” – purchased for $9,500 in 1934, one of only three bodied (for about $8,000) by coachbuilder Brunn & Company in unique Riviera Phaeton style. The entire convertible top “disappeared” into a hidden rear compartment. With its “blower” howling at 24,000 rpm the massive Duesy – you could garage a Smart car under the hood – could reportedly hit 104 mph in second and 130 mph in top gear.
The show winner went through a succession of owners before ending up in the early 1950s in the hands of an enthusiastic Harry Schultzinger who “hot-rodded” it with go-fast bits – including five-speed truck transmission – blew it up and then made it go even faster, a reputed 140 mph, and drove it hard until his death.
It has since changed owners a number of times and undergone no less than three restorations, the last bringing it to its current award-winning state of perfection. It was purchased by current owner John D. Groendyke for just under $1.5-million last year.
The 1938 Mercedes-Benz 540K Autobahn Kurier, the Best in Show European car, is only five years younger than the Duesy but with its voluptuously streamlined bodywork looks an age apart.
The “K” stands for “Kompressor” and continued a tradition that began with the Ferdinand Porsche-designed Model K of the mid-1920s and the S, SS, SSK and 150-mph SSKL sports cars that followed until the early 1930s, at which time Mercedes’ focus switched to Grand Prix racing. And its sports cars lost their lean and hungry look, replaced by the 380, then in 1934 the 500K and in 1936 the 540K.
One crusty first-hand observer called the 500K “fat and heavy and vulgarly curvilinear.” And recalls thinking, “that if you draped them with medals, they’d look like dear old Hermann Goering himself. If he’d had wheels.” His view was far from universal, another scribe called them the “the most fabulous automobiles of the age.”
The 5.0-litre 500K and later 540K’s 5.4-litre engine was an overhead valve inline-eight with a “kompressor” engaged by a clutch when the throttle pedal was floored. The 5.4-litre made 115 hp, boosted to 180 hp with supercharger engaged – judicious usage was suggested – and came with a four- or five-speed transmission. The suspension was a sophisticated independent-at-both-ends system and the brakes hydraulic. They weighed a stolid 5,000 pounds and had a top speed of about 170 km/h. In all, 761 500K/540Ks were completed by 1940.
And it appears (it’s a little hazy) only six were the exotically-bodied Autobahn Kuriers. These were hand-crafted in Mercedes’ Sindelfingen coach-building facility, their “stromlinienform” bodywork created to go fast on Germany’s newly developed high-speed highway system. The first of four based on the 500K was apparently seen in 1934 and two were built later around the 540K.
One 540K Autobahn Kurier was reputedly sold to the Shah of Iran and hasn’t been seen since. The second – and seemingly only survivor of the six – went to professor Ignacio Barraquer of Barcelona, Spain, and was delivered to Gibraltar in 1938. He used it to tour North Africa and later Europe, and the car remained in the family until being sold to current owners Arturo and Deborah Keller in 2004. Following its complete restoration, it has won numerous awards.
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