The wonder in Michael Plag’s eyes as he cranes his neck and gazes upwards makes him look like an awe-struck tourist trying to come to terms with a first glimpse of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. But the view he’s getting is not of cherubs and chiaroscuro, but of mighty girders and complex castings, of rods and rivets, leaf springs and drive shafts.
Above him, stretched out on a hydraulic lift like a grand and dusty old duchess resting on her chaise longue, is one of the classic-car world’s great rarities: a prewar Mercedes-Benz which has, remarkably, eluded the attentions of restorers.
For Plag, one of the top technicians from the marque’s Classic Centre in Fellbach, Germany, this was a unique opportunity to see an example of a mighty, S Type sports tourer that, patina of age notwithstanding, is as original today as when it was first built almost 85 years ago – a rolling time capsule of authenticity, which is about as significant to the old-car world as are the cave paintings of El Castillo to the history of art.
Introduced in 1926 with a 6.8-litre engine designed by Ferdinand Porsche, the S Type was fitted with a secret weapon – a supercharger (kompressor in German) that was invoked through a complex system of clutches and linkages by flooring the throttle. For a few dizzying seconds, the “blower” boosted the engine’s output from 120 to a claimed 180 brake horsepower, producing a surge of acceleration and a high-pitched whine that a scribe from Motor Sport magazine called “bloodcurdling and diabolic”.
The supercharged S Type was, quite simply, the fastest sports car in the world, and enjoyed almost instant success on the track, screaming to victory in events such as the German Grand Prix (first, second and third in 1927), the arduous Klausen Hill Climb and the Ulster TT. Short-chassis S Types, the SSKs, even held their own at Le Mans against the famous “blower” Bentleys.
This success in competition no doubt inspired the purchase of the one you see here, which was registered for the road in 1928. How To Spend It has been asked not to name the family to which it has belonged ever since, but it can be revealed that the original owner was an English amateur racing driver who, after surviving the trenches of the first world war, carved out a highly successful career in finance.
The majority of the 290 or so S Types built in four series between 1927 and 1932 were clothed by the Mercedes-Benz coachworks in Sindelfingen, but this car was bought as a rolling chassis and finished by the London firm of Cadogan Motors with lightweight, fabric-covered, open tourer bodywork.
The owner, a decidedly low-key individual, requested that most of the car’s brightwork be painted to match the battleship grey of the body. He even asked that the S Type’s signature exhaust pipes – which usually protruded brashly through slots in the bonnet – be discreetly hidden, and that the ostentatious three-pointed star adorning the radiator be substituted for a modest cap surmounted by a tiny brass duck.
There was one added extra, however: a Tapley meter, prominently located at the bottom of the driver’s side windscreen, with which the owner could measure the pull of the engine when the supercharger came on song.
He housed the car at his country home in a specially built garage, but enjoyed it for only a decade before dying at the early age of 47, whereupon it was inherited by his 10-year-old son. The son returned the car to the road in his early 20s, driving it to and from university, even establishing a short-lived record for the fastest run between Oxford and Cambridge.
During the 1950s, however, this titan of the road was put back in the garage where it remained for the best part of 50 years, oiled and wrapped in dust sheets with its original tool kit, spare key, headlamp bulbs, grease guns and tyre levers stored carefully alongside.
The original owner’s grandson takes up the story: “It is something that we grew up with,” he explains. “We would often play in it, pretending we were driving in some great race or going on a continental tour – but really we never left the garage.
“But seven years ago, as a surprise for my now late father’s 75th birthday, I decided to get it out and get it running. It involved creating a decoy car made from cardboard boxes beneath the dust sheets so he wouldn’t realise – he was speechless when it suddenly drew up in front of the house having not seen the light of day for half a century.”
Now, however, the car is to leave the family fold for the first time in its history. On September 15, it will be offered to the highest bidder by auction house Bonhams at its annual Goodwood Revival sale, where it has been conservatively estimated to realise £1.5m (a similar example with less perfect provenance fetched a record £4.1m at Bonhams in 2004).
For his or her money, the buyer will get what is possibly the last, completely original, unrestored, single-family ownership Mercedes-Benz S Type in existence. Yes, the leather is cracked, the varnish on the vast, wooden steering wheel is peeling, the seat backs have faded from navy blue to a soft, regal purple and the carpet has undoubtedly sustained many generations of moths – yet three turns of the starter is usually enough to spark the mighty, six-cylinder engine into life before she settles to an idle that’s as smooth as a velvet collar.
It’s not the easiest car to drive, with its “pre-selector” gearbox, levers to adjust fuel mixture and ignition timing, centre-mounted accelerator and lorry-like steering – but once under way it feels and looks invincible, as ready to cross continents as it is to nip to the shops.
And, God willing, it will still be fast enough to out-run the restorers. Or at least scare them off with its bloodcurdling and diabolic sound.