There are times in life when great opportunities grow out of dark situations. This Mercedes-Benz car story is definitely an example proving that observation.
However, before diving into the details, let me dial the wayback machine to the 1970s. I was just a pup, growing up in Southern California with a father who collected cars. My early years set me up for a lifetime of following in my Dad's footsteps.
I still remember when I was about 10 years old, riding shotgun in my father’s 300SL Gullwing. I had to use every bit of self-restraint to not push the little horn button on the passenger side – it would annoy him so. For a time, my mother drove a 190SL, and both my brothers had their turn behind the wheel as they got their driver licenses. As the youngest sibling by a decade, my driving years were still to come, but the images remain vivid in my middle-aged mind.
When my Dad passed away in the mid-1980s, I was just 18. The cars in his collection slowly drifted off to new owners. My eldest brother got the 190SL, and I kept Dad's 356 Porsche. A Packard remained in the family garage while we all grew up and then went off to pursue our individual lives.
The joy of the chase
Since that time, I've spent my life chasing and restoring old cars. The process has kept me close to my father in mind and memory. I’m sure he would have greatly enjoyed my automotive adventures. While I may have never achieved the kind of collection that he did, I have had some very fun machines come through my hands. I have immersed myself in the automotive hobby and collector scene perhaps even deeper than he ever did.
The 300SL had been sold long before his passing, and way before I could ever drive it myself. But I have been a fan of Mercedes-Benz and other German marques since those days.
Flash forward to August of 2021 and I found myself in the height of preparing for Monterey Car Week. My trip was planned to the hour, with one of my vehicles signed up for multiple events. After a year of forced hiatus because of Covid restrictions, I was experiencing a whole new level of exhilaration.
That excitement was crushed just a week before Monterey when Covid again stepped in to ruin the fun. This time it wasn’t the cancellation of an event, it was much closer to home. In fact, it was in my own home. My son fell ill with Covid and then it spread to all of us. And while our symptoms were thankfully mild, it did mean that going to play cars with my friends in Monterey was off the table.
Instead of attending Car Week in person, I watched it all unfold via social media and texts from friends in Monterey, while I grumbled and moped around the house like a brooding ogre. I spent hours on the internet staring at pictures of cars and video of cars and watching all the auctions online from end to end. It helped pass the time, perhaps, but it didn’t make me feel much better. However, in this dark and broody mood I stumbled on to what turned out to be one of the most incredible car discoveries I have ever found.
A true barn find
I was trolling Facebook and in one of the barn find groups I saw a photo of a recently discovered Packard that someone had pulled out of a shed. It was much like my father’s old car. Mike, the person posting, was excited with his find but didn’t know much about it, so I commented with some background knowledge and began a conversation with him. The chat started first in the comments, and then private messages which eventually led to a long and enjoyable phone call that kept me away from the computer for a while.
We chatted about his car and how he found it, and at one point I asked the obvious question “What else was in the barn?” The Packard had some stablemates for sure, a 1930s Rolls Royce seemed the most exciting of the array and after the call he texted me some photos.
The Rolls was indeed cool, but a sliver of red convertible next to it caught my eye. I asked what it was and Mike replied that it was a Mercedes-Benz. I just knew with every fiber of my being, whatever it was, I wanted it. I asked him if he would be willing to help me get that car, and he agreed. He planned his next trip to the barn the following week and I sat and stared at the photos Mike had texted me, struggling to figure out what that red car was.
The day came when my new car friend Mike was finally able to visit the barn once again. Afterward, he sent me a terrible quality cell phone video of his walk around the car. The interior was dark and the mystery vehicle was pinned tight in the corner behind other cars – hardly
the sort of situation where you could make a wise buying decision. I made it clear to Mike that I wanted this car badly and would make it well worth his time if he could swing a deal with the owners for me.
The owners would not give him a price at the time, but my Internet friend promised to follow up with them. I spent a sleepless night poring over the video and dark photos trying to assess the car and its condition, and other than the sellers saying it was a 1940 or 1941, they knew nothing more about it.
The next day the phone rang and I was given a price. I quickly agreed and asked how best to send the funds. As many people do, the owners wanted cash. With my being quarantined 200 miles away, this presented a problem. My helper offered to handle the cash if I wired him the money, so I arranged the transfer.
The moment I got confirmation that the wire was sent, the gravity of the situation hit me like a ton of bricks. I had just sent a sizable chunk of money to a man I didn't know, for a car that was not his, that was located 2000 miles away. Plus, I had no clue exactly what the car was or how horrible its condition. Was I completely insane?
I spent sleepless nights while the funds cross the country and my Internet friend Mike made arrangements to return to the barn to do the deal three days later. Thankfully, he was great at keeping me up to date so I knew when he was heading to meet them and that he was about an hour and a half away from the location.
I watched the hands on the clock move for what seemed like an eternity and finally a text came through, “Houston we have a problem.” My heart sank, my stomach churned. I thought, "This is where it all falls apart." I calmed my emotions and gave him a call. The problem, it turns out, was that they couldn’t find the key for the car! I breathed a sigh of relief, laughed, and told him to forge ahead. A short time later he texted me a copy of the bill of sale; the car was mine. But what did I just buy?
Some detective work
As the cars surrounding it were moved and the first clear images came through via text, I completely lost my mind. This car was not some derelict 170 or standard model at all, but rather something truly spectacular. The flowing lines of the body and the unique rear fender shape were like nothing I had ever seen.
As video and photos came through of its extraction I was literally screaming and running through the house like a maniac.
Mike sent a photo of the body tag on the driver’s side, and again I screamed like a schoolgirl, "Rometsch? Are you kidding me?" I was intimately familiar with the coachbuilder Rometsch through their VW-based creations, having had two of them here in my own garage in the past. I have even visited the diminutive Rometsch museum in Germany just a few years ago, but I had never heard of a Rometsch Mercedes-Benz before.
As Mike loaded the car up on his trailer to get it off the property I again freaked out a bit. The plan was for him to park it under his equipment shed until I could get a trucker out to pick it up. With the realization of the rarity of the car now clear in my mind, I made some frantic phone calls and miraculously found a transporter that could pick it up the very same evening.
After more sleepless nights the transporter pulled up in front of my house. He opened the door of the truck and I put my hand on the fender. It was real, this had really happened, and this incredibly rare coachbuilt Mercedes-Benz was now mine.
A classic back on the road
Since the arrival of the red car, I have spent months researching its history. I have also been working on preserving and reviving the Rometsch Benz to the best of my ability. We have managed to get it running and driving, with all the loose parts assembled. A few missing items have been found, or fabricated and installed. Finally, and best of all, the fun of bringing it out into the world to share at events has started.
The car debuted at the grand opening of the new Mercedes-Benz Classic Center in Long Beach, California (see The Star, November-December 2022) where it attracted quite a crowd. The Rometsch Benz's second event was the San Marino Motor Classic where it consistently drew more eyes and compliments than the sea of perfectly restored classics parked around it. The goal is further technical
fettling to make the car reliable and safe to drive and then to continue to show it in its "as found" state. While a full restoration is a tempting challenge, for now the beauty and intrigue of the car as found is too much fun to pass up.
The story as we know it
The full history of the Rometsch Benz is not yet complete, but many of the puzzle pieces have been put in place. This car left the Mercedes-Benz Mannheim plant on March 15th, 1940, bound for Berlin. However, originally it was not the sporty red Cabriolet it is today. In fact, it was built as a Pullman Limousine. The car rides on the long wheelbase W142 320 chassis with the larger 3.4-liter engine. Factory records have established that the Cabriolet still has its original engine. How and when did it become this flashy Sport Cabriolet?
The answer to this came from an automotive historian in Brazil. He sent me a photo of the car taken in Berlin in 1948, posed in front of the distinctive windows of the Rometsch building that I have seen with my own eyes. Miraculous!
The backstory goes further. I contacted the Rometsch archives. After an initial search, they showed only small jobs done to the car, not the full coachwork. However, the discovery of a thesis on coachbuilding in the Berlin Technical Institute revealed personal notes from Rometsch designer Johannes Beeskow that mention the car and a Maybach coupe completed in 1948 as “the last.”
That “last" reference may connect to his pre-war career with coachbuilders Erdmann and Rossi. That's where Beeskow designed and built many amazing custom bodies, many with uncanny resemblances to the body on my Cabriolet. The Erdmann archives agree that it looks to be an Erdmann style design, but they have no records of it in their ledgers.
Notes found in an interview with Beeskow recall Rometsch taking delivery of the Mercedes and Maybach to work on, but they did not mention in what condition the vehicles were received. There are many mysteries yet to be solved.
What remains to be found, most importantly, is the car's first owner and initial purpose. The car was originally delivered in 1940 as a limousine, most
likely to a dignitary or wealthy industrialist. I wondered if that person was the same owner who contracted with Beeskow to convert it to a Cabriolet? Did the vehicle change hands or sustain war damage that brought it to the coachbuilder in Berlin for its radical rebuild?
How and when did this car eventually find its way to the United States? The sellers recalled that the recently departed family patriarch had acquired it in Albuquerque, New Mexico, possibly in the late 1950s or early 1960s. The car was flat-towed with a homebuilt tow bar to rural Michigan in the late 1960s, where it was parked in the barn to wait for me until 2021.
What comes next
The little red Cabriolet has certainly had some intriguing travels. Now, thanks
to an incredible twist of fate, this rare automobile is here in my California garage. My obsession with it continues to grow daily.
While I may have missed playing with cars among my friends in Monterey last year, I have Covid to thank for keeping me away. The imposed isolation allowed me to stare at my computer screen and discover something incredible.
I also have to thank my Internet friend Mike who helped make this all happen while I sat quarantined at home. It was a wild and scary gamble that got the adrenaline pumping for sure. Perhaps in the future the flowing fenders of this beautiful Rometsch Benz will take me once again to Monterey. I will most definitely invite my friend Mike to join me. Without him, and Covid, this dream would have never happened at all.
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