1938 Mercedes (Gilmore Car Museu)
When the Michigan International Auto Show opens today in Grand Rapids, the mix of rare antique cars, today’s popular brands and previews of next year’s models are likely to draw car lovers from across the state and beyond, auto experts say.
Highlights include the only 1938 Mercedes 540K Sport Tourer in existence, the “Million Dollar Motorway” that shows off vehicles priced at $100,000 or more, as well as traveling displays with more than 300 new cars, including sedans, vans, trucks, hybrids and sports cars.
Now in its 16th year, the Grand Rapids event is considered “an approachable show for those in the market for buying a car,” said Henri Boucher of ShowSpan Inc., the company producing the show for the Grand Rapids New Car Dealers Association. The show runs through Sunday at the DeVos Place.
“You can get into the cars, talk to the product specialists and see exotics you won’t find anywhere else,” Boucher said. “This is a full-blown auto show that has nearly everything the (North American International Auto Show) in Detroit has ... We all benefit from the fact that we’re in Michigan and we all have a passion for cars.”
Mixing the old and new makes an event like the Michigan International Auto Show competitive with others in the area and interesting to consumers who want the latest and the greatest available, said Bruce M. Belzowski, associate director of the Automotive Analysis Division at the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute.
Detroit’s auto show is a must-see because of its volume of production and concept vehicles; if you don’t go to the show, you may never see these cars again, Belzowski noted. The Grand Rapids show is smart to mix exciting designs like the 2015 Chrysler 200 with its vintage autos.
“You have to have something to bring the people in, and they’re going to want to see the new stuff. If there is a mixture of classics and new introductions, it will bring in locals and people from the Detroit area,” Belzowski said.
The big draw for some will be the 1938 Mercedes 540K Sport Tourer. The vehicle, created by Daimler-Benz AG in Stuttgart, Germany, remained hidden for nearly 60 years and underwent an award-winning restoration in 2005. This spectacular automobile, valued in the millions of dollars, is undoubtedly the rarest and most valuable vehicle displayed at this year’s auto show, Boucher said.
Car aficionado Bryan Bergero said the Mercedes is a gem in a variety of ways, including its speed, value and rarity. The Grosse Pointe Shores resident became a member of the Mercedes-Benz Club of America at Christmas, a gift from his wife Laura in honor of his 1989 300E turning 25.
For example, the revered German car company had a total production run of only 95 vehicles on the W29, 540K platform in 1938, Begero said. Only two of those were Sports Tourers. One of Mercedes-Benz’s other products, the 170 platform, had a run of 17,575. By comparison, Ford Motor Co. produced 410,263 of its 1938 Ford that same year.
The Mercedes 540K also was notable because of its power, Begero added. The 540K had a supercharged inline eight engine, similar in layout to those used in the Mercedes-Benz race cars of the era. It was capable of 180 horsepower; the typical European car of that era would have been between 20-30, Bergero said. There was good reason for Germany’s pride in Mercedes-Benz and its vehicles, he added.
“This is something that you might drive from another state to see,” Bergero said. “This was the kind of car that the rich and famous drove. Jack Warner of Warner Brothers had one and German Air Force Commander Hermann Göring had a blue one.”
The custom-built Mercedes features a Mother-of-Pearl dash, V-windshield and disappearing convertible top. In 1938, it sold new for an estimated $12,000. While that may not seem to be a high dollar amount today, it was a substantial price compared to Chevrolet’s convertible at $755 or the Ford Deluxe convertible sedan at $900.
Karen Dybis is a Metro Detroit freelance writer.