Tomorrow will commence my Charles Kuralt blue highways, back roads tribute tour. As such, I am yet to have exciting tales hand-picked from road side discoveries to be served up like farm fresh delicacies for your personal consumption.
If one can will the future though, I would love nothing better than to manifest glorious surprises. As my mind wanders I imagine stumbling upon a shabby yet substantial barn nestled in a wooded expanse “out back” of a weathered farm house. Parting the barn’s feeble creaking doors reveals it to be chockablock with classic contents, each resides under a blanket of fine dust that speaks to a rich past like tree rings. All possess histories of once being driven by mid-century Hollywood royalty. It would be enough to make Tom Cotter cry. Hey, you have your fantasies, I’ll have mine.
However, while organizing my back country journey I did come across a fascinating stolen car story with its roots in the closing days of WWII and its resolution well into the next century with a conclusion worthy of O’Henry.
The following offers what I believe to be the best multiple decade stolen car story with an “I did not see that coming” conclusion.
Return of the Zipper King
Threads that interweave to create the fabric of this 21st century ownership puzzle are many and involved. It all began at the 1935 Berlin Motor Show. Heroically displayed as the centerpiece of the Mercedes-Benz exhibit and indeed of the whole event, stood the gleaming
Mercedes-Benz 500K Special Roadster, chassis number 105380. Built in 1935 during the 1934 and 1936 model run, it shone as a gleaming jewel of advanced engineering and design. Recognized as one of the greatest performance automobiles of the pre-war era, Mercedes-Benz produced a total of 342 500Ks with only 29 being Special Roadsters. Its supercharged (thus the “K” designation) 5.0-liter inline-8 cylinder produce 160 horsepower. Blazing fast in the context of the time, it could easily top 100 miles per hour. The 500K’s advanced engineering extended to the chassis which featured a sophisticated 4-wheel independent suspension with double wishbones at the front, a double-joint swing axle in the rear as well as coil springs and dampers.
As The Autocar wrote in 1936: “This is a master car for the very few. The sheer insolence of its power affords an experience on its own.”
Everybody loved it. However, a precious few could afford it with its 1935 selling price of 28,000 Reichsmark ($11,200). One person who did love it and could afford it was industrialist Hanz Prym. He purchased the car new after the Berlin Motor Show in 1936.
Prym known as the “Zipper King,” lead the oldest family-owned business in Germany. For 12 generations the Prym family specialized in the manufacture of haberdashery and copper and brass products such as zippers and buttons. During the war Prym industries supplied the war effort with turbine blades as well as buttons and zippers. It should be noted that while a German industrialist and briefly imprisoned by the allies in 1945, Prym held no sympathies for the Nazi’s. He supported the Weimar Republic and actually advocated for the return of the monarchy.
When World War II came, Prym retreated to his estate in Stolberg Germany taking the 500K with him and secreting it away on the estate grounds. The 500K quietly resided in its sanctuary while the war raged until late fall of 1944 when the collapsing German war effort saw allied troops in the form of the 3rd Armored Division (known as the Spearhead because they always like to be out in front) cross the Siegfried Line and set of camp in Stolberg at the Prym estate mansion.
First hand commentary by soldiers in the 3rd Armored Division confirmed Spearhead occupation of the Prym estate.
“The division ensconced its headquarters in the plush luxury of the Prym Mansion, just south and east of Stolberg. The rainy winter weather soon turned the entire Division area into a sea of mud. There were daily skirmishes and firefights, and at night patrols probed for information. Artillery action was continuous. The men were tired and the machines needed maintenance in the worst way. Shellfire was the bane of existence at Stolberg and in the surrounding towns. German guns located in the Duren area constantly shelled “Spearhead” positions.”
During this time the car disappeared from its hiding place on Prym’s estate. Early versions of what happened told of the 500K being sold to an American soldier. Once released by the allies after a short detention, it is said that Prym, who died in 1990, was furious upon learning that his prized Mercedes was gone. The Prym family vehemently rejected the story of the car being sold as an outright lie. The version that subsequently gained traction and stuck described the car as being spirited away by a U.S. Army Colonel and shipped to the United States while Hanz Prym was being held in the custody of Allied forces. Regardless of the reason, the 500K had vanished. Decades would pass until in 1976 when it appeared in the collection of Russell Strauch in Toledo, Ohio. From that time until 2011, Prym’s 500K changed hands with some regularity. During that period in the early 1990’s it underwent a complete restoration.
Then, in 2011 it starred center stage at the 2011 RM Monterey auction. There it changed hands for the princely sum of $3.7 million gleefully spent by Dutch classic car aficionado Frans van Haren. Joyfully, van Haren prepared to share his magnificent acquisition with the automotive world on Europe’s biggest stage. He intended to ship his prize to Techno Classica in Essen Germany in 2012. And he did. And that is when the Scheisse hit the fan.
Beautifully bathed in photogenic light for all to see, just not for long. Within a few hours the German authorities set eyes on the gleaming 500K and summarily seized it. Frans van Haren had been accused by the descendants of Hanz Prym of possessing stolen property. Their property. By bringing Prym’s 500K back to Germany van Haren had subjected his prized possession to German law, law that could only be enforced if the car was in Germany.
With frenzied bewilderment thick in the air along with $3.7 million disappearing into thin air, fingers seeking targets to blame flashed about pointing in all directions. At this point it would seem timely to mention that, at auction, RM Auctions stated, “Interim history is unknown.” More than 20 years of history resided in darkness and, oh yes, there was no title involved in this or any of the earlier transactions. Game on.
By the end of 2012 a German court in Hamburg ruled that the allied soldier did not have the right to take possession of the car. The 500K Special Roadster belonged to the Prym heirs not van Haren. As to what satisfaction van Haren can get from those who sold him the car, that is a story for another day.
As to the Prym progeny, in 2016 Bonhams auctioned the Prym family’s Berlin Motor Show 500K Special Roadster at the Bonham’s Chateau de Chantilly auction. It sold for $5.29 million.
As to any complaints van Haren may have, the Prym family says, “zip it.”