Globally celebrated conductor’s old Mercedes 300 SL Gullwing rediscovered in California
Fans of classical music will recognise the name of Herbert von Karajan, the celebrated principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra for a remarkable 35 years and, by some accounts, the top-selling classical music recording artist of all time with over 200 million album sales to his credit.
Von Karajan died in 1989 at the age of 81, leaving behind not just a musical legacy but an automotive one, too: he was an avid automobile and motorcycle enthusiast who bought his first car at the age of 26 and, within four years, was rallying a BMW before progressing variously to a Porsche RSK Spyder, Ferrari 275 GTB, Ford GT40, Mini Cooper, Lancia Stratos and, most famous of all, a special-order, lightweight Porsche 930 with Martini livery (to name but a few).
Indeed, von Karajan apparently had a penchant for ‘special orders’, as evinced by the discovery of this 1955 Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Gullwing that is set to cross the block at Gooding and Co’s Scottsdale auction in January.
The conductor’s unusual specification request combined ‘Weissgrau’ (white-grey) paintwork with tan vinyl seats and red plaid inserts, while the wheels were to be of the rare and desirable Rudge knock-off type that are believed to have been factory-fitted to fewer than 500 SLs.
Von Karajan is thought to have kept the car throughout the remainder of the 1950s, before selling it to a Swiss enthusiast that subsequently passed it on to a buyer, who exported it to his home in California.
And it is there, in his garage in the California Bay area, that the car was recently discovered, complete with its 1970s-era blue and yellow licence plates, its original engine and its date-coded Rudge wheels.
The owner is believed to have had the car repainted in a colour close to, but not quite the same as, the original Weissgrau, hence its slightly creamier current appearance – but it appears otherwise entirely original.
And, as this issue of Motor Sport went to press, Gooding and Co’s technicians had gently coaxed the car back to life and it is now said to be running smoothly and has been driven for the first time in decades.
As a result of being hidden away for considerably more than 30 years, it has never before been offered at auction – and the fact that it comes with cast-iron three-owner provenance and a colourful history could make Gooding’s $1.1-1.4m pre-sale estimate seem decidedly conservative on the day.
Von Karajan, incidentally, was a firm believer in reincarnation and hoped to be reborn as an eagle – so whoever buys his Gullwing should perhaps take the occasional glance skywards. He might just be watching…