Rumours, gossip and bribes clouded the hunt for a treasure lost behind the Iron Curtain since WW11. But what a treasure – a genuine Silver Arrows Mercedes-Benz
By Doug Nye
Settle down now, this is complicated… It was like a John Le Carre novel. December, 1988, and three of us had just flown into a frail and tense Communist Rumania. We had realised just how frail by evident cost-cutting on the elderly Tarom airliner. The moment we boarded, the clues were clear. The cabin crew wore overcoats and scarves. Their in-flight menus were duplicated on a fold of rough and shoddy grey paper. Watery coffee was served from a single thermos. Then the taxi from Otopeni Airport into central Bucharest took us down broad deserted boulevards, dusted with early snow, lined largely by switched-off street lamps…
We checked into the darkened, chilly Hotel InterContinental. At best every fifth light fitting had a bulb. Everywhere in the gloom stood vases of plastic flowers; quite irresistible. Leaning close to each vase we asked clearly: “One, two, three, four — testing, testing?”. As western visitors, we felt we were being watched…
My auctioneer friend Robert Brooks had fixed the trip at zero notice. Evert Louwman, the great Dutch collector, was with us, while I knew a bit about the great car we hoped to see. RB had been tipped off by his collector friend Paul Kunkel, who had heard from a Washington contact that a 1939 Mercedes-Benz W154 Grand Prix car “could be bought” here.
It was one of a pair which had survived for many years in the care of Jozsef `Jozska’ Roman and his son Tibor in Cluj-Napoca, 200 miles northwest from Bucharest. In 1971-72, Jozska had sold a sister W154 through Dr Georg Ott of Munich to New York-domiciled Dieter Holterbosch, of Lowenbrau beer. Previously, in 1968, classic car dealer Rob de la Rive Box had become probably the first car-wise westerner to see Jozska’s two Silver Arrows.
But under Communism, all property notionally belonged to the State, not any individual. Yet as we were to realise, dependent upon the individual, strings were pullable…
We were to meet the Vice-President of the American Compliance Corporation (ACC) a concern set-up notionally to export ‘Roman’ heavy trucks — built in nearby Brasov — to the USA. We were told ACC was also the only conduit through which ‘patrimonial’ property could legally be exported from Rumania. The VP proved to be a slight fellow in grey suit and dark glasses, Catanil Tutunaru. He provided a smoky-glazed people-carrier in which a couple of burly coves in bright red and blue quilted jackets would drive us around.
We saw quite a lot of the wintry country. Robert and Evert would talk endlessly with Tutunaru, to little positive effect, but we would never get to see our quarry — Jozska Roman’s fabled W154 chassis No15, the car driven to second place by Manfred von Brauchitsch in the 1939 Belgrade Grand Prix, on the very day war broke out. Jozska, who had died in December 1986, was born in Budapest in 1907, an ethnic Hungarian who lived and worked most of his life in Cluj (pronounced `Kloozh’), where his son Tibor — or `Tiberiu’ — Jozsef was born in 1933. Both were strong, rugged toughies. Tibor became a competition weight-lifting coach for the national Rumanian team when they won eight medals in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. The State paid well, enabling him to part-fund his father’s restoration of the W154s.
He recalled how Jozska had found them: “My father was an automobile and motorbike nut, a mechanic and a car racer. Around 1946 he learned there were two old Mercedes cars in a scrapyard in Braila” [near the port of Constanta, on the Black Sea]. Jozska talked the Bucharest authorities into allowing him to collect the cars. “They were the property of the Ministry but were assigned to the Cluj Railways Sports Club where my father was given the right to repair and race them. He invested a lot of money in them. I was able to help financially. If I remember, they came to Cluj in 1951… [and before] …1965 my father repaired one of them.” This was No15, which Jozska ran in the local Feleac hillclimb but he rolled it and the tail tank ignited. Fortunately its fuel load was minimal, but Jozska was hurt, recovery taking two years.
“At that time everything scrap was [normally] taken away for melting. My father wanted to donate these two vehicles to the University but it was not allowed. Then we went to Bucharest, and since I knew the people in charge, we told them the country could sell these cars and buy new motorbikes for the money. But the financial person in charge said ‘Why don’t you buy them?’. The Ministry of Culture and Sport then sold us the cars for 2000 Lei [for the pair] — a very big monthly wage!” Which Tibor paid. The receipt, of April 14, 1965, declared a remarkably specific repair estimate of 53,972 Lei. Jozska and Tibor then shared ownership 50:50.
Tibor continued: “My father even sold a house to finance the repairs, but every little repair was a very long story. The cylinder blocks, for instance, were taken to Brasov on foot on his back and he also took eggs and cream and other dairy products to get them repaired. He put in an incredible amount of money… and this was one of the reasons why they gave him these cars. We shared ownership of both cars until his death, when I inherited the remaining one.”
In 1971 they sold their undamaged car, chassis No7, for a reputed sum of $80,000 paid to the Rumanian Government, plus two brand-new Mercedes and a VW Beetle. “We sold two cars, bought a house from one of them and lived from the other, while the third became the family car”. Thereafter a succession of would-be buyers, agents and experts pursued the second car, No15. Dick Crosthwaite, Tony Merrick, Chris Renwick and a British ‘Mr Fixit’ named Jeremy Churcher tried, plus dealer Charles Howard and collector Terry Cohn, some becoming involved with Tutunaru, of ACC.
Tibor Roman recalled exchanging a W154 steering wheel for a VCR, which the donor later seemed to regard as securing the car. But: “It was not the complete steering wheel. My father had several wheels, not all of them original…”
Jozska Roman first wrote to Mercedes in June 1939 applying (unsuccessfully) for a job as a racing mechanic. The first they heard from him post-war was in 1963 – their first news since 1945 of these two missing W154s. In May 1980 Tibor offered them No15 but they were unable to buy. Jerry Churcher met Tibor several times but according to the weightlifter closed no deal. Churcher contact Terry Cohn claimed to have given ‘someone’ a Mercedes saloon as deposit. Tibor: “Well, if he gave it to someone, it wasn’t us. He probably gave it to some Bucharest authorities.”
The language barrier impeded every foreigner eager to deal. Then, in 1987- 88, Dr Andre Bilciurescu appeared. He ran a dental equipment business in Neuchatel, Switzerland. Tibor Roman: “I was a friend of his uncle. He and his uncle visited me and he saw the car in the garage in pieces and he said he wanted it. He seemed a more serious buyer because we could negotiate without an intermediary as he spoke Rumanian.” Dr Bilciurescu retained childhood memories of seeing the cars in Cluj, and he and Tibor clicked.
Private ownership in a Communist State guaranteed confusion and potential conflict. Churcher would later claim that Tibor Roman had sold the car to Tutunaru who was then paid in return for promised delivery. In 2003 Tutunaru stated that ACC never had any title to the Mercedes yet did hold Communist State authority to export it, had they ever laid hands on it. However, Tibor Roman had already clinched the matter. With his wife Erszebert, Mercedes No15 “and some china” he’d crossed the border into rapidly emocratising Hungary, and re-settled in Budapest. There on September 10, 1988, he sold the Mercedes to Dr Bilciurescu, I believe for DM400,000 – plus a VW Golf…
So – three months before we even arrived in Rumania – the car had been removed into Hungary, and sold into Switzerland. But nobody told us. After several days talking – and travelling – in circles, we achieved nada. At one point, in a top-floor room at the Hotel InterContinental, discussion with Tutunaru ground to a halt. He wanted a deposit paid immediately. Evert swore not one penny would be paid until the car crossed onto western soil, was proved genuine and was loaded onto his own transport. Robert had stepped out onto the frosted 12th floor balcony. He re-entered, beaming, having decided to change the subject. So he asked Tutunaru genially: “Tell me, Catanil – do you fly?”. My instant reflex was “Bloody hell – he’s going to throw him off the balcony!”.
Before we flew out, Tutunaru took us to a run-down villa in a suburban street near the airport. The heavies threw back a tarpaulin to reveal an Alfa Romeo 8C-2900B with four-seater body, black, neglected, but substantially intact. It had been Prince Michael of Rumania’s car, bought in 1938, and owned for many years by Ion Croitoru, before being placed on the State heritage list and Croitoru pressured to sell. Plainly we were just one party amongst many taken to inspect it, but what we didn’t know was that so far as Terry Cohn was concerned he had already agreed to buy not only his Alfa, but also Mercedes W154 No15…
He had a Letter of Intent dated July 13, 1988, describing how he and a group of officials had inspected “two old-timers (Alfa Romeo Coupé 1937 [sic] and parts of the so-called Mercedes Grand Prix 1938 [again, sic])”. It ended with the words “Mr Cohn will immediately open a L/C” – Letter of Credit, inferring purchase. Another document dated November 22, 1988, refers to Terry Cohn, Europa American Furs Inc, supposedly agreeing to buy 50 trucks plus (as a bolt-on) the Alfa Romeo and Mercedes No15… Terry – who died in 2001 – loudly maintained that he had paid a million-dollar deposit for the cars. When he heard that Dr Bilciurescu had sent ‘his’ W154 to be restored by Technosim AG in Birsfelden, Switzerland, he resorted to law.
Basle’s Arlesheim District Court heard his case in March 1990, and rejected it. A handwriting expert concluded that six of the eight signatures on his Letter of Intent were forgeries “and had been made by the same hand. Only the signatures of Cohn and Tutunaru were original”.
Technosim AG resumed their restoration with Daimler-Benz’s assistance – but Cohn then won a US case against Tutunaru – of Scarborough, Maine, USA – ruling that ACC had to deliver the Mercedes to him, and that Tutunaru could only deal with the car on Cohn’s behalf.
The matter slowly cooled. The car was restored to running order, and in 1999 ownership passed to a Liechtenstein entity, Singing Horse AG. On September 6, 2000, it was then sold via the Symbolic Motor Car Co of California to Japanese collector and trader Yoshiyuki Hayashi. Symbolic then teed-up a speedy re-sale, an enthusiastic new buyer considering purchase for $10 million, and paying a half-million deposit.
At this happy point, Jerry Churcher resurfaced. According to Superior Court of California papers in 2001, Churcher and others had interfered with the legitimate deal – having “represented to third parties and prospective purchasers of the Mercedes (that) symbolic and everyone associated with them are all ‘Jews, faggots, drug dealers, and Mafia’”. British resident Churcher challenged the Californian Court’s jurisdiction over him, but lost that notion on appeal. Judge William R. Nevitt Jr eventually ruled on August 6, 2003, that Hayashi was sole legal owner of No15, and that Jeremy Churcher “has no claim of ownership”. He was ordered to pay Hayashi US$1 million damages, and $250,000 each to Symbolic and agent Patrick van Schoote – plus costs of $416,478 – and 40 cents.
Through all this upset the car itself shone as the iconic – and still highly original – GP car it really is, not least because of its once-only race, in Manfred von Brauchitsch’s hands in that era-closing Belgrade event the day war broke out – but also because with its ultimate-spec ‘Gruppe K’ two-stage supercharged V12 engine it embodies the absolute high tide of Mercedes-Benz GP car development from 1934-39.
If ever an outstanding car was in need of an outstanding home this was it – and after five years or so, for a more modest price, No15 joined The Collier Collection, in Naples, Florida, where today it is carefully preserved, and truly loved.