Back at the Louwman Museum, we ask how far is too far.
I’ve always liked the Mercedes 500K and 540K cars despite the fact that they seem tainted, through no real fault of their own, by association with high-ranking Nazis. In 2 seater form, it’s one of those cars of inordinate length that accommodates just a couple of people. Were all cars like this, our roads would have become gridlocked many years ago, but there’s a harmless decadence to it in my eyes. The Louman’s 500K is one of those fairytale barn-find stories. A Spezial model, one of just 25, it was first purchased in the UK and spent 30 years stored behind a butcher’s shop in Walsall. Discovered and auctioned late in the 1980s, it was beautifully restored in Germany and was a prizewinner at Pebble Beach in 1994.
The deep paint shines, the chrome glistens. I remembered a quote that Shirley McLaine made about Frank Sinatra’s Rat Pack to the effect that these were men who you just knew wore clean underwear. Well, true or not, without lifting the 500K’s bonnet, you just knew that every nut and bolt was clean and shiny and, maybe, even aligned. There would be no oozing grease or dripping oil.
But, just as I know that I could never have qualified for the Rat Pack – my creases would never have been straight enough, my handkerchief would have been skew in my top pocket, my cufflinks crooked, the toes of my shoes scuffed – so I find myself both in awe of and uneasy with such concours style perfection. There’s a definite feeling that even Mercedes own high standards would have baulked at producing something as preternaturally gleaming as this. Across from the 500K was a red Duesenburg. This is another car I admired in print as a kid, especially in short chassis SSJ form. Here, in red, it was just too shiny.
Barn-find certainly sums up one of the exhibits that greets visitors as they turn a corner in the Louwman. Built before the current company was officially formed, the Louwman more correctly labels it the Toyoda, rather than Toyota, AA and displays it next to Kiichiro Toyoda’s original office desk. The Louwman family are the Netherland’s Toyota importers, so it’s unsurprising that the Museum features a very showroom looking ’67 Corolla, a ’68 2000GT, Le Mans, Formula 1 and Nascar racers and a cutaway Prius.
Who knows what would happen to the Louwman’s AA, the very first production Toyota, in the hands of restorers. Of course there is little fear of that, mundane saloons aren’t usually the province of concours d’elegance type collectors. Not that the Toyota is in true, oily-rag, original condition. The oversized wheels show that the Siberian farmer who acquired it at the end of the War had modified it a fair bit.
However, someone else has put a lot of work elsewhere into ensuring the AA isn’t forgotten. Lacking an original, in the 1980s Toyota built a replica to celebrate its 50th anniversary.
Back at the Mercedes, my partner looked at the 500K, then at the photo of the unrestored car as removed from a barn in the mid 80s mounted behind it and said that she thought that it looked better before. The part of me that appreciates craftsmanship and dedication felt that was unfair, but another part of me understood what she meant.