Symphony in Steel – 1954 300S Cabriolet

Carl W. Badenhausen with Gary Anderson
Denis L. Tanney
This beautiful Mercedes-Benz 300S Cabriolet A – the hand-built pinnacle of automotive grandeur and elegance – has been treasured by three generations of one family since its factory delivery in 1955

Symphony in Steel

This beautiful Mercedes-Benz 300S Cabriolet A – the hand-built pinnacle of automotive grandeur andelegance – has been treasured by three generations of one family since its factory delivery in 1955.

 

Article Carl W. Badenhausen with Gary Anderson

Images Denis L. Tanney

 

During the summer of 1955, my grandfather Carl W. Badenhausen and his wife Dorothy took three of their six children on an automobile tour through Europe. Perhaps he was taking a well-deserved break from the effort of building the Ballantine Ale brewery business that he and his brother purchased in 1933 at the end of the prohibition era; the Newark, New Jersey-based brewery had become the third largest in the country by 1955.

 

Grandfather’s surprise

What the family didn’t know when embarking on the trip was that Carl had a surprise for them – and a treat for himself. With the family in a hotel in Stuttgart, Grandfather and my Uncle Richard took a taxi out to the Mercedes-Benz factory in Sindelfingen. After touring the plant, they lunched on the balcony of the vehicle-delivery showroom where they could look down upon a glorious black 300S Cabriolet with its tall radiator grille, long hood and gleaming chrome landau irons behind the single doors.

Unbeknownst to the rest of the family, Grandfather had ordered the car for himself the previous fall, perhaps as a way to celebrate his business accomplishments, or perhaps because as the consummate salesman that he was, he knew the kind of impression it would make as he drove the beautiful black cabriolet up to the stadium in the Bronx to watch his favorite baseball team, the New York Yankees.

Loading the custom leather luggage into the trunk, they were off on a month-long tour through Germany, France, Austria and Italy. Grandfather and Grandmother took turns driving their new car, the kids took turns riding shotgun, and those left out rode with the remaining luggage in a hire-car following behind. The optional reserve gas tank was useful; few gas stations dotted the highways, and even those were only open during the day.

After much ado at the seaport in Naples – there must have been questions as to why such a stunning brand-new automobile had a 1954 chassis number – the papers were stamped, the Cabriolet was lifted carefully into the hold of the elegant SS Cristoforo Colombo, and the family boarded the ship for the trip back to New Jersey. Upon arriving home in Short Hills, Grandfather attached the special-order license plate to the car – emblazoned ALE 1 – in honor of the golden beverage that had brought him such good fortune.

A rolling advertisement

“Ale 1,” as the car was named, was the family’s prize possession and driven extensively, rolling up most of the 119,000 miles now on the odometer. Researching its history, I found photos of family members posing with the car: pictures of the car on Long Island, where the family had a summer home; over in Pennsylvania where Grandfather owned a hunting and fishing camp; up in New Hampshire to drop off my Aunt Peggy at summer camp; and down the coast as far as Virginia on family vacations and South Carolina on hunting trips.

Grandfather occasionally drove it to his office in Newark when there were brewery customers, advertising-industry bigwigs or TV executives – his company was the first to sponsor the New York Yankees on television – to impress. But by 1957, a new four-door Mercedes-Benz sedan became the family’s primary vehicle, though Ale 1 still was taken out most weekends on pleasure jaunts. After my grandparents moved to a smaller home in Short Hills with space for only two cars, Ale 1 was moved to our family’s home in the early 1960s.

By 1963, with Grandfather in his 70s and beginning to wind down his work at the brewery, he signed over the title to my father. My older sister Penny and I practically grew up with the 300S at our house; we have many memories connected to it.

 

Father’s family car

My father made sure to drive the Mercedes-Benz regularly. I remember riding with him to the train station one winter’s day to go to a Rangers hockey game in New York City. Leaving the arena after the game, it was snowing hard. By the time we got back to the station in New Jersey, there were at least six inches of fresh snow on the unplowed roads. Despite the difficult conditions, the big black cabriolet’s weight and power got us home safe as could be; that wonderful machine never even broke traction. I can still remember the experience – almost no cars on the road, the snow muffling the sound of the tires, and the car purring quietly as we drove along regally, without even the sound of the Blaupunkt radio to break the enchanted mood.

When my sister was married in 1983, I convinced my father that she and her husband should leave the reception in grand style – in Ale 1. While everyone else worked on final arrangements for the wedding that was to be held in our home, my father and I lovingly detailed the graceful old cabriolet. I can still remember wishing that my grandparents could have been alive to see the newlyweds drive off in the beautiful Mercedes-Benz they had always loved so much. Soon afterward, my father reregistered the car with new plates; Ale 1 was rechristened as “PBS 3” to signify the trademark that’s been so much a part of our heritage, P. Ballantine and Sons and three rings.

 

My new responsibility

In 1994, when Father died, I inherited responsibility for the car’s care. I became the third-generation Badenhausen to be steward of the car; it is now my prized possession as it was my father’s and my grandfather’s. In spite of 114,000 miles, the Cabrio required no major work; even the engine and transmission were in great shape. My father had replaced the upholstery in the 1970s; the original tan pigskin leather (an option, I guess) was badly worn. He used unsplit hides for the repair and, with good care, the seats look as good now as they did when freshly reupholstered.

I continued to take PBS 3 out regularly for weekend drives for enjoyment and exercise. But by 1998, 43 years of even the best tender-loving care and more than 115,000 miles of enjoyable drives with family filling the seats had taken their toll. I realized that the cabriolet needed to be refurbished completely if it was going to provide more generations of Badenhausens with more miles of proud enjoyment.

I found a New Jersey restorer who by reputation and results was up to the task of restoring this unique family jewel. My instructions were to preserve everything on the car as much as possible, replacing only those components that were too worn to restore so that the car would be nearly identical to the Cabrio my grandfather and uncle first saw in the Sindelfingen delivery center all those years ago.

I did change one component. Because the soft top material needed replacement, I elected to have the restorer use a tan material, taking my inspiration from the 300Sc Cabriolet once owned by Clark Gable – with that tan roof – featured in the July-August 1999 issue of The Star.

I’m pleased to say that most of the restoration went well, perhaps because I stayed actively involved in the work, visiting at least once a month to review accomplishments and check plans for the next tasks. I also did much of the searching for hard-to-find parts, for example, research and sourcing all the exterior rubber parts.

Toward the project’s end, a master detailer by the name of Ken Seviet took the initiative in removing the overspray that happened, I suspect, because the restoration shop was hurrying through the finishing steps to get back to their Pebble Beach projects. It took him 20 hours of work with body clay to remove the excess paint, but the results were worth it.His next task was to completely recondition the leather upholstery. Using standard leather-cleaning and conditioning techniques, he was able to bring the old leather back to a supple, attractive appearance.

Since the restoration, Seviet has become my go-to guy to keep the car looking show-ready all the time, going over the car thoroughly every six months. In preparation for this shoot, he carefully restored the luggage, conditioning the leather exterior, repairing the frames and bringing the hardware back to its original appearance.

 

As for the future …

With the restoration of the 300S completed in 2001, we were a bit reluctant to drive the Cabrio because it just looked so perfect – an incidental hazard for any major restoration – but we were eventually tempted to take it out on the road more regularly.

Although we don’t show the car very often, I did accept an invitation from the MBCA’s Northern New Jersey Section to the 2016 June Jamboree. The compliments the 300S received were a well-earned tribute to the care and satisfaction which my grandfather and father lavished on the car.

I make it a point to drive the 300S to weekend activities when I know I can park it in a protected spot; fortunately, more than one local restaurant in the area is happy to have the car “on display” out front while we eat. And there are lots of nice places to go for a Sunday drive in northern New Jersey; one of the most recent additions to the family photo album is of me with my daughter, son-in-law and his sister on a Father’s Day outing last year. But my rule is not to cross any major bridges or travel on any limited-access highways: PBS 3 isn’t likely to go on any long-distance trips, at least as long as it’s under my stewardship. I just don’t want to put it at risk of serious accident damage.

I’ll still be driving the 300S for awhile, but my three children (yes, there’s another Carl) all appreciate classic cars, so I’m certain that PBS 3 – once Ale 1 – will be treasured in our family for many years to come.

 

 

SPECIFICATIONS

1954 Mercedes-Benz 300S Cabriolet A (W188)TYPE: Two-door convertible with cabriolet topENGINE: M188 2,996cc overhead cam inline-6 , triple Solex carburetorsHORSEPOWER: 150 (DIN)   TORQUE: 170 lb/ftTRANSMISSION: 4-speed manualLENGTH: 185 in   CURB WEIGHT: 3,800 lbPERFORMANCE: Zero-62 mph 15 sec   TOP SPEED: 109 mph

 

 

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