I had a customer interested in this car at $2m in the late '90s before the full story emerged

In the early 1900s, Mercedes styling ran the gamut from conservative limousines and landaulets to dashing phaetons and open two-seaters. None, however, approached the style of this one-of-a-kind 1911 Mercedes 37/90 skiff, one of the most exotic Mercedes ever created.
The avenue des Champs-Elysées atelier of Henri Labourdette pioneered the exquisite wooden skiff torpedo design, which became popular in the 1910s and remained so through the 1920s.
The elegant yacht-like triple-layer body was created by criss-crossing layers of mahogany over a ribbed frame, then applying a third horizontal layer on top. To preserve the rigidity, doors were kept as small as possible in number and size. Apart from its attractiveness, a skiff body was light, normally weighing about 400 pounds.
Produced from 1910 through 1914, the 37/90 chassis was powered by a four-cylinder engine of 9,530 cc and delivering 90 hp at 1,100 rpm. The inline engine had two blocks of two cylinders with three overhead valves per cylinder and a single camshaft high in the block. A four-speed gear shifter was mounted outside the body, delivering power to the rear chain drive. Daimler estimated the average top speed at 70 mph, though lightweight roadsters could reach nearly 100 mph.
According to research conducted by the current owner, this 37/90 hp chassis was delivered to American hat maker G. Henry Stetson. Fitted with coachwork, it was delivered to his Philadelphia residence from the Mercedes dealer in New York City and cost $18,000.
The original body was removed from the chassis in 1922 and a new Cape Top body built by Camden Coachworks in New Jersey. In the late 1950s, two potential buyers noted another wooden body beside the car, and the Cape Body was sold and is currently on another 37/90 car in California.
When the current vendor bought the car in 1972, he decided to have a skiff body built in the style of Labourdette, rather than refinish the wooden body with the car. It is this body the car carries, after an estimated 12,700 hours of construction at Dale Adams Enterprises in Kent, Ohio.

SCM Analysis


Number Produced:Unknown, but few survivors
Original List Price:$18,000 (chassis only)
Tune Up Cost:Buy the book and DIY
Distributor Caps:$$$$
Club Info:Mercedes-Benz Club of America, 800.637.2360
Alternatives:1908 Grand Prix Itala, 1913 Rolls-Royce 40/50 Continental, 1907 Metallurgique Maybach roadster
Investment Grade:B

This 1911 Mercedes 37/90 Skiff sold at The Houston Classic Auction on May 6 for $1,050,000. The story behind this vehicle is well known in classic car circles, and is covered in this issue’s “Legal Files” on page 28.
When new, 90-hp Mercedes were among the most desirable cars available. A commanding presence and speeds of up to 100 mph made them the playthings of the ultra-wealthy. In the first quarter of the 20th century, it was common practice for the great marques, such as Mercedes, Bugatti, Rolls, Duesenberg, and Delahaye, to sell a rolling chassis that consisted of a radiator, engine, trans, and rear axle assembly to a customer, which could then be taken to the designer of their choice to have a body built.
It was not uncommon to have two bodies built: a closed winter version and an open summer one. Remember, the cost of these types of vehicles was equivalent to buying a Lear jet today. Ownership often required a chauffeur, who looked after the car’s extensive maintenance. The owner’s manual for a Mercedes SSK required head removal for decoking every couple thousand kilometers.
These cars were the cream of the crop then, and are sought by the wealthiest collectors today. The energy and skill that went into the restoration of this car and the recreation of the skiff body is staggering. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing it at a number of concours over the years, and you can’t take your eyes off it. I can readily believe that the artists-and artists they are-at Dale Adams Restoration spent the equivalent of nearly four and a half years of 40-hour weeks to complete this job.
When you look at the woodwork and the joinery, with every one of the 2,700 brass rivets lined up to perfection, it takes your breath away. Being in the restoration business, my mind reels at the workmanship and talent. Every time I’ve seen the car, there’s been a crowd around it. After twelve years it still looks great. To give Dale Adams his due, I’m sure the quality of this body is as good as a Labourdette.
So where is this 1911 Mercedes 37/90 Skiff in the M-B pecking order? It’s a complete, original 90-hp chassis and running gear, all from one car, not a bitsa, with a great provenance and continuous ownership history. The recreated skiff body is done to an extremely high standard. But in the end, what do we have? It’s simple. An original chassis and drivetrain with a custom body, built to a period style and to a very high standard.
Both Pebble Beach and Amelia Island now have classes for rebodied cars, with some coachwork built from period artist drawings that were never built, some from current designs in the “what if” mode, and some, like this one, that replaced a stodgy original body with a more popular period-style one, such as replacing a four-door sedan with a Special Roadster body.
As an aside, even if this skiff body had been original, chances are that by now, in the restoration of a 95-year-old wooden skiff body, you’d likely be replacing most, if not all, of the wood. And that’s even taking into account how things in the restoration business have changed greatly in the past ten years. While it would be cheaper and easier to create a new body, we now strive to retain as much of the original as possible, usually at great cost. Most collectors agree that originality equates to history, and we shouldn’t change that.
Creating a new body to put on an old car is a tough call, particularly for an enthusiast who has the money and desire to restore one of these great marques. How many Alfa Monzas have been created at the expense of Castagna Dropheads? Do I want the stodgy four-door sedan, or the skiff body, or Special Roadster? Which would you rather be seen in?
By one measurement, the bottom line is value. What’s the final product worth, and what will it cost to get there? Fortunately, there are a number of comps to look at. A 1938 Mercedes-Benz 540K Special Roadster in fully restored condition is worth over $5,000,000. It costs $750,000-$1,000,000 to restore one, depending on condition.
So as a percentage of its value, you’re OK restoring an original Special Roadster. To take a 540K sedan and rebody it into a Special Roadster takes way over $1 million, and when you’re done it’s worth around $1 million, and a tough sell at that. That’s one of the problems with the pre-war classic-car market now. You literally cannot afford to restore mundane bodies; it costs the same amount as restoring an original, and you end up with something worth about a fraction of the value of the real thing when you’re done.
Had this been a real Labourdette Skiff, it would be worth over $2 million. I know because I had an interested customer for this car at that number in the late ’90s before the whole legal issue blew up. Assuming the bidders did due diligence and knew what they were buying, I’d say it was well bought at $1,050,000.
If you do the math at a shop rate of $100 per hour, it’s like saving $220,000 on the restoration, and getting the car for free. Not a bad deal in my book for such a beautiful car, assuming the buyer knew exactly what he was bidding on-an original car with a custom-built body.

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