Walking into the showroom at the in Chesterfield is like stepping back in time to an era when cars were called roadsters and friends lounged in the rumble seat to get a little air.
The museum has dozens of gleaming automobiles nestled side by side on a polished black tile showroom floor that reflects the cars’ images as if they were parked next to water. It opened in 2006 primarily to showcase an impressive collection of Mercedes-Benz vehicles.
“This is the only automobile museum in the United States that features Mercedes-Benz automobiles,” museum curator Rodger Van Ness said. “What you’ll see are some of the rarest in the world.”
The museum also includes such auto industry stalwarts as Rolls Royce, Bentley, Cadillac, Jaguar and Packard.
Van Ness, a retired railroad executive who is also a car collector, works at the museum as a labor of love. Like all car enthusiasts, he enjoys being around these classic beauties. Approaching a replica of the first car former bicycle maker Karl Benz ever made, the 1886 Benz Patent Motorwagen, Van Ness admired its simple three-wheeled functionality and modest engine. It looks very much like a horse buggy, with the motor in back replacing the horse in front.
“This is what started it all,” he said, smiling. “If he hadn’t invented this I’d have more money, but I don’t think I’d have had as much fun.”
To spread the word about the museum to other parts of the country, Van Ness takes cars from the display to “Concours d’ elegance” car shows around the country—destinations such as Pebble Beach, CA and Amelia Island, FL—where they certainly get noticed. Standing next to a 1939 Mercedes-Benz 540K, displayed with several show trophies and ribbons, he said, “This car has won so many awards, I’ve had to stop putting them here.”
Around the corner in a main showroom packed with painstakingly restored prize winners, Van Ness stopped at a stunning white 1935 Mercedes-Benz 500K Special Roadster with two seats plus a rumble seat, a white steering wheel with ivory-colored instrument panel and enough chrome to nearly requires sunglasses for viewing.
“I’ve been around cars a long time,” Van Ness said. “I’ve never seen chrome like this.”
From both an engineering and an aesthetic standpoint, it is a marvel to behold.
“To build this car from scratch just blows my mind,” he said.
Michael and Laurie Szilvagyi from Knoxville, TN, in the area visiting relatives, were very impressed.
“I love it,” Michael Szilvagyi said, standing next to a beautiful emerald green 1917 Packard while taking the self-guided tour. “This (museum) is right up there with the best. It has all the classics.”
The Szilvagyis have traveled extensively in Europe, visiting art and auto museums along the way.
“This is a quality collection,” Laurie Szilvagyi said. “It’s smaller, but the quality is here.”
Along one side of the showroom, three bright red Mercedes-Benz classics from the ‘50s and ‘60s compete for visitors’ attention. Just beyond is a black 1955 Mercedes-Benz 300 SC coupe that sparkles under the spotlights, with leather seats and a wood-grained dashboard.
“These are magnificent cars,” Van Ness said.
It also has vintage—and never used—luggage in the trunk. It painted such a vivid image of yesteryear that Michael Szilvagyi asked permission to take a picture.
“Absolutely,” Van Ness replied. “This is a fun museum. The Sistine Chapel, they won’t let you. But here, we will.”
While the Szilvagyis were admiring the row of Mercedes-Benz cars, workers drove in a 1958 Cadillac Eldorado Brougham, its throaty idling purr hinting at the power of the 365-cubic inch engine under the streamlined hood. The Caddy cost $13,500 new—an astronomical amount in those days and at the time, the most expensive American car ever. The cars, which actually cost Cadillac $23,000 each to make, were generally purchased by “movie stars, wealthy industrialists, a gangster or two and the ultra-wealthy,” according to the vehicle's display card.
The Brougham had “suicide doors” that swung on hinges to create a large exit opening in the center and all sorts of high-style amenities such as magnetized drinking cups, a lipstick holder, a cigarette case, beveled mirror, notepad and more. Cadillac called it the “most advanced auto ever built and a mirror of things to come.”
Other must-see autos in the collection include a 1954 Mercedes-Benz Gullwing with doors that open up toward the roof and a 1937 crimson red Rolls Royce Phantom III with faux cane doors and an elegant interior with leather seats and a maple-grained bar. The Gullwing cost $7,000 new and is now worth somewhere between $600,000 and $1.2 million, Van Ness said. The Phantom has a 448 cubic inch V12 engine, sleek lines and a regal, old world bearing.
Van Ness said being curator at the museum is his “dream job” and added that the 40,000 visitors last year know what others have yet to discover.
“This is kind of a hidden treasure in St. Louis,” he said, “but it’s becoming more and more known.”
The Kemp Auto Museum is located at 16955 Chesterfield Airport Rd. in Chesterfield, just east of the Boone’s Crossing exit off Highway 40.
Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. Admission is $8 for adults, $6 for seniors 62 and older and $3 for children. The self-guided audio tour is an additional $2.
The museum is also available for school programs, group tours, private parties and events. For more information, call 636-537-1718.