Craig Hopkins of Dallas, Texas has a collection of model cars in a cabinet, organized “by how much I like them. This car is on the top row.” “This car” is his restored and very much full-sized 1936 Mercedes-Benz 500K Special Roadster, one of only two remaining with a smooth backside. (Most feature an exterior spare tire.) This year’s La Jolla Concours D’Elegance was its first judged showing after seven years of reconstruction. It didn’t win, perhaps because Hopkins mistakenly used rubber valve stem caps instead of metal, and his bolt heads have writing on them — both post-war innovations. But it’s still the glorious grown-up version of the plastic model he built in junior high: that long, beautiful body with its graceful swells and fearsome mechanics. (“I wanted a car with exhaust pipes coming out of the hood,” he stresses.)
Hopkins started with that body, bought it from the guy who built it to factory specs from the ash frame up: Cass Nawrocki. It was his last project before retiring. “His dad had a taxi fleet in Poland, and they had to make their own parts. Then the war came, and then the Soviet occupation. Cass and a friend found their way to Yugoslavia and then across the Adriatic Sea in a rubber raft.” Eventually, he made it to Detroit, “because that was the car capital of the world,” and landed a job despite his complete lack of English, because by golly, he could fabricate. Once the body was complete, Hopkins’ “Plan A was to find an original chassis and have an investment, and Plan B was to have a really expensive, great-looking toy with modern technology.”
Plan A won out, thanks to an American serviceman who brought a battle-damaged trophy home after the war: chassis, engine, steering wheel, and a few gauges. There was a hole in the engine block (fixable, it turns out, with Kevlar and titanium). He was planning to put an Auburn speedster body on his prize, but best laid plans and all that. In the ’60s, a Danish baron bought the remains; twenty years later, he stuck a fiberglass body on them and got the thing running. In 2012, Hopkins bought the paste job at a posthumous auction of the baron’s collection and started his own restoration. “There’s three surviving originals, and they’re $10-$12 million. I can’t get anywhere near that, but this was something I could achieve.”
“You finally got it done, eh?” says an admirer as he approaches. “It came out pretty good compared to what you started with.”
“Yeah, I started with almost nothing.” (He’s got the pictures to prove it, gathered into a book with plenty of accompanying text.) “Still a little bit of tweaking.”
“Never enough time.”
Hopkins drove the roadster here from his friend John Crihfield’s house ten miles away, a pleasant cruise in the pre-traffic dawn. But watching him page through his project book, chat with fellow collectors, and demonstrate the suicide doors to the judges, you get a sense of his delight’s true source.