Hitler's Cars - Collectibles or Artifacts of Mass Murder?
How do you feel about Hitler’s cars? No, I’m not talking about the KdF Wagen, aka VW Beetle, or its wartime variants like the Kübelwagen and Schwimmwagen. I’m talking about the cars more personally associated with the dictator and mass murderer, like his parade and armored cars that find their way into collections and museums.
I’ll get to der Fuhrer’s automobiles in a paragraph or two, but on the way there, I’m first going to discuss someone very stupid.
Democratic National Committee Chair Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) tried to make a fuss about presidential hopeful Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) having a fundraiser in the Dallas area home of Harlan Crow. Wasserman Schultz publicized the fact that Crow owns some Nazi and Hitler artifacts, implying that Crow and Rubio were somehow sympathetic to the Third Reich. The fact that the event took place on the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, the focus of the Jewish “days of awe” (the High Holidays), according to the Florida congresswoman, was further demonstration of Mr. Rubio’s supposed insensitivity to Jewish concerns. What Wasserman Schultz didn’t say was that the Nazi artifacts are part of Crow’s extensive historical collection that also includes authentic memorabilia of Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill and Dwight Eisenhower, among other world leaders and historic figures.
This post isn’t really about politics so I’ll dispense with Wasserman Schultz’s attempt to pander to Jewish voters with just my impression that she seems far more concerned with a long dead Jew-hater than she is with the living ones in Iran with whom she supports entreating. Since she was appealing to Jews, I will say that as a strongly identifying and practicing (albeit less than perfectly) Jew, I find Ms. Wasserman Schultz’s stupidity to be deeply embarrassing. It’s not because of her political stances as I can cite plenty of Republicans with only double digit IQs. It simply distresses me that such a profoundly stupid individual of any political ideology, ethnicity or religious faith could rise to a position of power in the U.S. government. I personally know many and by reputation know of many more exceptionally smart Jewish women, including quite a few brilliant ones. Plenty of them are politically left wing. They’d embarrass Debbie in a debate. The average IQ among Ashkenazi Jews is about 110, one standard deviation shifted to the right side of the bell curve. Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s intellect undoubtedly resides somewhere on the left side of that curve. Very ambitious and full of guile, but not very smart. Just smart enough to repeat talking points off of a teleprompter, almost.
One example of that stupidity is that she doesn’t see the difference between archiving artifacts of history and endorsing the views that some of those artifacts represent. Giving her the benefit of the doubt, though, perhaps she’s not quite that stupid and is just deliberately confusing someone’s interest in history and its artifacts with endorsing retrograde beliefs so she can smear her political opponents with a Godwin violation. Since I generally prefer to presume stupidity before malice, I’m not sure that’s an improvement over idiocy, though.
Actually, I am kind of glad Rep. Wasserman Schultz exposed us to her idiocy because it’s a fine excuse for me to discus a topic prompted by a recent visit to a private museum. I was in Illinois for a book project and when I found out that I wasn’t going to be far from the Historic Auto Attractions, I arranged with collector Wayne Lensing for a visit. Most of what I knew about Lensing was that he once owned the Tucker parts that have been assembled into Tucker #52, and that he currently owns inventor Bruce Mohs’ Ostentatienne Opera Sedan and one of Mohs’ SafariKars. Marty Densch’s articles on Mohs and his cars are among the most popular on my Cars In Depth website. Bruce Mohs was a great character and his completely outrageous cars make a great story. I knew that I had to see them in person.
What I didn’t know was that Lensing, who has done well selling short track racing chassis and other racing parts with his companies, Lefthander Chassis & Performance Parts Supply, has a great love of (mostly) American history and culture, and he has gathered together a large and diverse collection of items that reflect his interests. If you’re in the general Chicago area, it’s worth the drive of an hour or two. In addition to the obligatory gangster and movie cars (including at least one Batmobile that’s real enough that the movie studio contractually has right of first refusal and can tell Lensing how he can promote it), he has a lot of cool, authentic stuff like Clark Gable and Vivian Leigh’s actual wardrobes from Gone With The Wind. Not all of the items are real, however, though most are. When I asked him if his Family Truckster was a real movie car, he smiled and said, “Well, George Barris autographed it.” The vast majority of the artifacts in the museum are, in fact, authentic and well documented.
One of Lensing’s interests is the topic of U.S. presidents and world leaders. He owns a Daimler limousine used by Britain’s royal family, the former king of Siam’s 1928 Delage limousine with its Garuda hood ornament, and Evita Peron’s Rolls-Royce.
The museum has a section devoted just to White House furnishings. Lensing also has a number of presidential limousines, both official and privately used, like Ronald Reagan’s official armored Cadillac and LBJ’s stretched Continental used to ride around his ranch. There are also a number of cars related to John F. Kennedy. I don’t think Lensing would mind being called a presidential assassination buff because sections of the museum are devoted to both Kennedy’s killing and artifacts from Abraham Lincoln’s presidency and murder. The Kennedy room includes a replica of the Lincoln Continental death car, one of the official state Cadillac limousines that was in the Dallas parade, along with the Checker taxicab Lee Harvey Oswald used as a getaway car, and the ambulance that carried Kennedy’s killer to the hospital after he was himself shot by Jack Ruby. Lensing even has the veil Jackie Kennedy wore to her husband’s funeral mass.
When you’re a collector on Lensing’s level, you don’t just troll through eBay, hoping to bid on an item here or there. You try to buy complete lots. A number of his items were acquired when existing large collections were divested. That’s how he bought many of the wax characters in some of his displays. Years ago, the Imperial Palace Casino in Las Vegas put together a great car collection that included, if I’m not mistaken, the largest single collection of Duesenbergs ever amassed. When that collection was sold, Lensing acquired three cars associated with the 20th century’s most notorious dictators: Joseph Stalin’s 1937 V12 Packard, Benito Mussolini’s 1939 Lancia Astura parade car, and Adolph Hitler’s six-wheeled 1939 Mercedes G4 staff car.
Lensing’s no fan of those bad guys; he’s a history buff. The display containing those cars also has huge blowups of newspaper headlines about the war and its aftermath. Original surrender documents from both Japan and Germany are part of the collection. He has items from Allied leaders like one of FDR’s secret service cars and artifacts relating to Winston Churchill (yes, I know Stalin was one of the Allies, but his car is in the dictators’ alcove).
Lensing didn’t get to own all that stuff from being naive. To protect himself from people who are Wasserman Schultz level stupid, as you enter the alcove with the dictators’ cars, you pass a small sign with a disclaimer indicating that they are there for historical purposes and no endorsement is implied. The museums website states, concerning the Hitler staff car, “This car is on display as part of a collection for historical purposes only. Historic Auto Attractions in no way condones the ideas or actions of the Nazi party.”
I’m a museum buff and I think that the Shoah was one of the pivotal events of the 20th century, but I’m not a big fan of redundant Holocaust museums. A few are elementally important. There’s Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, a life changing experience. There’s also the federal government’s Holocaust museum in Washington D.C. and the Jewish Museum of Prague that maintains a massive collection of Jewish artifacts stolen by the Nazis. However, I’m not convinced that every community needs to have an official Holocaust museum or memorial. The best memorials are Jewish children and grandchildren. Ultimately, Jewish schools are more important than Holocaust museums. There is a need, however, if only to rebut the deniers, to archive the artifacts. If that means multiple and somewhat redundant museums, so be it.
It goes both ways. If it’s important to archive the concentration camp inmates’ striped uniforms, the same goes for leather coats and death’s head lapel pins worn by the SS — and the automobiles they drove, too.
That being said, there is a line to be drawn, at least in my mind. Things can be placed in proper historical context without glorifying them. The first time I ever tried to be published on the topic of cars was a letter that I sent to the editors of Car and Driver back in 1996, not long after perestroika and glasnost and Reagan, Thatcher and John Paul II helped push the USSR to collapse in 1991. The folks on Hogback Road had published a two-part series about a cloak and dagger effort to recover one of “Hitler’s” cars, one of the 20 Mercedes-Benz 540Ks the Fuhrer ordered armor plated in the wake of the 1941 Prague assassination of SS-Obergruppenfuhrer Reinhard Heydrich. It’s one of three that are known to exist today.
An Estonian farmer had somehow come into possessing it, hoping to use it in a tractor project. However, fearing that the communists would destroy anything associated with the Fascist leader, or just seize it as a war trophy, and later worried that the Russian mafia had gotten wind of something valuable, he dismantled it and dispersed the parts — even apparently burying some of them — in six different barns.
A wealthy American car enthusiast had gone to the former USSR, looking for interesting collectibles and eventually ended up finding the 540K. At first, the farmer was firmly in “not for sale” mode, but throwing in guaranteed acceptance and paid-for tuition at an international English language school in the United States for his daughter sealed the deal. They ended up using two different airplanes to move all of the components (plus a vintage British postal van and an old Fiat 500) to Finland for transshipment to the U.S., constantly worried about corrupt officials — or worse, the Russian mob.
At the time of publication, the Car and Driver article, which in retrospect was salted with deliberate misinformation to protect the collector’s identity, said that a full restoration was planned.
That’s what prompted my letter to Car and Driver. I told them that archiving the car was important, but that because it was an artifact of genocide, a tool of the mass murderers, restoring it would be like restoring John Wayne Gacy’s freezer. (The letter was never published.)
As it turned out, the armored Benz was never restored. It stayed in storage in Connecticut for two decades and was auctioned off for $770,603 (inclusive of commissions) by Bonham’s in 2014, still mostly disassembled as found in Estonia. You can read a comprehensive story of the car’s history here.
Wayne Lensing didn’t restore his Hitler car. Like the other dictators’ cars in his collection, it was already restored when he bought it from the Imperial Palace collection. Whatever condition those cars are in, however, they’re undeniably historical artifacts, not endorsements. If owning historical artifacts makes Harlan Crow and Wayne Lensing Nazi sympathizers, what does that make your great uncle, the 91-year-old Airborne veteran, who has a Wehrmacht helmet that he retrieved from a German soldier he had a hand in killing, sitting on his fireplace mantle?
Photos courtesy of Historic Auto Attractions and Bonham’s.
Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS
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Viewing the Nazi six-wheeler in person would certainly give me chills. It's very provocative within its historical context. Remove all associations to Nazi Germany and it's just another old vehicle that does nothing to remind me of what humanity has been through. Well, aside from muddy trails.
Has Lensing made any effort to add Cecile Richards' ride to his collection a genocidal maniac motors?