From Indiana farm boy to Mercedes-Benz foreign agent to owner of a 1957 300SC—one of the rarest Mercedes ever built—88-year-old Kent Emigh has lived a life the average car guy can only dream about.
“I sold five new 300SL Gullwings,” Emigh says, referring to Mercedes’ iconic sports car. “That’s quite a few when you consider that back then all the kids in Indiana drove their dad’s Studebaker. They’re really beautiful, fascinating cars and they’re well-engineered. But I don’t think anyone could have imagined what they would become.”
Like the 300SL, Emigh (pronounced “Amy”) was built to last. His ability to recall names, dates, cars and circumstances in detail is uncanny. Of course, he doesn’t expect that to continue forever. “I’m glad you called,” he jokes. “One of these days I’m going to forget all this stuff.”
Born in 1928, Emigh grew up in Knox, Ind., about 115 miles north of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. When his farming father made the switch from horses to tractors, Emigh and his older brother, Wayne, maintained all of the equipment. Young Kent was fascinated by anything mechanical and naturally gravitated toward automobiles, but he never saw the famed Indy 500 race. Not back then anyway. “I was always in school,” he says, “so I never got down to the track.”
That all changed in 1952, when Emigh and his friend John Schaler—both in their early 20s — decided to open an auto dealership in Indianapolis, only a few miles from the Brickyard. Neither had any experience in the car business, but they had plenty of passion and were determined to make it work. “John knew about sales and I knew about farm machinery. We really thought we could make a go of it, so we asked the bank for a loan and they gave us the money. We called ourselves Auto Imports Limited—and we used the ‘Limited’ because it sounded European.”
The partners began selling upscale British cars and added other European brands after meeting with legendary auto importer Max Hoffman in New York in 1953. “We sold Rolls-Royce, Mercedes-Benz, Jaguar, MG and Morris Minor mostly, plus some Hillman, Sunbeam Talbot, Healey and Rover,” Emigh says. “It was a crazy tough market. A lot of those cars weren’t well known. But if we didn’t represent them, someone else would have nosed in there and done it.”
Emigh became particularly fond of Mercedes-Benz, which called its authorized American dealers “foreign agents.” [Emigh says Mercedes informed him that he is the last surviving foreign agent in the U.S.] Automobiles were shipped to Hoffman, and agents were required to pick them up in New York. Some considered the frequent trips an inconvenience, but Emigh appreciated the opportunity to learn valuable information about the cars. Dinner and a Broadway show didn’t hurt, either.
Among Emigh’s clients were brothers Eli and J.K. Lilly of the Indianapolis-based Eli Lilly Pharmaceutical Co. “Eli was more traditional—a Rolls-Royce guy. J.K. was flamboyant; he bought a (Mercedes) 300S from me.”
Auto Imports Ltd. also sold used cars. In fact, Emigh claims, “We kind of created the whole ‘pre-owned vehicle’ thing in the spring of ’54. A guy had a new Corvette and decided to trade it for a Jag XK coupe. Well, we couldn’t really call it ‘used’ since he’d hardly driven it. So we called it ‘pre-owned’ in the ad.”
Another notable automobile that passed through Emigh’s hands was a Mercedes 280SL that belonged to the son of Claus von Stauffenberg, the German soldier who led a failed attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler during WWII. Emigh remembers the 280SL vividly. “What a beautiful car,” he says. “It was beige with wine interior. Gorgeous.”
Emigh says there were plenty of automobiles he wished he could have kept for himself, but “we needed every car on the show floor.” He did, however, eventually succumb to the charm of the 300SL and owned one (a used one, he is quick to point out) for years. But one Mercedes stole his heart like no other—the 300SC. Emigh just had to have a one.
Emigh took three business trips to Germany in the late 1950s after Mercedes cancelled its agreement with Hoffman in 1957 and opened offices in the U.S. He spent whatever spare time he could in search of a used SC, but considering that fewer than 50 cabriolets were built, the odds were stacked against him. “I looked everywhere and found nothing,” he says. “I went home empty handed every time.” Then Emigh received the call he’d been not-so-patiently waiting for. A prominent factory owner in Hamburg was willing to part with his ’57 Mercedes 300SC for $6,000. Adjusting for inflation, that’s the equivalent of just over $50,000 today. Emigh didn’t hesitate.
“In all, I traveled 29,000 miles for that car,” he says. “And it was worth every mile and every penny. In my opinion, it was the best all-around car Mercedes ever built.”
The 300SC and 300SL received the same 175-hp, 3.0-liter fuel-injected six-cylinder engine, which could propel the cars well past 100 mph. “There are probably 20–25 SC cabriolets left in the world, but not in original condition like mine,” Emigh says. “I can’t imagine there are any others.”
A few years after Emigh brought his prized 300SC home to Indianapolis, Mercedes-Benz North America asked him to help open a new agency in San Jose, Calif. So in 1963, he sold Auto Imports Ltd. and moved west with his wife, Susan, and four-month-old daughter, Michelle—traveling most of the way on old Route 66. “It was the first time in my life I worked for someone else other than my father,” Emigh says, and the arrangement didn’t last long. The following year, Emigh left Mercedes and opened another import business, Auto Sport Ltd. in Palo Alto. “I just enjoyed going at my own pace,” Emigh says.
Emigh worked well into the 1990s, and as he looks back upon his long career with gratitude. “I’ve been fortunate to travel, see some great things and meet some very nice people,” he says. That includes legends like race car drivers Sir Stirling Moss, Juan Manuel Fangio, Bill Vukovich, Pete DePaolo and Luigi Chinetti; Gull Wing Group International founder Ernie Spitzer; and entertainers Frank Sinatra, Danny Kaye and Mel Torme.
Emigh thinks today’s vehicles have lost something that those in the 1950s and ’60s had in spades—style. “There are so many jelly bean cars out there. They all look the same to me, just different colors. Some of the retro models are exciting, but I don’t see many I would consider true collector cars.”
Certainly none like his beloved 300SC. Emigh says he can’t help but wonder what will become of his old friend. Emigh’s wife passed away in 1998, and his daughter, her husband and their two children aren’t really into cars. “Maybe a little bit, but not enough,” Emigh says, then jokes, “I did the best I could.”
Although he’d love to find a good home for the SC some day—a museum or collector who will cherish it as he has—Emigh is going to enjoy the car for as long as possible, just as he does the memories. “I have scrapbooks and hundreds of photos, and every one of them tells a story,” he says. “I’m just happy that people still want to hear them.”