1937 Mercedes-Benz 540K Special Roadster
Chassis No. 154151 Commission No. 231118 Engine No. 154151 Body No. 200399
This 540K Special Roadster was the Mercedes-Benz display car at the 1937 Berlin Motor Show. It was love at first sight for Jack Warner, and subsequently, Warner Brothers Studios purchased it for his personal use. After preparation at the factory for delivery to the US, the installation of a MPH speedometer, and a “Made in Germany” identification plate, the Special Roadster was shipped to New York City. While there, Mitropa Motors showcased it in their print advertisements.
Jack Warner kept the car for over ten years. Dr. Sam Scher owned the car briefly before Connecticut veterinarian George Bitgood purchased it in 1949. The car was used very little by Dr. Bitgood before he put it away with the rest of his 540K collection. This elegant roadster stayed in his dirt-floored garage undisturbed for thirty-five years.
When we located this 540K Special Roadster for our clients we were most excited by its originality. After more than five decades of use, the odometer on it read less than 11,000 miles. It had never been apart, and so we were able to investigate and authentically reproduce the details and craftsmanship as created by the factory over sixty years ago.
One of the points of originality, which may be hard to appreciate amongst all the other details, is the upholstery material. We choose each vegetable-tanned top-grain leather hide individually, looking for the tannage and grain authentic to the period. The hides are surface dyed to match the original supplier’s technique and color.
Of the twenty-six long-tail Special Roadsters built, this is one of only six bodied with the spare tire well fully covered. Over the years the spare tire cover had been misplaced and a new one needed to be fabricated, which entailed first making a wooden pattern and then a brass casting to replicate its elegant chrome-plated brass handle.
In its debut at Pebble Beach in 1995, this car was awarded First in Class and the Mercedes-Benz Trophy. Two years later it was still winning, earning its third Best of Show at the Amelia Island Concours. Undoubtedly it is elegant and stylish, yet what many find surprising is the drivability of this car. To the uninformed, all cars from the pre-war era are thought to drive like trucks, but, in fact, Mercedes engineering was far ahead of its time. When these cars have had each component brought back to its original mechanical standards, as we have done on this one, you can experience Grand Touring at its best.
George Bitgood Was Middletown’s Very Own Dr. Doolittle
April 22, 1998 | By AMY ASH NIXON; Middletown Extra Editor
MIDDLETOWN — — I happened to answer the phone last week one day when Annette Champion called our news office to see if someone might be willing to do a story about her father, Dr. George Bitgood Jr., who died on Easter morning at the age of 93.
Right away, a rush of childhood memories of going to Dr. Bitgood with our cats and dogs came back, and I asked to be able to write the story since I had a connection and an understanding of this man.
I went over to the property on Silver Street where Dr. Bitgood and his wife, Muriel, had run their unique veterinary practice for more than a half-century and got a chance to hear more about the extraordinary life they led.
I wrote a story about Dr. Bitgood for the next day’s paper, but went home and lay awake, thinking of all the things I hadn’t had the space to include. The stories his daughters and daughter-in-law had shared with me. The memories and stories I was starting to hear from co-workers and from my mother about going to Dr. Bitgood.
The people I had spoken to initially used words like “institution,” “famous” and “legend,” in explaining to me Dr. Bitgood’s place in this community and beyond it. And the things he did — driving out at any hour of the day or night to help save an injured dog or cat that had been hit by a car, worried about their lives more than if he’d ever receive payment for his work — are extraordinary things. He was an extraordinary man. When his daughter called, I blurted out that as a little girl, I considered him to be the Miracle Man. We brought him animals other vets couldn’t save, and somehow, they would return to us restored. He had a gift and he gave his gift to the animals. He was like Middletown’s Doctor Doolittle.
The more I thought, I realized there some people’s lives can’t be fit into one story.
Dr. Bitgood is going to get another one.
Beverley Bitgood said her father once was brought a cat that had been severely injured by a car, and he nursed it back to health over a period of a few weeks. The bill probably should have been in the hundreds, but her father knew the family didn’t have much, and he asked the little girl whose cat it was how much her allowance was and how much she had saved. She told him, and he set her bill at $20. The girl’s father, Beverley recalled, had tears streaming down his face, and would later return to tell Dr. Bitgood that that lesson had been one of the most important his daughter had been taught.
The life of Dr. George Bitgood Jr. can teach us all something.
A character who was hard-of-hearing, wore his hair longish even in his later years, and whose yard was adorned with statues galore and European memorabilia from his trips around the world in the merchant marines — leading to some nasty rumors and speculation about his war-time activities (he was in veterinary school in Canada then starting out his practice during the war) — he turned away from what people said or thought and devoted himself to doing what he was called to do. Those who really knew Dr. Bitgood will remember him as a humanitarian who placed value in life, and not in money.
He took care of every animal he heard of that was in need of care. He didn’t think about the money, his family said. For years, he charged just $1 to neuter an animal — a price his father had charged when he ran a veterinary practice in New London years before — and he honored his father by freezing the cost.
One of Dr. Bitgood’s favorite quotes was “Turn the other cheek, you’ll never win an argument,” his family said. He did that and created a world in which he devoted himself to what mattered most to him: to his family and to the animals who would find their way to his door.
Another family story is about how Dr. Bitgood would go visiting the priest at St. Mary’s on South Main Street often. And the priest would come to pay him visits, too. Once, the priest’s dog walked himself over for a visit with the good doctor! When Dr. Bitgood came to Middletown in 1935, he came into the field his father and uncle had been in for many years already. His uncle, Ellsworth Bitgood, ran a veterinary practice in Middletown, and George Bitgood Jr. came to take it over as his uncle’s health was failing.
Between them, the Bitgood vets served pets in Middletown for more than a century.
Mrs. Bitgood always wore a little nurse’s uniform, and her nickname was “Tiny,” her daughters said. Their father, who wore white shoes, and a white jacket and pants, was known as “Doc.” The two were a devoted husband-and-wife who raised five children and worked side by side in a practice that pulled them to work every hour and day of the year. They never took time off, their children said.
Muriel Bitgood died five years ago, and her death made it hard for her husband to continue to work as much as he still wanted to despite his age, his children said.
Dr. Bitgood was still doing a lot of phone consultations with old patients, and occasionally, a patient would still pull in and ring the familiar bell at the side entrance, and he’d come out, his children said.
At one point in his career, and in his service to injured animals, the police department — appreciative to have a place to bring a hurt animal any time day or night — named him honorary police chief, his daughter Annette said.
During the years after the Great Depression, Dr. Bitgood would have a free clinic night once a week, and people would line up and wait for his help. The cars would be lined up down Silver Street, residents of the neighborhood recalled. The policy extended to nights other than the free clinic night, too.
“If someone was poor he didn’t charge them,” Beverley said. “I would say probably half of the work he did was for free. He didn’t differentiate or judge people by whether they were rich or poor, the only thing that mattered to him was how they treated their pets.”
Dr. Bitgood was a man of few words who would take his hands and feel an animal all over, and seem to magically know what to do to help them. He didn’t look or act like a vet you’d think of these days. His practice didn’t look like a regular practice. But, as his daughter, Beverley, said, he was often “the vet of last hope.”
I remember when I was about 11, our cat, Buffy, came home with a serious head wound, and another local vet suspected a woodchuck attack or some such thing, and said she would have to be put down.
My mother returned to Dr. Bitgood with Buffy. A week later, she was home, and she was fine and went on to live many more years. I remember her big head wound looking to be the size of a pink spot no bigger than a lady bug and being amazed at the powers of this man. Stories like that abound in the area.
Dr. Bitgood would go to great lengths to restore an animal regardless of how serious its injuries, and it often worked. As a last resort, he would recommend euthanizing a pet. My mother said she brought her beloved cat, Jet, to Dr. Bitgood for many years, and late in the cat’s life, she brought her to Dr. Bitgood, believing it was time to put her to sleep. Dr. Bitgood told my family, “It was time,” but said he just couldn’t do it. Jet had to be brought to another vet because Dr. Bitgood couldn’t bear to say goodbye to her. He loved all animals, but people say cats had a special place in his heart.
Another friend said no matter how long it was between visits to Dr. Bitgood, he’d always instantly remember her pet’s name when she’d call, and he’d say “Come on down.” He had no appointments. You called and you waited.
Through the years, word of his legend spread, and reporters and news crews from television programs, Yankee Magazine, and other publications tried to get him to grant an interview. He refused. He humbly went about his work and never wanted to give it up.
“It was here,” in his heart, his daughter-in-law, Sue, said, placing a hand over her own heart, and “in his hands, and in his head,” she said of the instinct and depth he brought to his work as a veterinarian. He did things differently, and he did them well. He understood the animals and he lived out his life in Middletown ready to help whatever creature came to his door.