Elvis' 507: The real story

Elvis' 507: The real story 1
Jack Castor with Elvis' 507 (70079) and a blue 507 (70089). Photo by Helmut Werb

[Note: This story was originally published in Bimmer #83, June 2009. The values for 507s have gone up considerably since then, as you’ll undoubtedly notice! Jack Castor’s 70079, the ex-Elvis Presley 507, is now at BMW Classic, on display in the museum before it’s taken to the workshop for restoration.—Editor]

Of the millions of cars that have ever been built, only a handful of individual vehicles are truly legendary. James Dean’s Porsche 550 Spyder. Ingrid Bergman’s Ferrari 375 MM. Frank Sinatra’s Dual Ghia. The Lincoln Continental in which John F. Kennedy was assassinated. There are others, of course, but it’s a short list in any case.

And no matter what the criteria, only two BMWs truly deserve to be on it. One is the Touring-bodied 328 coupe that won the Gran Premio di Brescia in 1940; the other is the 507 owned by Elvis Presley while stationed in Germany with the U.S. Army.
Both cars’ lives have been marked by mystery. The 328 probably would have vanished into dust had tracking it down not become Jim Profitt’s obsession; it now resides in the BMW Museum in Munich.
The fate of Elvis’ 507 was even more obscure. A 507 bearing serial number 70192 had been auctioned as “Elvis’ 507” by Barrett-Jackson in 1997, but we were pretty sure that wasn’t the car Presley had driven in Germany.

Instead, we deduced that Elvis had instead owned 70079, the ex-factory demonstrator raced by Hans Stuck in 1958. Trouble was, 70079 hadn’t been seen in almost 50 years, having apparently vanished without a trace upon Presley’s discharge from the U.S. Army.

Imagine our astonishment, then, when we peel back the tarp on this red 507, open the hood and find the number “70079” stamped onto its chassis. If there’s a Holy Grail among BMWs, this is it, and we’re standing right in front of it.

Mind-blowingly, 70079 had been practically on our doorstep for decades, stored in a pumpkin warehouse barely an hour south of San Francisco.

Deductive reasoning
We’d been wondering about the location of 507 number 70079 for years, ever since we explored the matter on the “Back Page” of Bimmer #63 in December 2006.

Multiple sources claimed that Elvis had purchased a car raced by Hans Stuck; if that were true, he could only have owned 70079, the car identified as Stuck’s 507 in Dr. Karlheinz Lange’s definitive history of the model, The legendary BMW 507 published by BMW Mobile Tradition.

Dr. Lange, it should be noted, is the former head of BMW’s powertrain division and the author of the two-volume BMW Engines that we reference frequently in these pages. His knowledge of the marque’s history is unparalleled, and so is his access to the BMW Archive.

We asked our sources at the BMW Archive to confirm our assumption, and although they couldn’t “communicate serial numbers directly,” they did reveal that Elvis’ car was indeed the same car raced by Stuck in 1958. (In addition to 70079, Stuck also raced 70145, but not until 1959, by which time Elvis had already taken possession of his 507.)

We asked our readers for tips on where 70079 might be today. Legend had it that the car had returned to the States with Elvis in 1960, but it wasn’t at Graceland, and it hadn’t been given to Ursula Andress in 1963.

Not long after Bimmer #63 appeared, we received an e-mail from a fellow named Jack Castor, who said he owned a 507 with serial number 70079. He couldn’t confirm that it had really been Elvis’ car, but he thought it might be; even if it hadn’t, it was an ex-Hans Stuck car, which was significant in itself. It didn’t run, but we were welcome to come down and see it any time.

A retired aerospace engineer with a passion for vintage bicycles, especially those treacherous 19th-century contraptions known as high-wheelers or penny farthings, Castor is a serious automotive enthusiast who regularly drives a long-wheelbase Ferrari 250 GT California Spider, a D-type Jaguar replica and a Kaiser Traveler, among other cool vehicles.

He’s also a seriously knowledgeable enthusiast, one who’s accumulated a wealth of information about his vehicles. He’s traced the history of his cars with an engineer’s precision, and his dossier on the 507 is impressive. He’s gotten help from Dr. Lange, but Castor has pursued much of the car’s history on his own, contacting anyone who might have information and collecting every scrap of documentation he can find that might verify its provenance. Most importantly, he’s looked at that documentation critically, and he refuses to accept information that won’t stand up to scrutiny even if it suggests Presley’s prior ownership.

The 507’s lengthy gestation
Before we get into the story of 70079, it’s worthwhile to recall the tortuous gestation of the 507 itself. As Dr. Lange’s model history recalls, BMW had planned a post-war successor to its 328 roadster as early as 1946, but the actual R&D process didn’t get underway until 1953.

Even then, the 507 as we know it didn’t take shape until 1954, when BMW’s U.S. importer Max Hoffman enlisted Albrecht Graf von Goertz to design a roadster that would appeal to American customers.

The first two examples of the Goertz-designed car—70002 and 70003—were built in 1955 and equipped with 3.2-liter V8 engines. That September, they were displayed at the Frankfurt Auto Show, where they garnered an enthusiastic response from the press and public. Unfortunately, the cars weren’t really ready to go. Problems with construction of the car’s aluminum body, as well as cost issues and management indecision, delayed the start of series production. The first “real” 507, number 70005, wasn’t built until December 11, 1956.

BMW hoped it would be the first of at least 1,000 per year, most of which would go to the U.S. Unfortunately, production problems persisted, and the car’s high price led Hoffman to reduce his orders for the car drastically. By the time the model was discontinued in 1960, BMW had built just 251 examples of Goertz’s masterpiece.
The car you see here, Castor’s 70079, left the BMW factory on September 13, 1957. It had already been registered two days earlier, assigned license plate M-JX 800.

Its official “Certificate” from the BMW Archive identifies it as one of 65 507s painted in Feather White, the most popular color for the model. Though BMW’s official color chart suggested red leather as the best accompaniment to Feather White, Castor believes this car had a black leather interior. In addition, 70079 was equipped from new with a Becker “Mexico” radio with automatic antenna, Rudge wheels, a removable hardtop and a lighted “D” (for Deutschland) sign above its rear bumper.

On the day it left the factory, 70079 was taken to the Frankfurt Motor Show, where it was one of at least two white 507s present. Castor says it wasn’t actually on the BMW stand but outside the hall, where it was presumably used for demonstration purposes. Indeed, the white car shown in photos of the BMW stand used wheels with conventional hubcaps rather than Rudge-style knockoffs; this was probably the same 507 used for static publicity photos.

The Hans Stuck years
Upon its return from the Frankfurt show on September 30, 1957, 70079 went into service as a promotional vehicle for BMW. It was used by Hans Stuck Sr. to demonstrate the 507’s capabilities to dealers and potential customers, and it was raced by Stuck in a few hillclimb events.

It was also driven by members of the automotive press for reviews, one of which appeared in The Autocar of November 15, 1957 along with a photo of the car wearing its M-JX 800 plate. As author “R.B.” wrote:

“On the BMW stand at Earls Court this year, visitors with long memories may have recognized a racing celebrity of the pre-war days—Hans Stuck, the Bergmeister. From the Munich factory he had brought a 507 with detachable hard top, for demonstrations to prospective customers—or to overdrafted enthusiasts masquerading as such.

“We arranged a rendezvous with Stuck and the 507 at the AFN works in Isleworth. There was time and space on busy roads for only one or two exhilarating surges up to 100 mph in third, to take a few high speed curves with remarkable stability, to execute a 360-degree loop around a roundabout with the throttle alone, and once to brake very convincingly from the century.

“Later the Bergmeister left for Belgium, to show the car to King Baudouin; after that, the Turin show…and enough snow would fall soon around his home at Grainau (at the foot of the Zugspitze, Germany’s highest mountain) for ski-ing—Stuck’s favorite pastime.”

Back in Germany, auto motor und sport used M-JX 800 for its 1958 comparison test between Germany’s “big sport tourers,” the 507 and the Mercedes 300 SL. From a standing start, the 215-hp Mercedes ran the 0 to 62 mph sprint in 8.8 seconds, soundly defeating the 150-hp 507, which needed 11.1 seconds to cover the same distance.

Although the 507 wasn’t the fastest thing on the road, contemporary press reports noted that it was a formidable hillclimb racer in the hands of the right driver. That would be Stuck, who won the pre-war European Mountain Championship three times.

As Dr. Lange notes, Stuck used 70079 to win his class at the Rossfeld Hillclimb on May 11, 1958; the German Hillclimb Grand Prix at Schauinsland on July 27; and the Swiss Hillclimb Grand Prix in Ollon Villars on August 31. (Given his age and racing history, Stuck probably wasn’t bothered by the fact that 70079 hadn’t been equipped with then-optional seatbelts.)

BMW also lent 70079 to Bavaria Filmstudios for use in the musical comedy Hula-Hopp Conny starring Cornelia Froboess and Rudolf Vogel. 70079 was one of two 507s used in the film—Castor has watched it extensively and noted the differences between the two cars.

He also noted that the film—which was shot in color, unlike the extant still photos of 70079—shows the car to have had a black and white interior.

“If you look at the screen shots, you can see that the top of the dash is black, the sun visor is black, the grab handle is black,” Castor said. “This was a black and white car.”

As could probably be expected, such use resulted in a few mishaps. The service notes collected by Heinz Landzettel in Germany (which Castor has seen but does not possess) say that 70079 was turned over to a Herr Schlesinger on February 14, 1958. Dr. Lange says that Schlesinger was a master painter in BMW’s service department.
“Its intensive use and high public profile meant that minor repairs and reworking were often required to ensure the car remained in excellent condition,” Dr. Lange told us. For competition use, the car would have been prepared in the development department, with no mechanic given sole responsibility.

Landzettel’s service records note that accident damage was repaired at the BMW factory on July 10, and that the right rear fender was repaired and the rear bumper rechromed on August 18. Landzettel’s notes also say that the engine—originally 40094— was replaced on that date; Dr. Lange suggests that it might have been rebuilt instead.

“The car was fitted and delivered from the factory with engine number 40094, the ‘standard’ engine. It is not known whether a different engine was subsequently used,” he said. “However, it surely cannot be right that a new engine bearing number 094 was fitted in August 1958; perhaps this refers to a ‘completely overhauled’ reincarnation of 094.”

That right rear fender needed another repair on September 15, and a new windshield was installed on October 17. On that date, 70079 also got a new gearbox—perhaps because BMW foresaw the car’s imminent delivery to a customer and felt the original had seen too much hard use. On November 25, another new windshield was installed, though we don’t know why.

Life with Private Presley
A few weeks later, 70079’s life as a factory demonstrator came to an end. On December 12, 1958, it was officially delivered to its first customer, Autohaus Wirth, a small dealership in Frankfurt.

On December 20, 1958, a uniformed Elvis Presley took a white 507 for a test drive at Wirth. Some sources have claimed the sale was made through Autohaus Glöckler, a larger dealership also in Frankfurt, but Glöckler’s sales manager told Dr. Lange that the test drive and the sale took place at Wirth.

Why the well-used 70079 rather than a new 507 for the King of Rock and Roll? According to Dr. Lange, “It was the best-maintained 507 that BMW could lay its hands on.”

As it did during its time as a factory demo, 70079 wore its Rudge-style knockoff wheels for that test drive, but its M-JX 800 license plate had already been swapped for a dealer plate, F 04071.
According to Andreas Schröer, author of Private Presley, Elvis followed the norm for German car buyers and didn’t take immediate delivery of the 507. Soon thereafter, however, he was photographed driving a white 507 between his rented house in Bad Nauheim and the U.S. Army base in Friedburg, just north of Frankfurt.

Though some have speculated that Presley leased the car, Dr. Lange says he has it “on good authority” that the car was purchased outright rather than leased or borrowed. In any case, Elvis’ car was registered under a pair of U.S. Armed Forces plates: A-1499 in 1958 and G-1620 in 1959. (New plates were issued by the Armed Forces each year.)

Was that car 70079? Castor is reluctant to make such a claim. “I don’t have proof,” he says. “It might not be this car.”

Dr. Lange thinks it is. “The 507 sold to Elvis can only have been 70079. No other 507 had been delivered to Wirth up to that point in 1958. Glöckler, meanwhile, had received two such cars in February and March 1958, both in the paint shade Papyrus, and another in October in blue. Only 70079 fits in—to the day—with the course of events.”

Castor has attempted to get Presley’s vehicle registration information from the U.S. Armed Forces in Germany but hasn’t been able to do so. Even so, popular lore would seem to concur with Dr. Lange. Marie Clayton’s Elvis Presley: Unseen Archives states that Elvis acquired the 507 that had been used by Stuck for demonstrations; if that’s true, it could only have been 70079, as Stuck didn’t race his second 507, the Japan Red s/n 700145, until 1959.

The photographs of Elvis with his 507 can’t confirm the car’s serial number, but they do show a car whose details conform to 70079’s specification, with the single exception of the lighted “D” sign that was affixed to its tail at the factory and was still present during the filming of Hula-Hopp Conny.

But, as Dr. Lange tells us, the car couldn’t carry a “D” plate of any sort since it wasn’t technically registered in Germany but with the U.S. Armed Forces. (The “D” isn’t on the car today, and it wasn’t there when Castor bought it in 1968, although the car does have mounting and wiring holes in the rear bumper that could accommodate it.

Driving a white car presented Elvis with the kind of problem only a rock star would have: Female fans kept defacing its bodywork with lipstick kisses and other messages, which proved embarrassing and were difficult to remove.

As a remedy, Elvis had the car painted red, and Dr. Lange has noted that photos show the 1959 G-1620 plate on both a white and a red 507, presumably the same car. “This history is clearly confirmed,” Dr. Lange told Castor.

Private Presley says that Elvis returned his car to BMW to be repainted in white, but Dr. Lange says this isn’t so. In any case, the car is red today, but its original white paint is clearly visible in many areas.

German-American hot rod
The popular mythology says that Elvis brought his 507 back to the U.S. with him when he left the service on March 2, 1960.
“I’m not sure he did,” Castor says.

Neither is Dr. Lange, though he’s certain that the car never returned to BMW, as the lack of internal records confirms.

“Indeed, there is no record of what happened to the car after Elvis’ term of military service,” Dr. Lange said. “As far as I am aware, there are no photos of it taken after 1960 in either Germany or the U.S., though it was presumably shipped across the Atlantic when Elvis returned.”

If Elvis did bring the car back to the U.S. with him, what he did with it after that is a mystery. As Dr. Lange noted, no photos of Elvis with a 507 seem to have been taken in the U.S., and there’s no hard evidence that Elvis ever drove any BMW outside Germany.
Whether he drove it on U.S. soil or not, we can be certain that Presley didn’t give his Armed Forces car but another 507 to Ursula Andress in 1963—if he gave her a 507 at all. She had one, for sure, but Andress herself is probably the only person who knows how she got it. Though it was long believed to have been a gift from Elvis, it’s also rumored to have come from John Derek.

In any case, Barrett-Jackson auctioned an ex-Andress car it called “Elvis’ 507” for $350,000 in 1997. Sources at Barrett-Jackson told us that the car bore serial number 70192.

Dr. Lange says the factory records identify 70192 as one of five 507s painted Stone Gray—a medium hue that would never have been mistaken for Feather White even in black and white photographs. Its manufacture was completed on October 30, 1958, but 70192 wasn’t delivered by BMW until May 25, 1959, when it was shipped to the Fadex company in New York along with another 507.

“Theoretically, the car could have been ready for handover to Elvis in December [at Autohaus Wirth],” Dr. Lange said. If it was Elvis’ car, however, “It could not have been shipped to the U.S. that May as he was plainly driving his 507 in Germany at that time.”

With apologies to whoever owns 70192—which is suddenly less valuable but still worth the easy $500,000 that an “ordinary” 507 will fetch—let’s take Ursula out of the picture and turn instead to a radio personality named Tommy Charles.

In Castor’s files on the 507 is a clipping from a 1962 Birmingham, Alabama newspaper. The story details a 507 that Charles says he bought from a Chrysler dealer in New York who presented it as “Elvis’ car.”

Though that could have been untrue, it’s important to bear in mind that celebrity provenance wasn’t nearly as important—or so valuable—in 1962 as it is today. A dealer might have been able to boost a car’s price and salability by touting a celebrity connection, but he wouldn’t have had the huge financial incentive to do so that exists today.

For perspective, consider that Steve McQueen’s Ferrari Lusso—normally a $500,000 car—fetched $2.3 million at a recent auction, or that the short-wheelbase California Spider originally owned by James Coburn brought $10.9 million where an ordinary SWB Cal Spider would sell for half that much.

Whatever the car’s provenance, or its serial number, Charles brought his 507 from New York to Alabama. There, the hotrodding urge led him to replace its BMW engine with a supercharged Chevy V8 that allowed it to reach 140 mph. (Officially, the 507 had a top speed of 136 mph.) Charles also replaced the gearbox with a Borg-Warner unit and welded a Chevy rear axle to the car’s torsion bars.
“That’s still there,” Castor said. The supercharged V8 is long gone, however, as is the original BMW motor. When Castor bought the car, it had a naturally aspirated Chevy V8. “I guess they kept the supercharged engine and put in a cheap Corvette engine. But it had the Borg-Warner gearbox and the Chevy rear end, so I think I have that car.”

He certainly has a car with Alabama plates, which he hasn’t been able to trace back to Charles. In any case, it’s hard to imagine that more than one 507 fitting that description would have been in Alabama or any other U.S. state in the 1960s.

Wherever it had been since it left Autohaus Wirth in Frankfurt, 70079 ended up in Arizona in 1968. That’s where Castor bought it from a fellow named Lloyd Cottle after flying down from Palo Alto, California to check it out.

It was a car he’d wanted for some time. “I had been to Germany for a summer job with Suddeutsche Bremsen while I was in college,” he recalls. “I saw one on the street and fell in love with it.”

While working for an aerospace company in Northern California, Castor found a 507 advertised in Competition Press out of Gilbert, Arizona. “The guy said, ‘Tell you what. Fly down, and if you don’t like it, I’ll pay your air fare home.’ So anyway, I bought it and drove it home.”

Castor drove it with Corvette power for about five or six years before he decided to put it back to stock. “I wanted to put in the right engine, but I never got around to it,” he says.

Rough, but restorable
And so 70079 has languished ever since, engineless and out of service. After looking over Castor’s dossier on the car, we head down the coast to check out the 507.

We find it under a tarp, squeezed into a corner of an enormous warehouse along with about two dozen more cars in similar need of restoration. About half of them are Castor’s, including another 507 (serial number 70089, owned by his brother), a Triumph TR3, a pair of Alfa Romeo Giulietta Spiders, an Isetta, a BMW 2600, a Jaguar E-type coupe. It’s all interesting stuff, and it’s all in better condition than it appears at first glance.

So it is with the 507, which doesn’t seem to have suffered much despite sitting for 35 years in such a damp environment. What was it like when he bought it? “About the same,” Castor says.

To replace the original engine, long since lost, Castor has a pair of BMW V8s on pallets, but neither starts with the number 4 that would designate it as a 507 engine. He’s got a BMW transmission sitting under the car, ready to replace the Borg-Warner gearbox installed by Charles, and he’s also got a BMW rear end.

Its aluminum bodywork is intact and in good shape, though Castor points out a bit of bondo work and a few other flaws beneath the red over white repaint. It’s missing some of its brightwork, but Castor says he has all the pieces he needs to bring it back to original. The one exception is the lighted “D” sign, which wasn’t on the car when he got it and which he still hasn’t been able to buy. (He came close to getting one on e-Bay but lost the auction in the last few minutes.)

We remove its factory hardtop and find an interior that bears the hallmarks of an early 1960s American restyling. Its button-heavy red and white upholstery wouldn’t look out of place in a hot rod, but here it simply looks in garish bad taste.

Even worse is the instrument panel, which has been butchered to accommodate a mismatched set of gauges that presumably worked with a Chevy V8.

As we poke around in the cockpit, Castor finds a receipt dated March 3, 1968, when Lloyd Cottle bought $5.80 worth of gas in Mesa, Arizona. Castor thinks it was probably the tankful on which he headed back to California with his new purchase.

We need to get a shot of the engine bay, of course, and of the serial number that’s stamped into this 507’s chassis. Opening the hood proves difficult: Castor had tied it down with ropes to keep it from getting lost in transit, and we struggle to untie every line.

When we finally get it free, we shine a work light into the compartment and look for the five stamped numbers that make this 507 so special. The plate is a bit corroded and hard to read, but the numbers are there: 70079.

It’s a little magical, really, standing in front of this engineless car and knowing it once belonged to Elvis Presley. Whether or not you like his music, it’s impossible to underestimate Elvis’ contribution to American culture, or the continuing allure of his legend. It may not be the Shroud of Turin, but there’s something almost mystical about knowing—or perhaps just believing—that this car was once driven by Elvis…and also by Hans Stuck.

Faded as it is, this car would nonetheless fetch millions at auction, given the mania for any car with celebrity provenance. But as with his other cool cars, Castor seems of no mind to sell just because prices have become astronomical. “I’d rather have the stuff than the money,” Castor laughs.

Good for him, we think. He’s actually taken pretty good care of this car over the last 30-plus years, keeping it safe and gathering all the parts for a complete restoration. He’s too busy to take it on right now, and so the 507 sits idle, awaiting its comeback.

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