1937 Mercedes-Benz 540K Special RoadsterSOLD

RM Auctions - Monterey Sports & Classic Car Auction - August 16-18

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Estimate: $2,500,00-$3,000,000 US

AUCTION RESULTS: Lot was Sold at a price of $2,530,000

Stunningly presented, the Mayfair bodied 540K offered here is a beautiful example of the English coachbuilding firm's masterwork. With a long known history and an award winning frame-off restoration, this is one of the most unique and handsome examples of an open 540K Mercedes.

Specifications: 180bhp 5,401cc overhead valve inline eight cylinder engine with driver activated and gear driven Rootes type supercharger, twin updraft pressurized carburetors, four-speed transmission with synchromesh on third and a dog clutch on fourth, independent wishbone coil front suspension, independent swing arm rear suspension, and four-wheel servo-assisted hydraulic drum brakes. Wheelbase: 128"

Mercedes-Benz has been called the "engineer ’ s car company", and although beauty was never forgotten, the soul of the machines were always much more than skin deep.

No other automobile company has so consistently lead the industry, literally from the very beginning. Credited with the first production automobile, no company has been in production longer. Steadily improving products meant that by the first decade of the twentieth century, chain driven Mercedes race cars were a dominant force around the world. On the street, the massive 90bhp cars had no equal for sheer power, speed, and elegance.

By 1922, a 6-liter engine with the Porsche designed supercharger was married to a shortened wheelbase. The result was considered the fastest touring car of its day, producing an outstanding – for the day – 160 horsepower with supercharger engaged. The S series followed, soon developed into the SS and SSK models. More than any other, it was this series of supercharged six-cylinder cars that established Mercedes-Benz ’ s reputation internationally. In its fully developed form, the supercharged 7.1 liter engine of the SSK could reach a staggering 300bhp, powering lightweight streamlined coachwork to an unheard of 147mph. The overwhelming performance of the SSK model resulted in many victories for Mercedes-Benz. Perhaps the most important of these were Rudolf Caracciola ’ s wins at the 1931 Mille Miglia and German Grand Prix.

By the late twenties, the S, SS, and ultimately the SSK chassis were proving to be the engineering masterpieces of the time. Few today remember that it was Dr. Ferdinand Porsche who developed the dominant characteristic of the engines – their superchargers. Responsible for all engineering for Daimler from 1924 until 1929, he laid the foundation upon which the eight cylinder cars would be built.

Following the merger between Daimler and Benz in 1926, and some resulting consolidation over the next two or three years, a brilliant young engineer named Hans Nibel joined the company. He was named joint Chief Engineer, along with Dr. Porsche, before being named Technical Director of Daimler-Benz AG in 1929 after Dr. Porsche ’ s resignation.

It was under Nibel ’ s direction that the eight-cylinder cars were designed. Although it is difficult today to guess the motivation at the time, it seems fair to suggest that the SS had been successful not only on the track but in the coachbuilder ’ s galleries. The factory coachworks at Sindelfingen had already earned a reputation for top quality workmanship – perhaps the best in Europe. Luxurious, well trimmed, and smartly designed, they were well suited to a top caliber chassis.

Clearly, there was more money to be made in catering to the carriage trade, and that probably triggered the desire for a more refined chassis – albeit one that would preserve Mercedes-Benz ’ s reputation for engineering excellence. The first result, introduced in 1933, was the 380, a supercharged overhead valve inline eight-cylinder engine. Power output was modest, at 90bhp naturally aspirated or 120bhp with blower engaged, but its refinement and smoothness made the potential clear. With its attractive Sindelfingen coachwork, 157 chassis were built. Performance, while acceptable, was not outstanding, particularly with the heavier coachwork resulting from customer demand for even more luxurious bodies.

Recognizing the need for more power, in 1934 Mercedes-Benz introduced the 500K ("K" for Kompressor, German for supercharger). With power increased to 100bhp or 160bhp with the supercharger engaged, the cars were finally among the fastest grand touring cars of the time. Even though the 380 had been supercharged, the K designation and new external exhaust left no doubt about the car ’ s very special chassis.

342 cars had been built before the introduction of the 5.4-liter 540K in 1936. Although similar in many respects to the 500K, the new model offered even more power: 115bhp naturally aspirated, or an impressive 180bhp with the blower engaged. A 12" increase in wheelbase to 128" improved ride quality, and gave the master coachbuilders at Sindelfingen more room to create even longer and more elegant lines.

According to Jan Melin in his book Supercharged Mercedes-Benz 8, just 419 of the 540K chassis were built before production ended in 1940. A total of eleven standard body styles were created by Sindelfingen for the 540K, each one a masterpiece of the coachbuilder ’ s art. Less than ten carried custom coachwork by a U.K. coachbuilder, including one very special car built by the Mayfair Carriage Co. was a small but highly respected specialist firm whose work tended towards small volume production for companies like Alvis and Lagonda. Their designs managed to combine an air of lightness with elegance and a little flash – not unlike the lovely 540K Special Roadster offered here.

Their small premises precluded larger volumes, and as the thirties progressed, the company ’ s volumes declined, and as the war commenced, they had essentially given up coachbuilding – although they would accept commissions for a pair of HRGs just after the war.

S/N 154080
The lovely 540K Special Roadster offered here is considered by many to be the seminal work of the Mayfair Carriage Co. It is at once sleek and pretty, sporting and elegant. With its folding windshield and extensive use of louvers, it is undeniably sporting - while the flowing lines and skirted rear fenders lend an air of elegance to the design. The coachwork is much lighter than the more traditional closed bodies traditionally fitted to these chassis, yielding sparkling performance – particularly when the blower is engaged.

Mercedes-Benz chassis records indicate that this car was shipped on October 7th, 1936 to the factory store in Paris France – an unusual destination for a RHD chassis, particularly one that would later receive an English body. It is an anomaly that may never be explained, but adds to the exotic aura that surrounds the car.

It interesting to note also that Michael Frostick, in his book “ The Mighty Mercedes ” , lists the car among the other UK chassis – but does not provide any further details (as he does for most of the other cars). Historians have speculated that the car ’ s origins in Paris may account for this, as it may have been ordered by a British expatriate living in Paris, then later shipped to London for the body to be constructed. According to another source, the original commission was for an Indian Majarajah, which would also explain the RHD chassis. In either case, Frositck would not have had access to the details available for more conventional orders.

Brought to North America by a returning Canadian serviceman, the car ’ s early history is not known, although by the late 1950s it was still in Canada, in the hands of an enthusiast. During his ownership, the car was one of two damaged in a garage fire that miraculously spared the car irreparable harm, but made a complete restoration necessary. In the early 1960s the car was purchased by publisher Richard C. Mertz, a Detroit area collector, who imported it to America and began the restoration process.

Panel work was undertaken by Alcraft, a Detroit area prototype shop. The balance of the work was handled by the owner and his son, along with Harry Flynn, Harry Kennedy, and John Graham. Bud Cohn of California supplied many of the small parts. In 1984, during the restoration process, Richard Mertz passed away, leaving the car to his son, Stephen Mertz, of Royal Oak, MI.

By 1995 the car was almost complete, but by now some of the work was almost 25 years old, and Stephen elected to offer the car for sale, eventually selling it to casino owner and car collector Ralph Englestad of Las Vegas, Nevada. Englestad, with the assistance of well-known enthusiast Richie Clyne, commissioned a second restoration to upgrade the car to concours condition, changing the car from black over silver to red. Shortly after Englestad ’ s death in 2002, the Mayfair 540K joined a well known California collection, where it has been displayed in the company of other stellar examples of the marque.

Perhaps the most telling aspect of the quality of the restoration is in the detailing of the interior, instruments, and upholstery. It is difficult to find fault with the fit of any piece, and every switch, lever, and button works silently, smoothly, and perfectly. Although the restoration is now several years old, it is a testimonial to its quality that it remains in excellent condition today.

In the world of collector cars, one seldom finds the opportunity to acquire an automobile as important as a prewar supercharged Mercedes-Benz. It is all the more remarkable that it is a one-off coachbuilt car, and it is undeniably wonderful that it represents one of the most sporting examples of a fabled coachbuilder.

Reference Number 11437

as of 7/20/2007

Car 1937 Mercedes-Benz 540K Special Roadster
VIN 154080 
Exterior / Interior Color      Red /      Tan 
Configuration Left Hand Drive (LHD) 
Transmission Manual Shift 
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