1937 Mercedes-Benz 540K Special RoadsterSOLD

RM Auctions - Automobiles of London - October 31, 2007

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Estimate: 3,250,000£-4,000,000£
Estimate: €4,720,000 - €5,810,000
Estimate: $6,500,000 - $8,000,000

AUCTION RESULTS: Lot was Sold at a price of £3.967.125

The feature lot of the sale; perhaps the prettiest prewar roadster ever built on the incomparable Mercedes-Benz supercharged 5440K chassis. A thoroughbred concours car with blue chip provenance and enviable show winning record.

From the Collection of Mr. Bernie Ecclestone

Specifications:
115/180bhp, 5,401cc overhead valve inline eight-cylinder engine with driver activated and gear driven Rootes type supercharger, twin updraft pressurized carburettors, 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: 129.5in. ( 3,290mm).

The Mercedes-Benz 540K was the master of the road and everything on it.

Mercedes-Benz commanded a place as the premier supplier of fine motor cars to the political, artistic, and commercial aristocracy. While the company’s emphasis was on luxury and quality, the 540K combined the ultimate expression of those qualities with nearly unparalleled performance. It brought all the skills, experience, talent, and management ability that had made the combined Mercedes-Benz enterprise the premier car builder in Germany. Enjoying the enthusiastic support of the German government, Mercedes-Benz was encouraged to build cars that were the equal of any in the world and were as impressive and imposing in appearance as they were in performance.

The Mercedes-Benz 540K was the culmination of the company’s motor vehicle development before World War II.

The Evolution of the 540K

Mercedes-Benz has been called the ‘engineer’s car company’, and although beauty was never forgotten, the souls of the machines were always much more than skin deep. No other car manufacturer has so consistently led the field, literally from the very beginning of the industry. Credited with the first production motor car, the company has been in production longer than any other. Steadily improving products meant that by the first decade of the 20th century, chain driven Mercedes racing cars were a dominant force around the world. On the street, the massive 90-hp cars had no equal for sheer power, speed, and elegance.

By 1922, a 6-litre 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 hp 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-litre engine of the SSK could reach a staggering 300 hp, powering lightweight streamlined coachwork to an unheard of 147 mph. The overwhelming performance of the SSK model resulted in many victories for Mercedes-Benz. Perhaps the most important of these were Rudolf Carraciola’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 at 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 calibre 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 90 bhp naturally aspirated or 120 bhp with blower engaged, but its refinement and smoothness made the potential clear. 157 chassis were built with the attractive Sindelfingen coachwork. 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 100 bhp or 160 bhp 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-litre 540K in 1936. Although similar in many respects to the 500K, the new model offered even more power: 115 bhp naturally aspirated, or an impressive 180 bhp with the blower engaged. A 12 inch increase in wheelbase to 128 inches 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 540K chassis were built before production ended in 1940. A total of 11 catalogued body styles were created for the 540K and carried out by Sindelfingen, each one a masterpiece of the coachbuilder’s art.

Based on a strong and rigid chassis these pioneering cars introduced coil spring four-wheel independent suspension using parallel wishbones at the front and swing axles at the rear. They featured synchromesh on the top three gears of their four-speed gearboxes, 12 volt electrical systems, central lubrication, and vacuum-assisted hydraulic brakes. These exceptional high-speed cars owed little to the S, SS, and SSK machines of the twenties except one glorious attribute: each was fitted with Mercedes-Benz’s driver-controlled supercharger that boosted engine output by about 60 per cent in short full power bursts.

The Special Roadsters

The ultimate Mercedes-Benz 540K was the Special Roadster. Exceptional at the time, the 540K Special Roadster has subsequently firmly established itself at the pinnacle of classic cars. It was priced at 28,000 Reichsmarks (about $12,000 at the prevailing exchange rate; the New York importer, Mitropa Motors, asked $14,000 landed in the US – about 40 per cent more than the most expensive catalogue bodied Cadillac V-16). The 540K Special Roadster is an awe-inspiring blend of size, performance, and style, possessed of a commanding presence that is palpable in any surroundings.

Constructed on a nearly 130 inch wheelbase chassis and stretching fully 171/2 feet overall, the Special Roadster effectively accommodates only two passengers. Yet the Sindelfingen designers have succeeded in blending its elements so skilfully that its proportions are harmonious. One of the Special Roadster’s defining characteristics is the gently sloping Mercedes-Benz radiator that is tucked back behind the front wheels’ centre-line between sweeping front wings. The wings then dominate the long hood before gently and voluptuously curving up to create the rear wings, which in turn flow delicately into the tail. Subtle bright accents complement and outline the form of the body elements, punctuated by functional and styling details that draw the eye and mitigate the effect of the 540K Special Roadster’s size. Two massive exhaust pipes emerge from the bonnet’s right side and disappear into the wing, like the scaled coils of a legendary serpent lurking below the bonnet’s surface prepared to devour lesser cars. These were cars built to impress, but to do so with impeccable taste.

The Special Roadster’s imposing presence is almost matched by its impressive performance. The stiff frame and fully independent suspension supports its 2ton mass effortlessly, soaking up irregularities in byways and at its best showing the 540K’s relaxed 85mph cruising speed on the highway. Mercedes-Benz fitted a camber compensator spring to the 540K to offset the swing axle independent rear suspension’s tendency to sudden camber changes, and the resulting driving experience is balanced and satisfying. This is no sports car, but for two people to cover vast distances on good highways it is nearly unmatched.

It is the sudden burst of power when the supercharger is engaged by fully depressing the throttle pedal that tests both the driver and the 540K chassis. The sudden shriek of the blower’s 7 psi boost pressure unmasks the dragon within the 540K’s engine compartment, adding 65 hp at 3400 rpm. Mercedes-Benz chose to pressurize the carburettor on its supercharged cars, so the howl of gears, the blower itself, and the scream of air being squeezed is unmuffled, creating a siren’s roar that clears the 540K’s path with alacrity. Even fitted with a standard intake silencer, at full song a 540K will never be likened to a wraith or phantom but to the wailing of banshees.

Without a doubt, of the 406 examples built during the 540K’s production life from 1936 to 1939 the most dominant were the Special Roadsters – designed and executed to the highest standards in Mercedes-Benz’s own Karosserie in Sindelfingen. Only 26 540K Special Roadsters were built.

Chassis No. 154086

The exceptional example offered here was delivered through Mercedes-Benz UK in 1937 to Sir John Chubb, of the lock family. One of the most striking variations on the Special Roadster theme, it is the high-door, long-tail version with exposed spare wheels and tyres built into the rear deck. With its top secured below the carefully fitted metal top boot cover, the profile is long and sweeping, an elegant, dynamic, and imposing presentation that instantly set its owner/driver apart from all others on the road. Sir John, however, must have been more than a little annoyed when the gathering clouds of war made owning a fabulous but also ostentatious Mercedes-Benz less than popular in Great Britain. Fortunately it appears that he put his 540K Special Roadster away for the duration of hostilities, thus preserving this magnificent car.

It was acquired in the early fifties by Edward Gaylord and was refurbished for him by Mercedes-Benz. In 1956 it was acquired by the noted American designer and pioneer collector of great cars Brook Stevens, and was displayed in his museum in Wisconsin for some 30 years. At some point, the car was converted from its original UK right-hand drive specification to left drive configuration. The quality of the workmanship suggests that the conversion may have been carried out by the factory, perhaps by Gaylord or Stevens.

It was next acquired by the late Noel Thompson, a highly respected New England collector. Thompson commissioned a stunning nut and bolt professional restoration, which was completed in the mid-1980s; the car was subsequently given an Antique Automobile Club of America National First Place award in 1987.

In the late 1980s, Noel Thompson succumbed to the pressure exerted by another well-known New England collector, Speedway owner Bob Bahre, who displayed the car at Pebble Beach in 1988, where it earned a well-deserved first in class award.

By 1990, the car was in the hands of Jerry Sauls, a well-known east coast collector and dealer. During his ownership, he showed the car at a Classic Car Club of America Grand National meet, where it was awarded its National Senior National First Place badge (no.1270). 154086 became part of the Ecclestone Collection in 1995, with duties paid in the United Kingdom. The original UK registration, DYX 911, has been recovered through the collection’s efforts.

Condition

Much mechanical and set-up work has been performed since the car’s return to the UK, including an extensive refreshing and service with T. E. Berrisford in 2004 and continuing work and attention by the Ecclestone Collection staff; it is now in sound and drivable condition as well as being very well presented.

Although the restoration of this outstanding 1937 Mercedes-Benz 540K Special Roadster is now effectively 20 years old, the car remains in very good overall condition. While it might not win trophies on the modern concours circuit, it is still very presentable. Panel fits are quite good, although the paintwork shows minor evidence of use and age, with a few edge chips around the movable panels, and small areas of texture and shrinkage as well as minor bubbling. The chrome and brightwork appear as new, although there are areas of waviness on the radiator shell and trim strips. The radiator core finish is a little coarse for a car of this calibre, and Berrisford’s report indicates that re-coring might be advisable if a new owner anticipates long-distance driving.

The tyres appear to be virtually new. All lighting including the headlights, centre-mounted driving light, and marker lights are all the correct Bosch units. The upholstery is older but fits well and is in excellent condition, as is the all but irreplaceable mother of pearl instrument panel insert and the steering wheel. The dashboard switch handles are older and may well be original.

The engine compartment and undercarriage have been restored to concours condition – as shown by this car’s Pebble Beach win and AACA and CCCA Senior First Place awards.

The engine has been serviced and adjusted by Berrisford, with extensive attention to cleaning and servicing the fuel system and to cleaning and adjusting the supercharger clutch so it now runs as it should. The brakes and chassis also were serviced, tightened generally, and set up.

Summary

With an important history of first delivery in Great Britain, a Pebble Beach-quality restoration, and recent mechanical refreshment and set-up, this is a showcase car of the highest quality throughout. 70 years after it emerged from the Mercedes-Benz Karosserie at Sindelfingen its visual effect is still immediately arresting, even among gatherings of the finest coachbuilt cars of the thirties and forties.

Mercedes-Benz built just 406 of the exclusive 540K models. Only 26 of them were the sleek, luxurious, powerful, imposing Special Roadsters like the exceptional example offered here. They are quite simply the rarest and most beautiful cars of their kind.

This most powerful, beautiful, and imposing Mercedes-Benz of the classic era still has the grandeur to stop traffic by looks alone – then leave it far behind as the howl of its supercharger fades into the distance.
Addendum

Please note that this lot is titled by the engine number.

Reference Number 11547

as of 7/22/2007

Overview
Car 1937 Mercedes-Benz 540K Special Roadster
VIN 154086 
Exterior / Interior Color      Dark Grey /      Red 
Configuration Left Hand Drive (LHD) 
Options Exterior: Wire wheels
Interior: Leather interior 
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