1936 Mercedes-Benz 500K Special CabrioletSOLD

RM Vintage Motorcars in Arizona - Biltmore Resort & Spa, Friday January 19, 2007

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ESTIMATE: $1,200,000 - $1,500,000

$1,028,500 Sold

180 bhp, 5401cc 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"

The spiritual descendent of the legendary Mercedes-Benz SS/SSK models, the 540K was introduced in October of 1936 as the successor to the remarkable 500K. With more than 180hp available, they were advertised as the fastest regular production automobiles in the world. Highly advanced for the time, they also benefited from some of the most striking coachwork of the prewar era.

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 automobile company has so consistently lead the field, literally from the very beginning of the industry. 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 90 hp 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 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 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 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 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 90 bhp naturally aspirated or 120 bhp 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, which was 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-liter 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 ” 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 540K chassis were built before production ended in 1940. A total of eleven cataloged body styles were created for the 540K and carried out by Sindelfingen, each one a masterpiece of the coachbuilder ’ s art.

The new longer wheelbase allowed the hood to be extended, and this, combined with the raked vee-shaped radiator and external exhaust pipes, gave the car an undeniable visual presence. Long sweeping fenders, gently skirted, added to the visual length of the car, while chrome accents highlighted the lines and add a sparkling elegance.

Although Sindelfingen built a variety of Cabriolet bodies, designated “ A ” through “ D ” , a handful of special bodies were also built. The example offered here is one of the most striking of these.

The original owner of s/n 130913, William A. Burden, took delivery of the car in Paris, although Mercedes-Benz factory records indicate that the car was shipped to New York. There are several possible explanations, but the most likely of these is that the car was ordered through the New York agency, but diverted to Paris at Burden ’ s request.

In a fascinating letter written in 1969 by Burden to the car ’ s second owner, Herbert Jaffe of Woodbury, N.Y., he relates that he “ drove it abroad for several summers, then brought it to the United States. ” He goes on to describe the other Mercedes-Benz models he had owned before buying the 540K, including a Model K, Model S, SS, SSK, and 770!

Even more interesting is Burden ’ s explanation of the car ’ s striking styling. His intention was to “ produce something that would give an effect similar to the racing Mercedes of that period, but as you can see from the car, they did not succeed in doing so. ”

Nonetheless, the result is truly remarkable. With its skirted rear fenders and fully disappearing top, it is very sleek looking, while the car ’ s unique and graceful radiator shell and twin rear spares give the body a very European flair. Contemporary observers have often remarked on the appeal of this highly successful French influence on an otherwise very German car.

The vendor acquired the car from Roy Jaffe in 2005, and it is presented in fully restored condition, having benefited from a comprehensive professional restoration by the Lavines in Indiana, commissioned by Mr. Jaffe. A full mechanical restoration was included which, among many other things, included a comprehensive rebuild of the original Rootes-type supercharger. Chassis, suspension, steering, and braking systems were attended to with all parts reconditioned or replaced.

Particularly notable is the quality of the paint, chrome, and trim. The original coachwork was found to be in remarkable condition. All chrome trim was properly repaired, straightened as needed, and triple plated. The interior trim and convertible top were expertly tailored using the originals as patterns.

The result is an exquisite example of one of the most important of all Mercedes-Benz automobiles, the legendary 540K. More importantly, it stands as a singular example of the influence an important client could have on the design of a special car.

Reference Number 5797

as of 1/9/2007

Car 1936 Mercedes-Benz 500K Special Cabriolet
VIN Special Cabriolet 
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