Together with its predecessor the 500K, the magnificent Mercedes-Benz 540K was arguably the most noteworthy production model offered by the Stuttgart firm during the 1930s.
A development of the 500K, whose independently suspended chassis it shared, the 540K was powered by a 5.4-liter supercharged straight-eight engine. It featured the company’s Roots-type supercharger system, in which pressing the accelerator to the end of its travel would engage the compressor and close off the atmospheric intake.
Launched at the Paris Salon in October 1936, the 540K developed 155 hp un-supercharged, or 180 hp with the supercharger engaged. The gearbox was a four-speed, but with direct final drive, unlike the overdrive in the 500K. With the supercharger engaged, the 540K’s top speed approached 110 mph, matched by servo-assisted brakes.
Tested by Britain’s Motor magazine, the 540K was judged to have lighter steering and handling than its predecessor and a more comfortable ride. The test car turned 102 mph in the quarter with the blower engaged and 85 mph without. Such performance was not without cost, and it recorded 11 mpg.
In May 1938, the 540K was tested at Brooklands race track by Autocar and proved the fastest car tested to date, recording 104.65 with three passengers. Although the 500K and 540K attracted custom coachbuilders, it was hard to top the company’s own Sindelfingen coachwork. This car has the Cabriolet “A” option with two doors, 2+1-seater coachwork, wire wheels, twin side-mounts, exposed landau irons, twin horns, and center spotlight. This car was ordered by a French customer and delivered to Paris. After WWII it came to the United States and was restored and displayed at Pebble Beach in 2002 by its Japanese owner, before being returned to Germany.
The manufacturing record of the 540K reveals its exclusive nature. A total of 97 were made in 1936, 145 in 1937, 95 in 1938, 69 in 1939 and three more before production ended in 1942. Such rarity, style, and performance makes for one of the most sought-after classic cars. As a representative of the best money could buy, this car comes with fi tted luggage.
The SCM analysis:This car sold for $1,035,991 at Bonhams’ London auction on December 5, 2005.
Only Hitler’s arrogance could have produced a car like this in the depths of the German depression. The triumph of pre-WWII engineering and the pinnacle of an era, this was the first car to cruise comfortably above 100 mph. Perhaps equally important, after reaching that dizzying speed, the huge servo-assisted brakes were up to snuff, so you didn’t need an aircraft landing strip to slow down the thundering behemoth. A Max Sailer design, executed by none other than Dr. Ferdinand Porsche (a slide rule for hire), the 540K was designed for the wealthy; fuel alone was a daunting expense, but if you worried about miles per gallon, you couldn’t afford this car in the first place.
Gas wasn’t cheap, but labor was, and skilled craftsmen were plentiful, so fanciers of the 540K had a choice of four factory bodies. Generally, the Germans were not known for styling, but this model was quite elegant; the two-door cabriolet A was the most beautiful. In all, 409 were made and about 200 exist today.
As a show of wealth and power, the 540K had undeniable impact. It was the transportation of choice of the Third Reich (though ironically one of the most notable 540K drivers was the Jewish head of Warner Brothers studios, Jack Warner).
With cars this big and no power steering, one could understand why chauffeurs were 6’4”, at least 250 lbs, and usually hailed from Poland. (But there were other Mercedes that required even more brute strength. Take, for instance, the later, massive 770K; it looked like a truck and handled like a truck. If that car were made today, Peterbilt would sue for copyright infringement.)
As the saying goes, to the victor go the spoils; and while much of the booty carted away from the Fatherland after WWII was in paintings, jewelry, and other more easily hidden goods, more than one 540K was steered east (at what must have been a pretty good clip) by Soviet generals. Of course, once on the dark side of the Iron Curtain, the Soviets had no way to make repairs, so when something on the engine blew up, they rolled the useless but beautiful car into a barn. Some are still there.
Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, it’s now even harder to get a car out of Russia; at least then, you could fill out endless forms and wait about a year with a prayer of an end result. Now, you’re at the mercy of the Russian mafia. And what are you going to do if the car you paid $500,000 cash for doesn’t show up in Helsinki as promised? Sue?
Some years ago, I had the opportunity to drive one of these thundering beasts. A client of mine showed me his 540K at his country estate in France. He asked proudly, “How would you like to drive it?”
I replied, “I would love to,” which was not the case. The prospect of piloting this gargantuan and very valuable piece of real estate over rough country roads was not nearly as inviting as my friend assumed, but to avoid offending him, I drove it.
I was pleasantly surprised at the acceleration, but in the turns I was thoroughly disgusted by the Freightliner-like handling (if your arms are like Popeye’s, you’d have no problem).
Sixteen years after its restoration, it has a nice patina; it actually looks like a car again, rather than something embalmed for open-casket burial. It’s nice to know that there are some people who actually drive these cars. I’d be comfortable stopping at a nice pub in this car – provided I ate my spinach first. Or got Boris of Warsaw to do the driving. A car like this does not come along very often, with provenance, rich history, and awards to boot. I’d call this one well-bought.
Years produced: 1936–42
Number produced: 409
Original list price: $7,500
SCM Valuation: $1,000,000–$2,630,000
Tune up/Major service: $5,000
Distributor cap: $1,500–$2,500, if available
Chassis #: Left frame rail
Engine #: Right side of engine block
Club: Mercedes-Benz Club of America, Colorado Springs, CO
Alternatives: 1932 Horch 670 V12 Cabriolet, 1930 Hispano Suiza H6B,
1938 Maybach SW38
SCM Investment Grade: A
1938 Mercedes-Benz 540K Special
Lot #255, S/N 189387
Sold at $1,017,500, RM Auctions, Monterey, CA, 8/19/2005
SCM ID# 39203
Lot #94, S/N 154099
Sold at $1,001,000
RM, Amelia Island, FL, 3/9/2002
SCM ID# 27234
Raymond Milo describes himself as CEO and chief sanitation engineer of BB One Exports. Kathleen Donohue is a contributing editor at Sports Car Market magazine.