The Mercedes-Benz 500K-540K could steal the Amelia Island spotlight
Back in the 1930s, long before anyone called supercars supercars, Mercedes-Benz dominated the performance market. The gorgeous, and exclusive, 500K and 540K grand tourers were the opulent, powerful, must-have automobiles of their day, which of course makes them even more desirable now. That explains why you’ll see them competing in their own class at the 24th annual Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance on March 10.
Few cars of the day were so meticulously engineered, beautifully styled, or exhilarating and exciting. In that way, the gorgeous GTs were true supercars. “Mercedes 500K- and 540K-series cars were designed and built without compromise,” says Bill Warner, founder and Chairman of the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance. “They were the essence of what would be called grand touring cars. These cars made Karl Benz’s immortal quote ‘the best or nothing at all’ a commandment, not a slogan.”
The German luxury automaker tested the public’s desire for such lavish performance cars by introducing the 380 in 1933. Beyond being beautiful, the car was something of an engineering marvel, with what Daimler calls the world’s first double-wishbone front axle. Together with a double-joint swing axle, the suspension separated wheel location, springing, and damping to improve handling, comfort, and stability. “In its essence, this front axle, fitted like the rear axle with coil springs, has remained the design model for generations of automobiles throughout the world to this day,” the company says.
Even with the 380’s technical advances, however, which included a supercharged engine producing a respectable 140 horsepower, Mercedes customers wanted more. One year later, Mercedes introduced the stunning 500K at the 1934 Berlin Motor Show.
The K stands for kompressor, which you know as a supercharger. When it got spinning, the car’s 5.0-liter eight-cylinder engine made 160 horsepower, good for an autobahn-worthy top speed of 99 mph. The world’s fastest production car was gorgeous, too, with the two-seat special roadster generally considered the prettiest of the three variations Benz offered. The curvaceous grand tourer was long and low, with flowing fenders, an imposing horizontally beveled grille, and an opulent cabin behind a hood long enough to have its own zip code.
Mercedes built 354 500K models between 1934 and 1936, and each sold for around $10,000—about $190,000 today. The most ever paid for a 500K at public auction was $5,921,097 for a 1935 500K roadster at Bonhams’ Chantilly, France, sale in 2016. A 1936 500K Touring Phaeton brought $1.215 million at Bonhams’ Quail Lodge auction last year.
Mercedes turned it up a notch in 1936 with the release of the upgraded 540K. The car, designed by special vehicle production team leader Hermann Ahrens and Grand Prix racing boss Gustav Rohr, featured a 5.4-liter eight-cylinder engine good for 180 horsepower. All that oomph propelled the car to 110 mph—impressive for a car that weighed almost three tons.
The company built just 319 540Ks between 1936 and 1939. The auction record for a 540K is $11,770,000 paid for a 1936 Special Roadster at Gooding & Company’s 2012 Pebble Beach auction. Only one 540K publicly changed hands in 2018, a 1937 Sports Roadster that sold for $3,277,500 at Quail.
With their rich heritage and iconic status, you can bet these legendary grand tourers will get a lot of attention Amelia Island. Warner expects the event’s “mouthwatering” selection of 500K-540Ks to top enthusiasts must-see list. “This will undoubtedly be one of our destination classes,” he says.