1937 Autobahn Cruiser
Upping the ante in the 1930s horsepower race, Mercedes-Benz designers introduced the 8-cylinder 500K (for Kompressor, or supercharger) model in 1934. The supercharger boosted power from 100 hp to 160 hp, and the external exhausts set the style that would carry the company through the rest of the decade.
Two years later, the 5.4-liter 540K model was introduced, offering 180 hp with the supercharger engaged and crowning the company's ambitions. By 1940, 419 cars had been built in eleven body styles from the factory's gifted Sindelfingen coachworks and a handful of one-offs.
This 540K roadster was constructed by the Mayfair Carriage Company in London, a small operation best known for bodying Alvis and Lagonda. This car is considered to represent the apogee of Mayfair's work, at once sporting and elegant, with folding windshield and extensive use of louvers.
Mercedes records indicate the chassis was shipped October 7, 1936, to the factory outlet in Paris -- an odd destination for a right-hand-drive car that would later get an English body. It's an anomaly that may never be explained but adds to the exotic aura surrounding the car.
There's some disagreement over whether the first owner was an English ex-pat or an Indian Maharajah, but in any case, the car made its way to Canada in the 1950s with a returning serviceman.
It was involved in a barn fire, then sold to Detroit collector Richard Mertz in the early 1960s. Mertz restored it over the next 20 years before dying and leaving it to his son to complete.
That didn't happen until 1995, when it was sold to casino owner and car collector Ralph Englestad of Las Vegas, and repainted from black over silver to its present red. On Englestad's death in 2002, the car joined a California collection, where it has been since.
Perhaps the most telling aspect 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 perfectly. Although the restoration is several years old, it remains in excellent condition today.
In the world of collector cars, few chances arise to own a car as important as a pre-war supercharged Mercedes-Benz. This is all the more remarkable, as it is a one-off from a well-known coachbuilder, and one of the more sporting examples of the model.
The SCM Analysis
This car sold for $2,530,000 at RM's Monterey auction on August 18, 2007.
Pre-war German cars and Mercedes-Benz in particular have always had the reputation of being "over-built." For instance, where the French or Italians would make a little bracket by hand, Mercedes would machine one that far exceeded the limits of the needs it had to meet.
French and Italian cars of the period had a wonderful lightness about them that make them feel much more modern than their German counterparts. But therein lies the trade-off -- lightness versus dependability. A Mercedes 540K weighs about 5,500 pounds -- nearly 1,000 pounds heavier than its European rivals -- and it's very apparent on the road.
Heavy, but just about bulletproof
It's a wonderful Autobahn cruiser, but driving over the Italian Alps requires substantial effort. On the other side of the coin, it's just about bulletproof. So you have two different approaches to the problem, and who's to say which is better? There are rabid fans in each camp, and many successful collectors have examples of both in their garages.
Redundant systems, self-oiling suspension components, massive door hinges, and stout structural woodwork all add to the feeling of quality, but often at the expense of driveability. A 540K radiator is made up of over 5,000 tubes individually soldered together, and then soldered into a chromed brass shell. It is incredibly complicated and incredibly expensive to restore correctly, and you can expect to pay more than $35,000 to rebuild a 540K radiator today.
Mercedes tended to be a little heavy-handed in their design as well, but most Mercedes aficionados prefer the factory-bodied cars, as opposed to coachbuilt cars. As with most European builders of the period, Mercedes would supply you with what amounted to a running chassis, which you could take to the coachbuilder of your choice to have a car custom-built for you.
Some designs were more successful than others, but almost none approached the level of beauty of the factory-designed Special Roadsters. On top of that, almost everyone outside of England preferred left-hand drive.
The car that sold at RM's Monterey auction, chassis number 154080, was indeed a Roadster, and it is "Special" in that there's only one of them, but I think the present term "Special Roadster" is a marketing ploy of today, as it didn't carry the label in period.
It is noted in the car's history that it was damaged in a barn fire in Canada in the 1950s. It is not noted how much damage the car suffered or how much, if any, of the body was replaced. This is what we would like to know to help determine its value.
The car presents well and is striking in appearance, but the right-hand drive hurts its value. Two years ago, I don't think this car would have brought $1.5 million.
It points out today how strong the market is for attractive, well-restored, coachbuilt cars. This sold for $2,530,000, and a similar factory-built Special Roadster is north of $6,000,000. There are literally more potential buyers than there are cars, so I would have to say that in today's market, this car was well bought.
Years Produced: 1936-40
Number Produced: 419
Original List Price: $7,000
SCM Valuation: $500,000-$6 million
Tune-up Cost: $2,500-$5,000
Chassis # Location: Chassis plate on cowl
Engine # Location: Stamped on left side of block, plus stamped plate
Club Info: Mercedes-Benz Club of America, Kompressor Club in Germany
Website: click to visit
Alternatives: 1936-40 Bentley 4 1/4, 1935-39 Delahaye MS, 1935-39 Bugatti Type 57
Investment Grade: A