1938 Mercedes-Benz 540K Cabriolet 'A'
Coachwork by Sindelfingen
Chassis no. 169396
5.4-liter supercharged inline eight-cylinder
Four-speed manual transmission
Servo-assisted hydraulic brakes
Two long-term owners
One of 83 540K Cabriolet 'A' built
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. The 540K was one of the first models developed under Mercedes' new chief engineer, ex-racing driver Max Sailer, successor to Hans Nibel, who had died in November 1934 at only 54 years old. It featured the company's famous Roots-type supercharger system in which pressing the accelerator pedal to the end of its travel would simultaneously engage the compressor and close off the alternative atmospheric intake to the carburetor. This system had been thoroughly proven on the preceding series of Dr Porsche-conceived S-Type cars, and in effect the 540K was the last supercharged production Mercedes until relatively recent times.
Launched at the Paris Salon in October 1936, the 540K had an engine that developed 115bhp un-supercharged or 180bhp with the compressor engaged. The gearbox was a four-speed, but with a direct top gear rather than the overdrive ratio used on the earlier 500K. With the supercharger engaged, the 540K's blown straight-eight gave it a top speed approaching 110mph (177km/h) matched by servo-assisted hydraulic braking. Its performance potential was such that Mercedes-Benz in the UK retained racing driver Goffredo 'Freddy' Zehender as technical adviser and demonstration driver, since the supercharged Mercedes was one of the few genuine 100mph road cars available in the 1930s.
Tested by Britain's Motor magazine, the 540K was deemed to have lighter steering and handling than its 500K predecessor, plus an even more comfortable ride, even though the same all-round independent suspension layout with parallel links and coil springs at the front and swing axles at the rear was retained. The Motor's test car returned 102mph over the timed quarter-mile with the supercharger engaged and 85mph with it disengaged. Such performance was achieved at the cost of 11mpg petrol consumption, but the servo-assisted brakes came in for fulsome praise, the blower was found to be relatively quiet, and the steering and handling also compared favorably with the 500K.
In May 1938, the 540K was tested by Motor's rival magazine Autocar and achieved the highest maximum speed of any road-test car up to that date: carrying three passengers, the car reached 104.65 mph (168.5km/h) on the race circuit at Brooklands, Surrey. "One's foot goes hard down, and an almost demoniacal howl comes in," reported test driver H. S. Linfield. "The rev counter and speedometer needles leap round their dials: there is perhaps no other car noise in the world so distinctive as that produced by the Mercedes supercharger."
Late in 1938, a revised 540K made its appearance, with oval-section chassis tubes instead of channel frame members, while the adoption of sodium-cooled valves followed the company's highly successful racing practice.
Although the 500K/540K chassis attracted the attention of many of the better quality bespoke coachbuilders of the day, Mercedes' own Sindelfingen coachwork left little room for improvement. The cabriolet came in a variety of styles. This example has the Cabriolet 'A' option with two-door, 2+1 seater coachwork and is outstandingly handsome, boasting wire wheels, twin side-mounted spares, exposed landau irons, twin horns and a center spotlight. The work of the gifted Hermann Ahrens, design chief at Sindelfingen, the Cabriolet 'A' offered elegant all weather touring allied to breathtaking performance.
Daimler-Benz's order number 262498 was supplied with this car, chassis number 169396. It was one of at least two cars in this series delivered to Mercedes-Benz of Paris at that time, the next consecutive chassis 169397 (sold by Bonhams in 2005) also being delivered new through this agency. According to copies of the factory records, it was completed early in 1938 and transferred to Paris on March 20, 1938. We are not aware of records of its original purchaser at this time, but it is understood that like its sister car, shortly after the war the 540 was brought to the U.S. by an Army officer, Colonel William H. Kendall of Sarasota, Florida. Col. Kendall kept the car until 1970, when it passed to a friend of his, arch car sleuth Paul Karassik, the person credited with extracting two Auto Union Grand Prix cars from the Ukraine in the late 1980s. Karassik would keep the Mercedes for more than 40 years, the custodianship by these two long-term keepers therefore account for the vast majority of its life.
Early in this second period of U.S. custody the Mercedes was refurbished with new paint in the deep burgundy tone that it still wears to this day, at the same time its original leather was re-dyed, rather than replaced, and a new top was fitted. This remains the sum total of the work carried out on the car in the course of his ownership and with limited attention since, it remains in extremely original and authentic order. Correct period features include a rare round faced Becker Radio, fabric radiator cover to assist running in cold temperatures and a fold away luggage rack, among others.
Looking forward, the car may be considered as a solid driver quality car or alternatively a sound basis for a Concours style refurbishment.
The manufacturing record of the 540K revealed its exclusive nature: 97 being produced in 1936, 145 in 1937, 95 in 1938 and 69 in 1939 before the war ended series production (though three more were built up to July 1942). Of a total of just over 400 produced, Cabriolet A derivatives are thought to account for 83 examples, with a survival rates a little over half of that number.
Not surprisingly, in recent decades, the rarity, style and performance of these big supercharged Mercedes have made them one of the most sought-after of all classic cars on the rare occasions they have come to the open market. Bonhams has the very fine tradition and honor of offering the world's greatest supercharged Mercedes; this Cabriolet 'A', in its late model specification, represented the very best that money could buy in the late 1930s, and still does.
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