Bonhams : Super charged
Formerly the property of Alfried Krupp, in current ownership since 1980  and an extremely original example,1960 Mercedes  300SL Roadster  Chassis no. 198.042-10-002539 Engine no. 198.980-10-002544

Super charged

Motoring

Bonhams Motoring Magazine - Spring 2015

Page 3

Formerly the property of Alfried Krupp, in current ownership since 1980  and an extremely original example,1960 Mercedes  300SL Roadster  Chassis no. 198.042-10-002539 Engine no. 198.980-10-002544

Super charged

Motoring

Bonhams Motoring Magazine - Spring 2015

Page 3

Gottlieb Daimler and Karl Benz were engineers with a shared vision. They saw a motorized future, and each wanted to be the one to make it happen. Which of them took the most important first step is a matter of debate: Benz's three-wheeled Motorwagen of 1886 is considered the world's first automobile; Daimler's motor carriage later that same year was the first with four wheels.

Safest to say that they burst out of the blocks at the same time, founding car companies that enjoyed considerable success making both commercial and personal vehicles, as well as testing their creations in the deadly and exciting new world of motor sport.

Daimler and Benz cars competed in racing events all around the world, breaking speed records as they kept pushing forward the frontiers of automotive design. Their success looked set to continue in parallel, but when the burden of repaying Germany's war debt in the 1920s led to hyperinflation and economic crisis, the companies began to collaborate in a bid to ride out the tough times, and a full merger followed in 1926. Daimler had already used the brand Mercedes – the name of a board member's daughter – for some racing models, and it was decided that cars from the newly merged company would be sold under the name Mercedes-Benz.

With the merger came a simplification of model range and an increase in production efficiency, putting the company in better shape to weather further turmoil that was to come following the 1929 Wall Street crash.

Having consolidated its reputation for technological excellence with pure sports cars like the fearsome SSK, in the early 1930s Mercedes-Benz began to produce a series of grand tourers, the ultimate evolution of which was the 540K, which came out in 1936.

The K stood for Kompressor, or supercharger, a device that Gottlieb Daimler had patented back in the 1880s, yet which was still years off being brought into mainstream use. In the 540K, the compressed air which was fed into the car's 5.4-liter engine increased power from a respectable 115bhp to an all-galloping 180 horses, unleashed with an unholy supercharged wail.

The performance this delivered was nothing short of astounding for such a large, comfortable car in that era, giving a top speed in excess of 110mph. This, combined with the stunning bodywork lovingly crafted over a range of chassis sizes, made the 540K the car of choice for anyone who wanted the very best and had access to the necessary small fortune. Notable customers included the Hollywood mogul Jack Warner as well as various senior members of the Third Reich, who ordered theirs in long-wheelbase, armour-plated form. The 540K established Mercedes-Benz as the pre-eminent maker of cars that were luxurious as well as fast. And it was also the first project for a young designer who would sculpt the bodywork of Mercedes for the next 40 years.

Friedrich Geiger joined the Daimler-Benz coachbuilding department in 1933. As an unassuming
young man working as part of a team, it is not possible to be sure to what extent he personally sculpted the 540K's beautiful body. But by the 1950s things were different: Geiger was now in charge of the styling department and his first – and possibly greatest – achievement at the helm was the 300SL, of which two models will be offered in Bonhams Mercedes-Benz Sale in March alongside a 1938 540K Cabriolet A – which comes complete with a covered spare wheel.

The 300SL was first conceived in the early 1950s when an American importer convinced Mercedes that there was a market for a road-going version of the W194 racing car. Geiger stretched out some gorgeous curves over a lightweight tubular aluminum frame and the 300SL was unveiled in breathtaking gull-winged form at the 1954 New York Auto Show.

With a top speed of 135mph it was one of the fastest production cars of its day, and the combination of looks and performance captivated the public. When the Roadster version appeared in 1957, it was more popular still, the convertible bodies making up the majority of 300SLs sold, many of them finding their way to the boulevards of California.

The 540K and the 300SL are two of the most desirable cars from a company that has produced far more than its fair share. The rarity and historical significance of these models means that their desirability is increasing with every year that passes. As an example of the legacy left behind by Daimler and Benz, you couldn't do much better than these two cars.

Richard Holt writes about classic cars and fine watches for Daily Telegraph, The Wall Street Journal and Motor Sport.

Related auctions