“Nowhere else but in a fighter plane could one sit
behind so much engine” Author Michael Frostick prefaces the chapter on
‘Sporting Giants’ in his 1971 book The Mighty Mercedes
The supercharged straight-eight 540K was the ultimate pre-War
Mercedes-Benz sports car, ultra-expensive automobiles that few have ever
matched for power and sheer presence.
In total, 406 540Ks of all
types were built from 1936 to 1939.
The Mercedes-Benz 540K
Few thought the mighty 5.0-litre 500K Mercedes could be bettered, but in
October 1936 a new Mercedes-Benz was shown to the public at the Paris Motor
The latest car’s four-speed
gearbox featured a direct, rather than overdriven top gear to make full use of
the power and flexibility of the new, now 5.4-litre engine. With Roots-type
supercharger engaged, the 540K's blown straight-eight gave it a top speed
approaching 110mph (177km/h), with similar standards of braking thanks to a
servo-assisted system. By simply depressing the accelerator the full length of
its travel, the driver could
call on 180bhp accompanied by a banshee wail.
Unsupercharged, the engine still produced 115bhp. This system had been
race-proven on the preceding series of Porsche-designed S-Type cars. In effect,
the 540K was the last supercharged production Mercedes until modern times.
“One's foot goes hard down,
and an almost demonical howl comes in. 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,” proclaimed British
magazine The Autocar – one of the few genuine 100mph road cars available
in the 1930s – in May 1938. Rival Motor’s test car returned 102mph over
the timed quarter mile with the supercharger engaged and 85mph with it
Like other manufacturers of
the time, the Stuttgart company offered cars as bare chassis for coachbuilders to clothe, but its own designs executed by
Mercedes-Benz Karosserie Werk Sindelfingen are the most elegant and
This Motor Car
Surprising as it might seem today, the British market of the immediate
pre-War period was a healthy one for Mercedes. Frostick’s book The Mighty
Mercedes lists owners of the ‘super Mercedes’ of the day. Casting an eye
over the list of super-wealthy British residents reveals a catalogue of some of
the most influential people in society in general and motor racing in
particular of the day: Adrian Conan Doyle (SSK); Earl Howe (SS); Baron von
Krieger (SS and 540K); Miss Dorothy Paget (500K); Sir Max Aitken (500K);
Marquis de Portago (500K); Niarchos (500K); Count von Reventlow (500K); Sultan
of Johore (540K x 2); Nawab of Bahawalpur (540K); Embiricos (540K).
Joining this illustrious club was one Mr Paine. His 540K, chassis no.
154078, was ordered on 4 August 1936 by British Mercedes-Benz in London on
behalf of Page Motors Ltd in Epsom, Surrey. The finished car was delivered by
Sindelfingen on 7 December 1936 to be shipped by rail to London where it
arrived on 12 December 1936.
The British Mercedes-Benz agent listed four body styles by Sindelfingen
available for the 540K. The Special Roadster was a two-seater with dickey seat
under a metal lid. The Cabriolet A was the second most sporting design, with
either a third seat sideways behind the two fronts or just luggage space, while
the four-seater Cabriolet B and C carried that theme further, becoming
ever-roomier inside. Of the three cabriolets, only the A carried its spare
wheel in an indentation in the sloping rear deck. Later versions of the
Cabriolet A saw the spare moved to the front wings and the windscreen raised,
modifications which were good for practicality but not aesthetics. The early
540K Cabriolet A like this car is therefore the version to have.
According to marque and model expert Jan Melin, the numbers built on
540K chassis per factory Sindelfingen coachwork style are as follows:
Mr Paine’s car was a Cabriolet A with low windscreen and rear-mounted
spare, finished in ‘0209’ light green paint set off by a pale-yellow top and
seats upholstered in pigskin. As a UK car, and in common with most other
European luxury cars pre-War, it was right-hand drive. A German expert states
that 30 Cabriolet As were built in this style, of which 12 are accounted for
Little is known of Mr Paine’s background, his home town or even his
first name, but records held by the transport archive of the Kithead Trust
shows that the car passed from an owner in Warwickshire to a second owner in
London in December 1937. The registration ‘EPK 402’, though, was from Surrey,
the location of supplying agent Page Motors, indicating this could well be its
original mark. The Kithead Trust also states the car was probably last licensed
in the UK sometime around 1960 and that it was possibly exported in 1964,
likely to France. At some stage the registration appears to have changed-
possibly a clerical error- to ‘EPX 202’.
A photo of this car from the 1950s in what looks like Pont Street, in
the smart London borough of Belgravia, is pictured in Volume 2 of Jan Melin’s
book Mercedes-Benz 8.
The next owner was Jean-Paul La Fuge who lived on chic Avenue Rapp in
Paris, a client or financier of classic car dealership Garage de l’Athanee.
From 1992 to 2009, the car was in the ownership of well-known collector Eduard
Bollmeyer of Bünde, Germany. In 2009 he sold it to Eric van Lammeren of Munich,
from whom it passed in 2015 to a young Swiss enthusiast.
In 2015 the car was the subject of detailed mechanical repairs and
sympathetic restoration costing over €50,000. In addition, approximately
€40,000 was spent at the Mercedes-Benz Classic Center.
Mercedes-Benz Classic carried out a Manufacturer’s Expert Assessment of
chassis 154078 in 2016. The conclusion of this very thorough and complete
investigation into the details of the car was that while the car displays a
different livery compared to when it was new, it is correct and mostly numbers
plate is correct
stampings and composition correct throughout
correct components and numbers
and steering rack are correct
with internal serial number 10/29/1284 and gearbox number 45786 is from a 540K
from the W29 Series 10 29 12 so has apparently been replaced
The body is also the original body first mounted on the chassis. The
thorough technical team even analysed the composition of the steel of the
chassis members, leading to the conclusion that it is the correct metal used by
Mercedes-Benz as chassis steel for supercharged cars in the 1930s.
The car was sold at auction in April 2019 and is still in excellent order,
usable for tours or events. Driving the car for filming in late 2020, the
Kidston team found it performed faultlessly, a credit to German engineering of
the period. Flooring the accelerator to engage the ‘Kompressor’ brought smiles
and awe in equal measure for a generation who had never before experienced a
pre-War supercharged Mercedes.
With its rakish Cabriolet A lines, fitted luggage, rear-mounted spares
and never-ending bonnet enclosing the most powerful production pre-War Mercedes
engine and an extraordinary level of originality and authenticity, this 540K is
a fine example of the model often considered the ultimate 1930s German sports