“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.” British magazine The Autocar tries a 540K –
one of the few genuine 100mph road cars available in the 1930s – in May 1938
Few cars of the time have the power and sheer presence
of the supercharged Mercedes-Benz built in the immediate pre-War period.
Of these, the 540K was the ultimate pre-War Mercedes
road car. Fast, luxurious, extraordinarily expensive and available in a variety
of coach-built body styles, the successor to the 500K proved to be a far better
car, the definition of German engineering and extravagant style of the period.
The Mercedes-Benz 540K
Like its immediate predecessor, the 540K was powered
by a supercharged straight-eight. This time it was enlarged to 5.4 litres to
develop 115bhp unsupercharged or 180bhp with the Roots-type supercharger
engaged, a process simply expedited by pressing the accelerator flat to the
floor… This system had been proven on the preceding series of Porsche-designed
S-Type cars. In effect, the 540K was the last supercharged production Mercedes
until modern times.
The new car was launched at the Paris Motor Show in
October 1936. Its four-speed gearbox featured a direct, rather than overdriven
top gear to make full use of the power and flexibility of the new engine. With
supercharger engaged, the 540K’s blown straight-eight gave it a top speed
approaching 110mph (177km/h), with servo-assisted braking that matched the
car’s potential. In the UK, Mercedes-Benz 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.
Britain’s Motor magazine tested the 540K, judging it
to have less heavy steering and handling than its predecessor, the 500K, plus
an even more comfortable ride, employing the same all-round independent
suspension layout with parallel links and coil springs at the front and swing
axles at the rear. The test car returned 102mph over the timed quarter-mile
with the supercharger engaged, 85mph with it disengaged.
In May 1938, Motor’s rival magazine Autocar had a run
in a 540K at Brooklands. It achieved the highest maximum speed of any road-test
car up to that date: carrying three passengers, it reached 104.65 mph
Mercedes, already supplying hi-tech engineering to the
German state and, with Auto-Union, taking all before them in Grand Prix racing,
developed the 540K yet further in 1938. A revised car appeared with
oval-section chassis tubes instead of channel frame members. The engine now had
sodium cooled valves, a result of the company’s highly successful racing and
Like other manufacturers of the time, the Stuttgart
company offered cars as bare chassis for coachbuilders in the UK, USA and
continental Europe, but its own designs executed by Mercedes-Benz Karosserie
Werk Sindelfingen are some of the most elegant. In total, 406 540Ks were built
from 1936 to 1939.
This Motor Car
540K chassis 169387 is a car from the first year of production and was shown at
the Berlin Internationale Automobil und Motorradausstellung (Motor Show) in February 1937. It was the model’s debut
on home soil, an event opened by the Führer himself. With war less than three
years away, the event was a masterclass in Nazi propaganda and featured
demonstrations by Silver Arrows Grand Prix cars on the streets of Berlin
specially closed to all other traffic.
the Mercedes stand, joining its latest luxury sports cars was Rudi Caracciola’s
streamliner. Apart from the 25 Spezial Roadsters, the armour-plated
P cars and other one-offs, Mercedes offered 540K clients the choice of three
standard bodies, all meticulously constructed by Mercedes’ in-house
coachbuilder at Sindelfingen.
to marque and model expert Jan Melin, the numbers built on 540K chassis per
coachwork style are as follows:
A, 83 cars
B, 190 cars
C, 32 cars
new Mercedes 540K bore Cabriolet C two-door coachwork (the rarest), which
offered two-door, four-seater accommodation coupled to breathtaking
performance. It is not known in which colour the car was displayed in Berlin,
but during that year it was repainted dark red on the express orders of the
German government. The 540K also received a unique dashboard, radio, contrasting
beige leather interior and matching hood. The reason? It was to be
a gift from Nazi Germany to His Majesty Farouk I, by the grace of God, King of
Egypt and the Sudan, on the occasion of his wedding to his first wife Safinaz
Zulficar in January 1938. And why red?
Farouk was fond of the colour; his many cars were always that shade, so the
police knew not to pull him over – no one else was allowed a red car during his
riches, long-standing connections with the British Empire, strategic importance
and proximity to the oilfields of the Middle East would explain the extravagant
present: the 540K was a powerful car showcasing German technological
excellence, one worth many 1,000s of Reichsmarks.
many of Farouk’s belongings, his supercharged red Mercedes remained in Egypt.
Incredibly, it was found stored in remarkably complete condition – still red –
in Cairo in 1988. Egyptian collector Nerses Papaziou bought it at auction and
shipped it to his home in France, where it was kept in a barn awaiting
restoration. In 1996, after inspection by a specialist team of restorers, it
was sold to Germany.
five-year restoration by renowned Esdar Classics that followed returned the car
to its former state of magnificence, with the object of retaining as many
original features as possible. It is said to retain over 90% of its original
metalwork. The car is referenced and illustrated in Jan Melin’s definitive book
on the supercharged eight-cylinder Mercedes.
client purchased the car at auction in Monaco in May 2006 and since then it has
been part of a world-class collection kept in climate-controlled storage in the
good example of the very best that money could buy in the late 1930s, 540K
‘169387’ represents an opportunity to enjoy the banshee shriek of Mercedes’
legendary supercharger. It is a car with an extraordinary back story, and
compared with similar Bentleys, Bugattis and Alfa Romeos, is offered with
better provenance and at a more accessible price.