“The name conjures up visions of breath-taking exploits of the racing cars and drivers of international fame, but also of superlative comfort and coachwork of exquisite beauty, fine paintwork, brightly polished metal, the finest hardwood and leather – massive and yet outstandingly attractive bodies – in short: - the car for the connoisseur”.
For once, Daimler-Benz can rightly be accused of understanding the 500K and the 540K in their publicity material. There is no question at all that the 500K is and was one of the world’s greatest supercars, comparable in its day with such other greats as the Bugatti Type 57S from France, the mighty Duesenberg SSJ from America, the supremely elegant short chassis Lagonda V12 from Great Britain and Italy’s high performance 2.9.
The 500K was created against a backdrop of Germany re-establishing its industrial might between the wars and the strong Government backing supporting all levels of industry to ensure that German firms would sit once again at the pinnacle of global manufacturing. The mighty German steel industry had regrouped and was a world leader, Bosch was at the forefront of electrical technologyand Mercedes-Benz, focused and coordinated in true Teutonic style, had re-established their position right at the forefront of the world’s motor car builders.
Mercedes-Benz also dominated the European motor racing scene during the 1930s. Rudolf Caracciola drove the Mercedes-Benz 5.6 litre Silver Arrow W125 racing car to victory in the European Championship in 1937 and for the 1938 to 1940 seasons the supercharged 3 litre Mercedes-Benz cars were all conquering on the European racing circuits. The W154, with its 12 cylinder engine developing 460 bhp, took Caracciola and Lang to victory after victory and the 1.5 litre W165 surprised all on its one and only outing, with Herman Lang driving to a remarkable first place in the 1939 Tripoli Grand Prix.
The world-wide exposure gained by its hugely successful racing exploits could not be wasted and buyers looked to Mercedes-Benz for road cars with the superlative qualities of their racing models. The flagship 500 did not fall short.
Built of only the finest materials, the new eight cylinder cars which had first been announced in 3.8 litre form in 1933 as the 380 were a major success right from the start. There is no doubt that they were built to assume the mantle formerly worn by the supercharged S Series cars from the design board of Ferdinand Porsche, but here was a new generation of car, the inspiration of design genius, Hans Nibel. It was an inevitable step in the march of progress to increase the engine size to 5 litres after less than 200 examples of the 390 had been built. The new 500K supercharged engine developed an unstressed 160 bhp and was to power a stylish range of cabriolet, roadster and saloon models.
Mercedes-Benz coachwork was created by a relatively anonymous in-house design studio, each feature of the coachwork being almost architecturally created, carefully measured for design stress, passenger comfort and practicality and yet the finished design product were surely the most striking of all European designs, blending Teutonic appearance with a superb styling instinct.
It was no surprise therefore that the 500K and 540K models found instant popularity with the Nazi hierarchy, with Goering, Goebbels and Ley favoring these models for their personal transport. Of course Adolf Huhnlein, the NSKK Korpsführer who was at the forefront of motorsport organization in Germany, would regularly be seen at the wheel of the flagship model. The 500K and 540K cars were built exclusively and unashamedly for the rich and famous. The distant screaming of the mighty supercharged cars would draw onlookers to the roadside to watch them pass at high speed, perhaps catching a glimpse at the same time of a celebrity, an industrial magnate or indeed a high ranking military officer at the wheel.
One such celebrity was Count Curt Heinrich Eberhard Erdmann Georg von Haugwitz-Hardenberg-Reventlow, a Danish nobleman based in London who, in 1935, had married Woolworths heiress and socialite Barbara Hutton, one of the worlds wealthiest women. Their son Lance, born in 1936, later became famous as a playboy racing driver and backer of the Scarab Formula 1 effort.
Just a few months after Lance’s birth Count von Reventlow took delivery of this brand new Mercedes-Benz 500K from the company’s West End showrooms. Built strictly to order, it was clothed with elegant Cabriolet ‘A’ coachwork by the factory: this elegant bodystyle featured a low, rakish windscreen (later raised for subsequent models) and twin rear mounted spare wheels (often side mounted, which is less elegant). The two door cabin features just two front seats and a single, sideways mounted rear seat which can be folded away to allow greater luggage space. The vee-radiator is set well back between the front wings, echoing the proportions of the Special Roadster model, the only bodystyle more rakish than this. This was undoubtedly a car of great presence, elegance and cost, as befitted Count Reventlow’s status, and was given the UK registration ‘BYH 300’.
History does not recount how long the 500K remained in his possession, but it is unlikely to have seen much use during the wartime years or immediately afterwards, when fuel was rationed in Europe and anti-German sentiment was still running high. It next appeared in the world class Mercedes-Benz collection of Rolf Meier in Germany, which was dispersed in 2003 shortly after his death. The successful purchaser of the 500K was the current owner, a well-known Italian industrialist and car collector, in whose hands the supercharged Mercedes-Benz has seen sparing use. It was shown at the Villa d’Este concours d’elegance in 2005 but has otherwise spent all of its time in a climate controlled private display under the care of a full time curator. Now Italian road registered, the car also has a Mercedes-Benz certificate of authenticity and has been awarded both ASI and FIVA certification.
During a recent test drive, the author was able to witness first hand (after many years absence) the smoothness, comfort, power and build quality of the model. On a cold autumn day in the hills above Geneva, the 500K performed impeccably, belying its years. The steering isn’t light by modern standards but it’s perfectly manageable. The engine is effortless and pulls strongly from low revs without a hint of fuss. The cabin is beautifully trimmed in finest leather with superb Mother-of-Pearl dashboard inlays, well lit instruments and a snug fitting, fully lined hood. Driving along a twisting, quiet road it wasn’t hard to imagine oneself back in 1936, king of the road again…
There are few historic cars which can match the visual impact of the supercharged Mercedes-Benz. The seemingly limitless government backing and ‘win at all costs’ approach which pervaded road and racing car technology in 1930s Germany led to an environment which saw some of the greatest motor cars in history created. In a modern world where Italian post-war sports cars seem to occupy everyone’s time, a true connoisseur appreciates just how special these landmark automobiles really are, and always will be...