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Lot 359: Mercedes-Benz 540K Cabriolet 'C'

The Scottsdale Sale, Bonhams & Butterfields (19 January 2012)

*5,401cc supercharged straight-eight *180hp *Servo-assisted hydraulic braking

*Documented history from new *In the present ownership for more than 45 years *Completely restored *Retains factory luggage *Highly authentic example

Launched at the Paris Salon in October 1936, the 540K had an engine that developed 115bhp un-supercharged or 180bhp with the compressor engaged. 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.

The gearbox was a four-speeder, 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 judged to have less heavy steering and handling than its predecessor, the 500K, 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, the springing more comfortable than that of the 500K, and the steering and handling also compared favorably with that model.

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 104.65mph (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."

Although the 500 and 540 'K' chassis attracted the attention of many of the better quality bespoke coachbuilders of the day, the company's own Sindelfingen coachwork left little room for improvement. The cabriolet came in a variety of styles. This example has the Cabriolet 'C' option with two-door, 4 seater coachwork and is outstandingly handsome, boasting wire wheels, twin side-mounted spares, exposed landau irons, twin horns and a center spotlight.

In its day a Cabriolet C would set its new owner back some 22,000 Reichsmarks, the same cost as all other coachwork styles, save for the famed Autobahn-Kurier and Spezial Roadster for which a premium of 10% or 30% was applied.

The official commission number 236568 is listed in the factory records as being sent to British Mercedes-Benz in London and no doubt accounts for its right hand drive specification. A secondary note lists 'Viscomte Salcedo de Rios', London. Whether the Viscomte took delivery of his new Mercedes we are not certain, as within its first year it is known to have been the property of a Mr. Carroll, and registered within the Preston area of the U.K. some 200 miles north of London with the local license plate 'RN 6108'.

According to the records of British Mercedes Club archivist Ronald Johnson, just after the war in 1945 the car is known to have passed to J. Altham of Skipton-in-Craven in Yorkshire, and remained with him for at least 8 years. In December 1962, it was advertised in the U.K. with the following caption 'after nine months work we have just finished restoring this fabulous car' it continues 'One owner, 50,000 miles only since new, fitted suitcases etc.' and closes 'This would make an ideal Christmas present for the wife' !

Around this time, and possibly in response to this advertisement the car crossed the Atlantic into fresh ownership. It was acquired by the present owner in 1966/7 from a Coleman Schwartz in Philadelphia's wealthy Chestnut Hill suburb.

Despite the published advertising in the U.K. a few years earlier, the car was unquestionably in need of attention by the time it arrived in this family's ownership. A thorough restoration was begun, the car being dismantled entirely and every mechanical component rebuild from the ground up. A sympathetic two tone paint scheme was chosen to accent the coachwork style in deep red with black fenders. The interior was refurbished in tan hide and all chrome refurbished.

Completed in 1981, the car has been used with some regularity but never excessively. Its restoration has aged gently, but remains extremely presentable and mechanically when inspected and photographed the car has started without hesitation. In more recent times new Mahle pistons and a factory correct stainless steel exhaust system have been fitted.

Close review of the car today confirms it to be a highly original example in its detail, it retains items such as a Gilcoll British made coil with which it was no doubt supplied originally, and the factory luggage still nestles neatly in its compact trunk.

With the benefit of its simple and known history from new and offered from long term 40 year plus ownership, this elegant and imposing Mercedes presents a fantastic opportunity to experience this legendary model at a fraction of today's value of a Spezial Roadster.

Lot Details
Auction The Scottsdale Sale
Bonhams & Butterfields, Arizona, Scottsdale
Lot Number359
Outcome SOLD
Hammer Price$600000
Hammer Price (inc premium)$667000
Condition rating0
Registration number
Chassis number236583
Engine number154064
Engine capacity (cc)
Engine - cylinders
Number of doors2