Courtesy of Bonhams
The sensation of the 1934 Berlin Auto Show, Mercedes-Benz’s legendary 500K supercar was the creation of the gifted engineer and former racing driver Dr. Hans Nibel. What set his supercharged Mercedes apart from the big, blown Mercedes of the previous decade was the model’s advanced chassis design, which combined swing axles at the rear with a new and very effective form of independent front suspension with superimposed triangular wishbones and coil springs. Nibel had created the 500K to give more power and performance than his 380 of 1932. Like the “S” series of the 1920s, the “K” models employed a form of supercharging that was peculiarly Mercedes, with the supercharger being used as a top-end booster. Pushing the gas pedal to the floor engaged the train of gears that drove the Roots-type blower, unleashing 25% more power and a banshee shriek. It was an impressive and unnerving performance, used as a short-term expedient for brief bursts of overtaking or hill climbing. Although the 500K/540K chassis attracted the attention of many of the better-quality bespoke coachbuilders of the day, Mercedes-Benz’s own Sindelfingen coachwork left little room for improvement, and it can safely be argued that its own top-of-the-range sports tourer, boldly and appropriately named the Spezial Roadster, eclipsed all its peers. A mere 29 roadsters were built on each of the 500K and 540K chassis. Less than half of those were Spezial Roadsters.

SCM Analysis


Vehicle:1934 Mercedes-Benz 500/540K Spezial Roadster
Years Produced:1934–36 (500K), 1936–39 (540K)
Number Produced:15 (500K) and 15 (540K Spezial Roadsters, estimated)
SCM Valuation:$2,678,000 (500K Spezial Roadster), $8,250,000 (540K Spezial Roadster)
Tune Up Cost:$2,500 (estimated)
Chassis Number Location:Factory identification plate on side of cowl
Engine Number Location:Driver’s side rear of engine on crankcase
Club Info:Mercedes-Benz Club of America
Alternatives:1937–40 Horch Model 855 Spezial Roadster, 1934–39 Bugatti Type 57C, 1936–39 Maybach SW38
Investment Grade:A

This car, Lot 160, sold for $4,900,000, including buyer’s premium, at Bonhams’ Amelia Island auction on May 20, 2021.

Mercedes-Benz’s massive Spezial Roadsters were styled in marked contrast with more-upright contemporary British 2-seaters and sensuously swoopy roadsters from French carrossiers. Their lavish design elements reflected Germanic baroque taste in the period. The models bristled with engineering innovations, from fully independent suspension to uniquely configured superchargers.

Boasting an extended hood with twin flex-pipe exhausts flowing from the long 5-liter, straight-8 engine, an elegant cockpit and often twin, rear-mounted spare tires, the Spezial Roadster was an imposing beast. With the blower engaged, it was capable of 100-mph speeds. Owners included show-business personalities such as Warner Bros. studio boss Jack Warner, industrialist Alfried Krupp, Baroness Gisela von Krieger, and Nazi bigwigs like flamboyant Luftwaffe Commander-in-Chief Hermann Göring, who owned a custom Spezial Roadster nicknamed “The Blue Goose.”

A dark past

Our subject car has an interesting history. In the early 1970s, Swedish classic-car hunter Alf Johansson (who reportedly found another Spezial Roadster owned by the Horn Brothers) traveled through Poland en route to Czechoslovakia looking for significant historic cars. Passing through Poznan, he was told about a 500K Spezial Roadster that had been dismantled for restoration.

He was subsequently able to purchase the car and ship it to Scandinavia, where it was sold to an Ingemar Bengtsson and thoroughly researched by supercharged-Mercedes-Benz authority Jan Melin. This car, s/n 105136, was found to be the sixth production 500K built. It had been commissioned for Dr. Alfons Sack, a high-profile lawyer and notorious Nazi party member. (Sack was later killed in a bombing attack in Brandenburg in 1944.)

Melin’s research indicated that the Stuttgart coachbuilder’s order stated this car was a Spezial Roadster. It was likely a one-off variation due to its unusual chrome flashes along the sides of the front and rear fenders, as well as a distinctive chrome “waterfall” grille protector that curved forward at the base and extended between the chassis dumb-irons along with chrome covers on the twin rear-mounted spare tires.

The original color was “Speedgray,” with light and dark green accents, and silver leather upholstery. Historic photos show the car with abbreviated rear-wheel spats that covered the area above each rear tire.

Factory upgraded

When found, the roadster was equipped with a 540K engine and the later-style vented-hood sides, as opposed to the early louvered style, which can be seen in the original Sindelfingen photographs. Jan Melin located correspondence that indicated this car had been returned to the factory in 1936 to be upgraded with the later 540K straight 8, and likely received the revised hood sides at that time.

Although a 540K straight 8 differs from an earlier 500K, the present 540K engine has a factory engine plaque with its original matching engine number.

The car was virtually complete, including its Sindelfingen body plate. Except, that is, for the fuel-filler cap, which by a remarkable coincidence Alf Johanssen already possessed.

Restoration, then donation

This 500/540K was meticulously restored over several years and completed in the early 1990s. Bengtsson kept it carefully hidden in a private museum and reportedly bricked up the access doors for a time. When he grew older, Bengtsson decided to sell the car and donate the proceeds to charity.

He did this at the Bonhams’ “Works” sale in Stuttgart in July 2014, where the car brought $4,221,248 (SCM# 244635). The buyer was Howard A. Fafard, a noted collector who owned several 1930s-era Mercedes-Benz and Horch Classics.

Mr. Fafard has since showed the car at the Ocean Reef Club Vintage Weekend in the Florida Keys, however, this Spezial Roadster has seen little use during the 30-year period since its restoration. It appeared to be in excellent condition when it was offered at Amelia Island in May, among other Fafard Collection lots.

Modest appreciation

From $4.2 million to $4.9 million in six years would seem a decent return for the seller, but 540K Spezial Roadsters have sold for more than double that sum. So why did this car bring less?

It might seem that the circumstances surrounding its conversion to 540K spec had an impact, although it was not unusual for the factory to do those 500K-to-540K upgrade conversions, and in this case it was documented.

Rather, I would attribute the price to two factors. It’s generally considered that the most attractive Spezial Roadsters are the handful of Sindelfingen-bodied 2-seaters built with high door tops (versus dipped doors), sweeping cutaway fenders and long tails. This car, while exclusive, lacks the drop-dead gorgeous look of a long-tail Spezial Roadster. Add to that the prior ownership by a significant Nazi Party figure, and you have two significant strikes.

Considering this, the car was both well sold and well bought. The new owner should consider refinishing it in its original Speedgray livery. As it has been rarely seen, it will be eligible for many significant concours. ♦

(Introductory description courtesy of Bonhams.)

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