Baroness Gisela von Krieger, the only daughter of an aristocratic German family, was renowned for her exquisite beauty, glamorous lifestyle and impeccable fashion sense.
After moving to Paris in 1933, Baroness von Krieger became the darling of European Society. In her 20s, the refined socialite lived at the grandest Parisian hotels, was voted one of the “10 Best Dressed Women in the World,” and attended the coronation of King George VI. Pursued by countless admirers, the baroness proved an elusive target. One desperate suitor even jumped from his plane over the English Channel when she refused his hand in marriage.
The 540K Special Roadster, presented here, one of the ultra-desirable high-door, long-tail variants, is a masterpiece of automotive design and the finest Mercedes-Benz of the Classic Era.
Ordered by Josephine von Krieger as a graduation present for her son Henning, the Special Roadster represents a dramatic expression of wealth and power. Finished in black, with pigskin upholstery, the 540K was custom tailored with exceptional details, including an expensive Telefunken radio, unique interior appointments and the family crest hand-painted on the driver’s door.
When Henning von Krieger was forced to return to Germany at the outbreak of World War II, Baroness von Krieger immediately assumed control of her brother’s supercharged Mercedes-Benz. After serving as the baroness’s preferred mode of transportation throughout her years of hiding in neutral Switzerland, the Special Roadster accompanied the family when they moved to New York City and later to Greenwich, CT. Carefully hidden away in an unassuming garage for more than four decades, the Special Roadster remained Gisela’s prized possession until her death in 1989.
In the care of its current owner, the von Krieger Special Roadster has been restored to its former splendor and received a prestigious First in Class at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance. Faithfully presented in its original black livery, the von Krieger Special Roadster appears just as it would have in 1936.
A credit to its romantic provenance, unquestioned authenticity and remarkable documentation, the von Krieger Special Roadster is one of the most alluring and historically significant Mercedes-Benzes.
|1936 Mercedes-Benz 540K Special Roadster
|25 (some sources say 26)
|Original List Price:
|28,000 Reichsmarks ($68,600 in 1936 U.S. dollars)
|Tune Up Cost:
|$2,500 (assuming parts are available)
|Chassis Number Location:
|Plate riveted to firewall
|Engine Number Location:
|Stamped on left side of block
This car, Lot 123, sold for $11,770,000, including buyer’s premium, at Gooding & Company’s Pebble Beach Auction on August 19, 2012.
Before World War II, Daimler-Benz, parent company of automaker Mercedes-Benz, was Germany’s leading producer of luxury cars and heavy trucks. Remarkably proficient, and very successful in International Grand Prix and Sports Car competition — thanks to generous National Socialist government subsidies — engineers at the Stuttgart-based firm employed the latest racing technology, such as supercharging, fully independent suspension, light-alloy metallurgy and overhead camshafts, in its road-going machines.
Beginning in 1932, with the 3.8-liter 380K, overhead- valve straight 8, (“K” stood for Kompressor, which is German for supercharger), a line of large, fast grand touring cars topped the Mercedes-Benz range.
At the Berlin Motor Show the following year, the 500K Autobahn-Kurier (displacement was increased from 3.8 to 5.0 liters) was offered with striking, aerodynamic fastback coupe coachwork. A crankshaft-driven, Roots-type supercharger blew the compressed fuel-air charge through a pressurized updraft twin-throat carburetor, adding 65 horsepower for short periods of time — and producing a shrill scream.
When a throttle detent was bypassed by fully depressing the accelerator pedal, a special clutch engaged the “blower.” The factory recommended its use for only 25 to 30 seconds at a time. Lesser mortals no doubt cringed as a hard-driven Mercedes-Benz howled past them in the fast lane. The 500K exuded presence, panache and power.
When supercharged, the 500K’s engine produced some 160 horsepower, but its massive, truck-like ladder-frame chassis, with box-section side members and heavy enclosed bodywork, necessitated even more power. The cast-iron monobloc (its block and cylinder head were cast in one piece) engine’s displacement was again increased, this time to 5.4 liters.
The resulting 180-hp supercharged 540K model was offered from 1936 to 1938. Twin exhaust pipes, enclosed in chrome-plated flexible sheaths, protruded through the hood sides, helping to keep underhood temperatures down — and adding to the car’s appearance.
Advanced for its era, the 540K’s front suspension consisted of independent, unequal-length wishbones and coil springs. The rear end featured an independent, coil-sprung swing axle. The transmission was a semi-automatic 4-speed (with the automatic component functioning on just the top two gears), and the 540K’s oversized, hydraulic drum brakes were servo-assisted. The 540K was engineered by the talented Gustav Rohr, who also worked on Mercedes-Benz’s Grand Prix race cars.
If you’ve got it, flaunt it…
Coachwork on the 540K chassis ranged from massive limousines and cabriolets, just four fastback Autobahn-Kuriers, svelte hard top coupes, and the elegant Special roadsters.
Noted German Karosseries, such as Erdmann & Rossi in Berlin — as well as stylish French firms such as Jacques Saoutchik in Paris — competed for wealthy client commissions.
Designed by Hermann Ahrens, built to order by Karosserie Sindelfingen, a Mercedes-Benz in-house coachbuilding subsidiary, the flamboyant 540K Special Roadster (Spezial-Roadster) was considered the ultimate body style on this chassis.
With its towering veed grille, scallop-edged sweeping fenders, arrogantly long hood, tight cabin, low windscreen and flowing tapered tail, the opulent — some said baroque — Special Roadster was expensive, and built only to special order. While about 400 540Ks were produced, just 25 examples (some sources say 26) of the exclusive Special Roadster were completed before World War II halted production.
Today, a 540K Special Roadster is considered the pinnacle of fine German pre-war automotive design. The Mercedes-Benz flagship of the period, its construction quality was exceptional, as befitting a virtually hand-built, limited-production model. Details, such as its mother-of-pearl instrument panel, rich leather seating and twin spotlights flanking a swept-back windshield ensured that the visual message was one of speed, power and arrogance.
Enclosed 540Ks could reach 100 mph on Germany’s then-new autobahn, but the lighter Special Roadster was capable of nearly 115 mph. Due to this car’s heavy weight (about 5,700 pounds), 17-foot length and advanced suspension, the ride is relatively smooth, but the handling is ponderous and decidedly not sports car-like.
I drove one some years ago and remember having a distinctly truck-ish impression at low speeds. It was designed for high-speed autobahn cruising. You don’t drive one of these behemoths to whip around corners; you drive it to be seen, admired and envied. Special Roadsters were made in three variants: a low-door model, the high-door, long-tail version (like this car) and finally, a more restrained short-tail variant. Owners included Jack Warner, head of Warner Brothers Studios, Malaysia’s Sultan of Johor, and the infamous Nazi leader Hermann Goering.
A fascinating tale with a sad ending
The von Krieger roadster has an especially interesting history, of which nearly every detail is known. After spending the war years in Switzerland, Baroness Gisela von Krieger moved to America in 1949, taking the roadster with her on the RMS Queen Mary. She settled in Manhattan, but summered at the Homestead Inn in Greenwich, CT.
The Special Roadster was sequestered in storage at the Homestead, and the Baroness dutifully paid the car’s storage fees for years, even after she returned to Switzerland in 1958. By the mid-1980s, the car had become very valuable. Many people tried to purchase it. A Mercedes-Benz enthusiast, George Maley — and on occasion, his wife and daughters — made seven trips to Switzerland over 20 years to try to buy the car. The Daimler-Benz Museum made an offer. Harold C. Bott, an employee of the Homestead Inn, made repeated efforts to get it. An aging Baroness von Krieger always insisted the Mercedes-Benz was not for sale. Sadly, after living alone for years, the baroness passed away in 1989. Upon her death, it was discovered that she’d lived in squalid circumstances, despite owning a collection of precious jewelry. She had left no will.
Dr. James Smith, the owner of the Homestead Inn, claimed ownership of the von Krieger 540K as payment for years of unpaid storage fees. After extended trans-Atlantic litigation, the von Krieger heirs were awarded the car.
Horst Lautenschlager bought it from the estate and planned to restore it. Lee and Joan Herrington were able to purchase the von Krieger Special Roadster after challenging negotiations. They arranged for its restoration by Chris Charlton of Classic Car Services, Oxford, ME.
Lee Herrington said that when he bought it, the car “…was in remarkable, entirely original condition, although the original black paint was peeling off in patches. In the ashtray,” he noted, “we found cigarette butts with Gisela’s lipstick still on them, and one of her white gloves was under the front seat.”
One of the best-documented 540K Special Roadsters extant, complete with an extensive file of historic factory, former-owner and would-be-owner correspondence, the restored 540K won the Pre-war Mercedes-Benz Class at the 2004 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance.
I had the pleasure of including it in an exhibition of fine cars called “The Allure of the Automobile,” which was presented at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, GA, in 2010 and the Portland Art Museum in 2011. At that time, the von Krieger 540K was painted a modern metallic gray. It was recently refinished in dazzling gloss black livery by Chris Charlton and Classic Car Services.
Is it worth that much?
The ex-Baroness von Krieger 540K Special Roadster sold for $11,770,000 at the Gooding & Company sale at Pebble Beach, a double world record price for both a Mercedes-Benz and a pre-war car at auction. It’s easy to understand why. A long-tail 540K Special Roadster like this car ticks all the boxes: It is very rare, absolutely stunning and with unquestioned provenance; has a fascinating history and a famous former owner; it is beautifully restored and freshly repainted in its original color; it is a Pebble Beach Class winner and the star of two fine art museum exhibitions. It doesn’t get any better.
Owner Herrington, restorer Charlton and auctioneer David Gooding did everything right to sell this car. It was promoted early, hard and well.
Just as they had done last year with Lee Herrington’s ex-George Whittell Duesenberg coupe, a $10.3 million sale at Pebble Beach in 2011, Gooding created an elegant hardcover book on the car that was written by David Brynan and photographed by Peter Harholdt.
At the entrance to the Gooding sale, the von Krieger 540K was resplendent on a raised platform — in the most prominent position. And it was drop-dead gorgeous. Well placed in the auction on Sunday night, it followed the ex-Clark Gable Rollston/Bohman and Schwartz Duesenberg JN convertible coupe, and preceded a custom-bodied Bugatti Type 55 Cabriolet and the ex-Ann Klein Blower Bentley.
Rumors swirled before the sale that this fabled car would change hands for more than $15 million. The nearly $12 million result is hardly shabby, and for this moment in time, I think it represents all the money.
Bidding topped $8 million quickly, then rose to the final bid. The resounding success of the Monterey weekend’s $260 million total certainly argues that a considerable amount of money in the collector-car world was gathered in Monterey that weekend. In 2011, RM Auctions sold a 1937 long-tail, high-door 540K Special Roadster for $9,680,000.
Will long-tail 540K Special Roadsters continue to appreciate? Certainly. But the market spoke on August 19, 2012, and $11.8 million was the result.
We’d call it very well sold, and yes, well bought. ?
(Introductory description courtesy of Gooding & Company.)