When presented at the Paris Salon in 1936, the Mercedes-Benz 540K was the culmination of two models that served as test beds: the 380 and the 500K.

The 380, introduced in 1933, was the work of Hans Nibel, the legendary Mercedes engineer who had developed some formidable competition machines. Thus, the new Mercedes featured a particularly sophisticated suspension for its time: all independent, with double wishbones at the front and swing axles at the rear — all on coil springs. These features made for extremely safe road holding and very fine ride comfort.

The 380 featured a new inline 8-cylinder engine, with a compressor as an option. However, the 380 lacked the punch that the legendary S and SS had. So, in 1934, Mercedes-Benz launched a bigger-engined version — the 500K. The most noticeable feature of the 500K was that the compressor was engaged when the throttle was fully opened, triggering an enrichment device. In normal usage, the compressor remained disengaged, but this ability to increase power significantly depending on the needs of the driver made the 500K one of the most striking cars of its time.

This same system used on the even bigger-engined 540K, introduced two years later, made Mercedes’ flagship an even more powerful car.

The car’s 5.4-liter engine developed 180 horsepower at 3,400 rpm with the compressor engaged, and mated to a four-speed gearbox, the 540K could do more than 105 mph. For the period, that was remarkable performance, especially as this speed was reached in comfort and security that was already the trademark for Mercedes.

The finish of the car was to the highest standards, and convertible, roadster or coupe body styles were available. Symbolizing the golden age of classic cars in its most prestigious form, the 540K is also rare, as just a little over 400 units were made between 1936 and 1939.

This Mercedes 540K, with the chassis number 154105, left the Mercedes works in February 1937.

It is equipped with a “Cabriolet B” body, which offered four spacious seats under the soft top. According to a marque expert, the car was delivered to a Hamburg-based Portugal consul in March of the same year, and then the car went off to the United States, where it became a part of the Rockefeller family car fleet. At that time, there are records of this car participating in various Mercedes exhibitions.

In 1991, this car received an extensive mechanical and cosmetic restoration. This car has obviously never been altered, nor damaged during all the years that it has been with enthusiasts, who have taken very good care of it. Black with a flawless red leather interior, this 540K is a magnificent example of the highest echelon of the three-pointed star marque from the late 1930s.

SCM Analysis


Vehicle:1937 Mercedes-Benz 540K Cabriolet B

This car, Lot 339, sold for $650,933, including buyer’s premium, at Artcurial’s Paris Retromobile sale on February 3, 2012.

I have written about Mercedes-Benz 500 and 540Ks many times for this magazine. Mercedes-Benz was at the pinnacle of automobile production just prior to World War II. There were very few, if any, competitors that could match their build quality and production capabilities. The company’s model range was staggering, from small cars — equivalent to a Model A Ford — to the top-of-the-line 540Ks.

Of the 419 540Ks built, a full 190 of them were Cabriolet Bs, which was almost half of the production run. The pecking order of factory-built Sindelfingen open cars goes like this: Special Roadster, Cabriolet A, Cabriolet B/C/Offener-Tourenwagen.

The Cabriolet B is the most numerous — only 32 Cabriolet Cs and 12 Tourenwagens were built. Some people prefer the Cabriolet B’s open rear quarter windows — as opposed to the closed ones on a Cabriolet C.

Powerful, smooth and reliable

These were not fast, great-handling cars. They were automobiles that weighed more than two tons — and could cruise at 100 mph all day long. The occasional supercharger could be engaged for a momentary burst of passing speed. The Alfa Romeos, Bugattis and Talbots of the day could run rings around it.

This car moved with great style, comfort and legendary Mercedes reliability. The individual components used in building the car were of the highest quality, and often over-engineered in the truest German sense. We see some components from these 75-year-old cars in the restoration shop, and they are still in perfect condition. It is simply amazing to see how well some parts — ones that you otherwise would never see — were built. A car company today could never afford to build something on this level. I seriously doubt you will see any 2012 Mercedes-Benz cars on the road 75 years from now. How Mercedes-Benz could afford to build cars of this quality during the late 1930s and stay in business amazes me.

Wrong paint, but still a great buy

I saw our subject car at Rétromobile, and it presented itself very well.

The 1991 restoration had held up very well cosmetically, but I had no chance to evaluate the mechanicals. I doubt if the Rockefeller family connection added any value.

Visually, I think the black/gray two-tone paint and red hubcaps hurt the car at auction. These cars traditionally look better in a single dark color — or in a complementary dark, two-tone paint job. It would be pretty easy to fix the paint and hubcaps, given the car’s value.

The current SCM Pocket Price Guide valuation is $375,000 to $560,000. Given that this car shares the exact same frame, mechanical components and quality of the 1937 540K Special Roadster that sold for $9.7m at RM’s 2011 Monterey Auction, I think SCM’s current valuation of these cars is a little light.
Any open 540K under $500k is an absolute bargain. I think the average cars are more in the $675k to $875k range, and a truly spectacular example nudges over $1m.

As I have pontificated over and over again: “Buy the best-of-the-best example of any car you are interested in and you will always be happy.” It will go up in value the quickest, and it will be the easiest to sell when you — or your heirs — decide it is time. Having said that, I’d call this car very well bought.

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