The Mercedes-Benz 540K was one of the most prestigious and most beautiful automobiles of the interwar years. Its combination of power, light weight and sheer beauty made it the master of the road, and it was a testimonial to the astonishing capabilities of the German automotive engineers of the day. It was also breathtakingly expensive, guaranteeing exclusivity amongst its owners. Just 419 chassis were built, and of those, only 25 carried the superlative long-tail Special Roadster coachwork that may well have been the high point of the coachbuilder’s art at Mercedes-Benz’s own “Sonderwagenbau” in Sindelfingen. The ultimate Mercedes-Benz 540K was the Special Roadster. Exceptional at the time, the 540K Special Roadster has subsequently firmly established itself at the pinnacle of classic cars. The car was priced at 28,000 Reichsmark (about $12,000 in Germany at the prevailing exchange rate). The New York importer charged $14,000 for a 540K Special in the United States — which was about 40% more than the most expensive catalog-bodied Cadillac V16. Of the 25 540K Special Roadsters, only a few were created in the long-tail style with a cover over the single spare tire recessed into the rear deck, one of which is the car offered here. Sam and Emily Mann had always wanted a 540K Special Roadster. As owners of some of the finest coachbuilt American and European pre-war cars and, at last count, four-time Best of Show winners at both the prestigious Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance and Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance, it was only fitting that a supercharged, eight-cylinder Mercedes-Benz be added to their collection. Mr. and Mrs. Mann sent noted American restorer Paul Russell to Germany to inspect this car. His positive report, which confirmed the car’s originality, convinced them to buy the car. Following acquisition in 1998, a collaborative effort in the United States completed the car’s restoration. This work was done by two of the finest restoration shops in the United States: Stone Barn Restorations in New Jersey and Mann’s own in-house team, which was responsible for all his Best of Show awards to that point. The result was nothing short of spectacular. It has been maintained ever since in the Mann’s private, climate-controlled collection and serviced by the on-site team while being driven sparingly. The car presents beautifully, from the flowing fenders to the lovely interior and stunning dashboard. Just last year, the car was honored with the Best of Show award and “Best Mercedes” at the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance — a testament to the quality of restoration and preservation, which was first honored by First in Class and Best Mercedes at Pebble Beach in 2004. Most recently, the car was featured at the gala opening of Mercedes-Benz’s newest, 330,000-square-foot corporate dealership in Manhattan, where it was photographed with celebrities and Mercedes executives. In preparation for this car’s offering at Monterey, two veteran experts from Mercedes-Benz Classic Germany in Stuttgart personally visited the car at the Mann Collection. After the inspection, they were able to conclude that in their expert opinion, the car’s engine is original to the chassis, as both are correctly stamped 154140. The transmission number indicates that it is not original to this car but is of the correct type.

SCM Analysis


Years Produced:1936–1940
Number Produced:419
Original List Price:$12,000
SCM Valuation:$3m–$8m
Chassis Number Location:Plate riveted to firewall and stamped into front frame rail.
Engine Number Location:Stamped on left side of block, along with a stamped, riveted plate.
Club Info:Mercedes Benz Club of America
Alternatives:1936–1939 Bugatti Type 57SC Atalante coupe, 1937 Delahaye 145, 1937–1938 Talbot-Lago T150C SS Teardrop coupe

This car, Lot 242, sold for $9,680,000, including buyer’s premium, at RM’s Monterey auction on August 20, 2011.

Pre-war German cars, and Mercedes-Benz in particular, had a reputation for outstanding build quality and attention to detail. Unlike their European counterparts who strove for lightness, Mercedes-Benz cars were overbuilt in the true Teutonic tradition. A massive oval tubed frame was constructed with numerous cross members, and the rear axle was hung with dual coil springs on each side. If one was good, then two was better.

Compare the light alloy rear axle on a Bugatti, or an Alfa, with the heavy, cast-iron one on a Mercedes, and you’ll see what I’m talking about. There was no concern for weight savings, as these cars were built to last. The small doors were hung on massive, chromed hinges, and the car’s fit and finish were exemplary. Technical innovations, such as independent front and rear suspensions, and one-shot chassis lubrication were standard features.

Of all the 540Ks built, the so-called ”High Door, Long Tail, Covered Spare” Special Roadster is considered the rarest and most valuable. They only built about 25 of these cars, and of those, only five or so had the covered spare.

Most luxury manufacturers of that era built cars that were outfitted with custom coachwork. However, Mercedes aficionados prefer the factory Sindelfingen bodies, and our subject Special Roadster doesn’t disappoint.

The chromed radiator is made up of 5,000 individual tubes soldered together and set behind the rear axle. To restore the radiator alone costs about $50,000 today. The sleek, V-shaped radiator, along with the flowing, almost 12-foot-long front fenders, low, chromed windshield and the enclosed spare tire compartment —with just the hint of a fin — make for a very rakish appearance. To my eye, these Special Roadsters, and the ultra-rare Autobahn-Kurier, are the best looking pre-war Mercedes ever built.

An expensive Autobahn cruiser

As beautiful as they are, these cars are very heavy to drive. They certainly don’t have the light — almost delicate — feel of a Bugatti or an Alfa. The inline 8-cylinder engine features a supercharger that is operated by flooring the accelerator pedal. The supercharger ran for short bursts, and it was not the constant type seen on most other cars of the era.

These cars were not especially fast, but they were built for sustained cruising on the Autobahn in complete luxury. In 1937 they cost about $14,000 delivered to the United States — when a similar Cadillac V16 Roadster was a mere fraction of that. As you can imagine, you had to be in a very high income bracket to afford one of these cars during those Great Depression-era days.

And, as this sale shows, you still have to be very wealthy to buy one of these cars.

A blue-chip collectible and competition

Because of their beauty and iconic status, collectors have sought after these cars for decades. Two other German luxury car makers, Horch and Maybach, also offered Special Roadsters, but it’s the Mercedes that collectors seek. The Horch and Maybach cars sell today for about a quarter of what a similar Mercedes is worth.

The car featured here has a wonderful unblemished provenance with no stories. That, coupled with a great restoration and a proven concours history, made for spirited bidding.

I was concerned when I heard it was going to auction with so many other 540Ks on the same weekend. Would that hurt it? While the sale price is the highest ever for a Special Roadster, I do feel it may have brought even more money if there were less competition from other 540Ks in the same auction. I would not have been surprised to have seen a $10m-plus hammer price (the cost of the car before the 10% buyer’s premium is added) if the car had been the only 540K crossing the block.

What the sale of this car did say to me is how important each August on the Monterey Peninsula is for car buyers — and sellers. I don’t think this result could have been achieved at Scottsdale, AZ, or Amelia Island, FL. Monterey Car Week brings the international players out in droves, and it showed in auction results across the board.

Surely, if I have a very special car to sell, Monterey is where I’d bring it. In any case, this car is a guaranteed Blue Chip investment, and I consider it well bought.

(Introductory description courtesy of RM Auctions.)

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