Upping the ante in the 1930s horsepower race, Mercedes-Benz designers introduced the 8-cylinder 500K (for Kompressor, or supercharger) model in 1934. The supercharger boosted power from 100 hp to 160 hp, and the external exhausts set the style that would carry the company through the rest of the decade.
Two years later, the 5.4-liter 540K model was introduced, offering 180 hp with the supercharger engaged and crowning the company’s ambitions. By 1940, 419 cars had been built in eleven body styles from the factory’s gifted Sindelfingen coachworks and a handful of one-offs.
This 540K roadster was constructed by the Mayfair Carriage Company in London, a small operation best known for bodying Alvis and Lagonda. This car is considered to represent the apogee of Mayfair’s work, at once sporting and elegant, with folding windshield and extensive use of louvers.
Mercedes records indicate the chassis was shipped October 7, 1936, to the factory outlet in Paris—an odd destination for a right-hand-drive car that would later get an English body. It’s an anomaly that may never be explained but adds to the exotic aura surrounding the car.
There’s some disagreement over whether the first owner was an English ex-pat or an Indian Maharajah, but in any case, the car made its way to Canada in the 1950s with a returning serviceman.
It was involved in a barn fire, then sold to Detroit collector Richard Mertz in the early 1960s. Mertz restored it over the next 20 years before dying and leaving it to his son to complete.
That didn’t happen until 1995, when it was sold to casino owner and car collector Ralph Englestad of Las Vegas, and repainted from black over silver to its present red. On Englestad’s death in 2002, the car joined a California collection, where it has been since.
Perhaps the most telling aspect of the restoration is in the detailing of the interior instruments and upholstery. It is difficult to find fault with the fit of any piece, and every switch, lever, and button works perfectly. Although the restoration is several years old, it remains in excellent condition today.
In the world of collector cars, few chances arise to own a car as important as a pre-war supercharged Mercedes-Benz. This is all the more remarkable, as it is a one-off from a well-known coachbuilder, and one of the more sporting examples of the model.