Courtesy of Bonhams
  • A unique automobile, the “Mayfair 540K”
  • Prominently featured in Jan Melin’s Mercedes-Benz: The Supercharged 8-Cylinder Cars of the 1930s
  • Unseen at public concours events for more than a decade
  • Long-term American history

SCM Analysis


Vehicle:1937 Mercedes-Benz 540K Sports Roadster
Years Produced:1936–40
Number Produced:419
Original List Price:$153,591 in 2017 U.S. dollars
SCM Valuation:540K Cabriolet A: $2,875,000 540K Special Roadster: $8,250,000
Tune Up Cost:If you have to ask, you can’t afford it. Or you can do it yourself
Chassis Number Location:On firewall, inside engine bay
Engine Number Location:On the driver’s side rear of engine on crankcase
Club Info:Mercedes-Benz club of America
Alternatives:1937–40 Horch 853, 1931–34 Isotta Fraschini 8B, 1930–32 Bentley 8 Litre
Investment Grade:A

This car, Lot 74, sold at $3,277,500, including buyer’s premium, at Bonhams’ Quail Lodge sale on August 24, 2018, in Carmel, CA.

Our subject Mercedes was a past member of the General William Lyon and Imperial Palace collections, so expectations were high when this unique 540K crossed the block.

But the market for 540Ks with unique coachwork is highly variable, and results can be incredibly difficult to predict from one example to the next.

The car was scrutinized in one of my favorite books, Jan Melin’s Mercedes-Benz: The Supercharged 8-Cylinder Cars of the 1930s.

The car’s Mayfair coachwork has been documented, and experts are fairly certain that this example is very close to the way it was delivered when new. Melin worked as hard as possible to document as many 8-cylinder Mercedes as he could in his book, without the intention of creating a registry. 540Ks did not have to be special to make the cut. They simply had to exist.

Burned to a crisp

In 1960, a female arsonist set fire to a Quebec City garage. Our subject car was inside. While there was some kind of revenge motive involving a deteriorating romance, the horrific result nearly sent this car to the big Mercedes-Benz museum in the sky (where you will find every example of the SSKL built, and likely some other strange Daimler creations).

However, one Richard Mertz stepped up to the plate shortly thereafter, and he began to restore the car with a team of British metal workers from Alcraft of Madison Heights, MI. Thanks to Mertz and his team of talented individuals, this car is present today — wood frame and all.

Ralph Englestad bought the car in 1995, and it was displayed in the Imperial Palace Collection, where it was painted this lurid shade of red.

Gen. William Lyon acquired it in 2002, and he sold it at RM Monterey in 2007 for $2,530,000 (SCM# 46250). It was last displayed at Pebble Beach in 2011. No mention is made of recent service, which should scare any potential buyer.

Special cars for very special people

My first experience talking to a 540K owner came at the Amelia Island Concours. I was 24 at the time.

The lady sitting with that brown Cabriolet A snubbed me with the statement that “these were special cars for very special people,” and refused to answer my questions. Such questions included, “Do you actually drive this car?” and “Who services it?”

A few years later, I had the pleasure of driving an RHD Cabriolet B — a precious occasion for which I was extremely grateful — and was then baptized with boiling coolant from a radiator leak. It was one of the best days of my life. However, a 540K radiator is an $80,000 hand-built item.

Sorry, we don’t supply those parts

With all of the publicity bestowed on these big pre-war Mercedes, you would think they were maintained like airplanes.

This is not always the case, and most go from being restored to sitting for several years — and then being partially restored again. In the meantime, carburetors stagnate and get plugged up, water pumps and radiators start to leak and suspension fittings go without lubrication.

With the increased emphasis today on drivability, perhaps this sad trend will change. But the parts supply for these cars is tight, so many European specialists now produce spares as needed. When I asked what was available from Mercedes, the reply was “not much.” That statement came straight from Classic, and they supposedly have “everything.”

However, if you send your 540K to Mercedes Classic in Fellbach, they can and will service these cars — if you don’t mind paying just under 50,000 euros for a rebuild of the pressurized carburetor.

While the majority of parts on these cars are incredibly tough and repairable, you still can’t rebuild a head gasket or a valve. All of it has to be made from scratch, but with the advent of technology and 3-D printing, there is hope.

Non-Mercedes coachwork a financial risk

While the 540K Special Roadster, Cabriolet A and this unique Sports Roadster will always be well into blue-chip territory, the buying public has a mixed opinion concerning examples with non-Mercedes coachwork.

The pinnacle of 540K design, the Special Roadster, climaxed in 2012 with a stunning $11 million high sale when Gooding & Company sold the Von Krieger Special Roadster. Since then, a gaggle of 540Ks has come to market, with a 2014 low of $1.8 million and a slight recovery thereafter.

Prices fell again in 2017 to the $2.2 million mark, but overall this is a stable market, and putting miles on and dollars into a 540K will not result in massive losses.

My caveat, however, is to be careful of cars with non-Mercedes coachwork. Unless they are fully documented and in good structural condition, these cars have the biggest market variance, and can sell for $3 million one day and half that much the next.

While the designs of Erdmann & Rossi seem to be the notable exception, the market clearly favors factory coachwork.

A quick search of the SCM Platinum Auction Database shows that many 540K cars with aftermarket coachwork do not reach their low estimates, while values for the more common factory Cabriolet B seem to be stable.

An affordable 540K?

While we frequently hear about the sales of Special Roadsters and Cabriolet As, the majority of 540Ks received a Cabriolet B or C body. While these cars still sell for tatty Mercedes 300SL Roadster money ($700k–$900k), they are an affordable path to ownership.

Examples of the 500K or 380K Cab B or C sell for even less and are not widely discussed, but they are just as robust and enjoyable as any 540K. While you won’t make a million dollars at sales time, you won’t lose a million, either.

Obscure coachwork on one of these cars can also be a great path to acquisition as long as the example is structurally solid. From the driver’s seat, they are all roughly equal — and a little cramped. Prepare to do a lot of heavy lifting yourself, as most of these cars will need plenty of mechanical help to be reliable enough to use. Specialists in the United States are few, but they do exist. Parts frequently must come out of Europe.

Better examples exist

I would have liked this car a lot better in its possibly original shades of silver and black. This garish shade of red robs this car of its Teutonic dignity, but that’s just a surface detail.

This 540K’s past history of near total destruction, while not a deal breaker, also raises a few questions. I have no idea how frequently it was serviced, but the rule here is that if no mention is made, then it probably wasn’t done.

Undeniably, it is an elegant and beautiful Mercedes, but this can be said of any open 540K.

While the price paid was not outrageous, I would not count on making any money next time it goes up for sale. This car was well sold, in spite of its storied past, its current paint job and its possible lack of maintenance. Why? Simply because there are better 540Ks out there for this kind of money. ♦

(Introductory description courtesy of Bonhams.)

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