|Vehicle:||1938 Mercedes-Benz 540K Sindelfingen|
|Original List Price:||$7,500|
|Tune Up Cost:||$5,000|
|Chassis Number Location:||Left frame rail|
|Engine Number Location:||Right side of engine block|
|Club Info:||Mercedes-Benz Club of America, 1907 Lelaray St., Colorado Springs, CO 80909|
|Alternatives:||1932 Horch 670 V12 Cabriolet, 1930 Hispano Suiza H6B, 1938 Maybach SW38|
This 1938 540K Sindelfingen Cabriolet “A” sold for $1,035,991 at Bonhams’ London auction on December 5, 2005.
Only Hitler’s arrogance could have produced a car like this in the depths of the German depression. The triumph of pre-WWII engineering and the pinnacle of an era, this was the first car to cruise comfortably above 100 mph. Perhaps equally important, after reaching that dizzying speed, the huge servo-assisted brakes were up to snuff, so you didn’t need an aircraft landing strip to slow down the thundering behemoth.
A Max Sailer design, executed by none other than Dr. Ferdinand Porsche (a slide rule for hire), the 540K was designed for the wealthy; fuel alone was a daunting expense, but if you worried about miles per gallon, you couldn’t afford this car in the first place.
Gas wasn’t cheap, but labor was, and skilled craftsmen were plentiful, so fanciers of the Sindelfingen Cabriolet “A” had a choice of four factory bodies. Generally, the Germans were not known for styling, but this model was quite elegant; the two-door cabriolet A was the most beautiful. In all, 409 were made and about 200 exist today.
As a show of wealth and power, the 540K had undeniable impact. It was the transportation of choice of the Third Reich (though ironically one of the most notable 540K drivers was the Jewish head of Warner Brothers studios, Jack Warner).
With cars this big and no power steering, one could understand why chauffeurs were 6’4″, at least 250 lbs, and usually hailed from Poland. (But there were other Mercedes that required even more brute strength. Take, for instance, the later, massive 770K; it looked like a truck and handled like a truck. If that car were made today, Peterbilt would sue for copyright infringement.)
As the saying goes, to the victor go the spoils; and while much of the booty carted away from the Fatherland after WWII was in paintings, jewelry, and other more easily hidden goods, more than one 540K was steered east (at what must have been a pretty good clip) by Soviet generals. Of course, once on the dark side of the Iron Curtain, the Soviets had no way to make repairs, so when something on the engine blew up, they rolled the useless but beautiful car into a barn. Some are still there.
Since the break-up of the Soviet Union, it’s now even harder to get a car out of Russia; at least then, you could fill out endless forms and wait about a year with a prayer of an end result. Now, you’re at the mercy of the Russian mafia. And what are you going to do if the car you paid $500,000 cash for doesn’t show up in Helsinki as promised? Sue?
Some years ago, I had the opportunity to drive one of these thundering beasts. A client of mine showed me his 540K at his country estate in France. He asked proudly, “How would you like to drive it?”
I replied, “I would love to,” which was not the case. The prospect of piloting this gargantuan and very valuable piece of real estate over rough country roads was not nearly as inviting as my friend assumed, but to avoid offending him, I drove it.
I was pleasantly surprised at the acceleration, but in the turns I was thoroughly disgusted by the Freightliner-like handling (if your arms are like Popeye’s, you’d have no problem).
Our subject 540K car was ordered new by a French customer for delivery via Mercedes-Benz in Paris (a copy of the original order comes with it). After WWII the car went to the U.S. and in 1970 it was bought by Mr. James Dupar. Subsequently restored, it was displayed at the prestigious Pebble Beach Concours in 2002 by its Japanese owner at the time before being resold and returning to the Fatherland.
Sixteen years after its restoration, it has a nice patina; it actually looks like a car again, rather than something embalmed for open-casket burial.
It’s nice to know that there are some people who actually drive these cars. I’d be comfortable stopping at a nice pub in this car-provided I ate my spinach first. Or got Boris of Warsaw to do the driving.
A car like this does not come along very often, with provenance, rich history, and awards to boot. I’d call this one well-bought.