Restoring a 540K is not for the faint of heart. The chrome bill alone on these cars can run close to $50,000

Mercedes-Benz introduced the 500K in 1934. The "K" designation stood for Kompressor, German for supercharger. With power increasing from 100 hp to 160 hp when the supercharger engaged, the cars were among the fastest grand touring cars of the time.

Although similar in many respects, the new-for-1936 540K model offered even more power: 115 hp naturally aspirated or an impressive 180 hp with the blower engaged. A 12-inch increase in wheelbase to 128 inches improved ride quality and gave coachbuilders more room to create even longer and more elegant lines. The hood was extended, while the raked, V-shaped radiator and external exhaust pipes gave the car an undeniable visual presence. Long sweeping fenders, gently skirted, added to the visual length of the car, while chrome accents highlighted the lines and added a sparkling elegance. Just 419 540K chassis were built before production ended in 1940.

Most coach-built bodies for Mercedes-Benz's top chassis were constructed in the firm's own coachworks at Sindelfingen. However, particular clients preferred the work of Germany's major independent coachbuilder, Erdmann & Rossi, established in 1897 on Berlin's Luisenstrasse. It moved to larger quarters near the Oranienburg Gate two years later, to concentrate on automobile bodies.

The spectacular Sport Cabriolet offered here was originally ordered by the Berglass brothers, a family of Berlin bankers. It was their second Sport Cabriolet by Erdmann & Rossi; the first was fitted to a 500K chassis. This car was delivered on December 10, 1936, and the design sheet pointed out a number of special features unique to this car, such as the specially lengthened hood with cooling doors, a unique hinged V-windshield, and twin-mounted rear spares.

This one-off 540K did not stay in Germany for long, and by 1938 it was shipped to the U.K. where it was road registered as LMG 594 just before the war. The car's subsequent history remains relatively unknown until the mid-1970s, when it was purchased by the Goodman family of the San Francisco Bay area. The Mercedes-Benz remained in their care until it was sold in unrestored condition at an estate sale in 1993. Its subsequent owner immediately undertook a complete restoration of the car.

Following this extensive restoration, the 540K Sport Cabriolet received several awards including: first place at the 1997 Amelia Island Concours d'Elegance, second place at Pebble Beach in 1997, and both a First in Class and the Most Significant Mercedes award at the 1998 Meadow Brook Hall Concours d'Elegance. This spectacular and authentic 540K Mercedes-Benz represents the pinnacle of the coachbuilding art and design from the classic era.

SCM Analysis


Vehicle:1938 Mercedes-Benz 540K Sport
Years Produced:1936-40
Number Produced:419
Original List Price:$7,500
SCM Valuation:$550,000-$660,000
Tune Up Cost:$5,000
Distributor Caps:$1,500-$2,500, if available
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
Investment Grade:A

This 540K Sport Cabriolet sold for $973,501, including buyer’s commission, at the RM Monterey Auction, held August 15-16, 2003.

Prior to World War II, Mercedes-Benz was arguably the world’s most prestigious European automaker, followed by Rolls-Royce, Maybach, Horch, and Hispano. They were the cars of kings and captains of industry alike. Today, the pre-war European automobile market is still led by Mercedes-Benz, though this market has been shrinking recently.

It’s no secret that the people who fondly remember these cars from their youth aren’t getting any younger. Most of today’s collector car buyers are between 35 and 55 years old, making them more interested in cars of the 1950s and 1960s.

Yet despite the general decline in interest for pre-war cars, the very high end of this market is still strong, with tremendous sums being paid for special coachbuilt cars or racing cars with impeccable provenance.

Built from the finest materials available, and assembled with legendary German craftsmanship, the 540K cost roughly 10 times that of an average Ford. Consequently, many were hidden and escaped the ravages of World War II. Although all 540Ks share the same chassis and mechanical bits, they differ vastly in price according to the coachwork they carry. A limited-production, high-door, long-tail Special Roadster can bring over $4 million, while the same car with a four-seat cabriolet body will struggle to bring $250,000.

Restoring a 540K is not for the faint of heart. To do an every-last-nut-and-bolt restoration will cost north of $400,000, depending upon the condition of the body’s wood sub-frame. The chrome bill alone on these cars can run close to $50,000. Obviously, this makes the restoration of a $4 million car more logical than a $250,000 one. Buying a fully restored car with receipts and pictures, completed by a known restorer, is just as wise a strategy with these cars as it is with any other.

Historically, Mercedes collectors have tended to favor factory coachwork. However, this custom-built Erdmann & Rossi example sold for almost three to four times more than the comparable factory Cabriolet C, the designation for a two-door, four-seat convertible with no rear quarter windows. Perhaps it was purchased to round out a collection, or someone at the auction simply liked the way it looked and let the market be damned. In any event, as a restored car with recent concours credentials, it’s a good financial bet in the long run. And sure to create a stir of attention at whatever event it shows up at, which brings another kind of value for an owner.-Alex Finigan

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