Written by Nicole Ellan James
The 1930s produced some of the most beautiful automobiles ever created. Many such cars featured state-of-the-art, competition-inspired chassis, powerful engines, and stylish and luxurious coachwork. Among the most significant models produced by Mercedes-Benz during this era was the Mercedes-Benz 500K and its successor, the 540K, representing one of the pinnacles of Mercedes-Benz’ prewar achievements. Mercedes-Benz built some of the grandest cars of the Golden Age. All Full-Classic examples of the marque have a certain gravitas, an innate presence that sets them apart from other automobiles.
Following its public debut at the Paris Salon in October 1936, the Mercedes-Benz 540K was one of very few road cars capable of reaching 100 mph in the 1930s. The 540K went into production in 1936 and remained in production until 1940. Mercedes-Benz built only 419 in total, while the manufacturing record further reveals its exclusive nature: 97 were produced in 1936, 145 in 1937, 95 in 1938 and 69 in 1939, before the war ended series production. The low-production numbers and the style of these big, supercharged Mercedes-Benzes have made them among the most sought-after collector vehicles.
The 540K was one of the first models developed under Max Sailer, Mercedes’ then chief engineer and ex-racing driver. Sailer was the successor to Hans Nibel, who had passed away at the age of 54 in 1934. As Mercedes-Benz’s flagship model, the 540K featured the company’s famous Roots-type supercharger system. Twin updraft carburetors fed the 5.4-liter straight-8 engine, which produced 115 horsepower. With the supercharger, the power plant was capable of generating 180 horsepower when it was engaged. One had to press the accelerator pedal to the floor to engage the supercharger, which would engage the compressor and close off the alternative atmospheric intake to the carburetor. This supercharger system had been proven in the preceding S series of cars created by Dr. Ferdinand Porsche that had dominated racing during the 1920s. What further makes the supercharger unique is that it was intended only for short bursts in a “push-to-pass” fashion. So, this Mercedes supercharger blows through the carburetor rather than drawing from the carburetor.
From the engine, power is transferred through a 4-speed manual transmission to the rear wheels, and the motorcar glides to a halt with vacuum-assisted hydraulic brakes at all four corners.
After its 1936 appearance at the Paris Salon, the Mercedes-Benz 540K was reported by the U.K. magazine Autocar in May 1938 as having conjured up “visions of breath-taking exploits of racing cars and drivers of international fame, but also of superlative comfort and coachwork of exquisite beauty, fine paintwork, brightly polished metal, the finest hardwoods and leather ‒ massive and yet outstandingly attractive bodies ‒ in short: the car for the connoisseur.”
Late in its production, in 1938, the Mercedes-Benz 540K received the girder-like frame lightened with oval-section chassis tubes instead of channel frame members. The design also incorporated the adoption of sodium-cooled valves, which also followed the company’s highly successful racing practice. This design was inspired by the Mercedes-Benz Silver Arrows Grand Prix cars. It also utilized a fully independent setup that suspended the stiff chassis with coil springs and a camber compensator spring. The compensator spring worked to offset the independent rear suspension swing axle’s tendency to have sudden camber changes.
The Mercedes-Benz 540K was offered as a 4-seater coupe, 2- and 4-seat Cabriolet, and even a 7-seater limousine. This example, offered with No Reserve at the 2023 Barrett-Jackson Scottsdale Auction, started life with a Cabriolet B-body configuration; it was later partially updated to a highly desirable Cabriolet A-body configuration. It is important to note that the car’s chassis, driveline and supercharger are original.
Everything about this vehicle exudes exquisite taste and masterful detailing, from the gracefully curved external top bows, multi-colored hubcaps and simple front bumper to the sweeping trunk line, polished mahogany dash and simple black steering wheel.
As such, this 540K features a steeply raked windshield, mildly swept-back grille and overall clean styling. Other details that highlight the true craftsmanship of the automobile include dual side-mount spare wheels, dual spotlights, chrome wire wheels, immaculate Burgundy bodywork with a contrasting Cream leather interior and a Cream convertible top. The look is complete with the famous three-pointed star standing proudly atop the classic Mercedes grille.
This fabulous 540K Cabriolet was purchased in 1991 by Fred M. Kemp Sr., who founded the Kemp Auto Museum through Coys of Kensington in London. Its provenance includes accolades such as the Most Significant Mercedes-Benz at the 2008 Meadow Brook Concours d’Elegance, Mercedes Star of Excellence at the 2009 Amelia Island Concours and Best European Pre-War at the 2011 Amelia Island Concours. In 2016 Donald Davis sold this 540K to William F. Munday, where it has remained in his collection until now.
As one of the most beautiful Mercedes-Benzes of the golden era, this car has a long list of prestigious concours awards. The beauty and style of the 540K is eternal and it is sure to command the spotlight when it crosses the auction block this January. Join us to see this stunning car cross the block with No Reserve, and register to bid for your chance to own this remarkable piece of automotive history.