In the late 1930s, the European luxury segment was dominated by Mercedes-Benz with its “Type 540” vehicles that were powered by a supercharged straight-8 engine and carried the 540K designation. With the car offered in eight body variations, the pinnacle of the line was the elegant Special Roadster featuring luxurious appointments and sweeping bodylines, juxtaposed by its powerful 180 HP “kompressor” engine and remarkable handling characteristics. Built under the direction of Hermann Ahrens in the special car construction department of the Mercedes-Benz plant in Sindelfingen, near Stuttgart, the bodies made in-house were so highly esteemed by customers that, out of the 760 total customers who purchased a 500K or 540K, only 70 chassis were delivered sans body, their owners opting for coachwork from other builders in Germany or abroad—an exceptionally low number for a luxury vehicle in those days.
This 1937 540K Special Roadster, Chassis No. 154080, began its life as one of the aforementioned stand-alone chassis that was shipped to London via Paris, where its custom coachwork was fitted by Mayfair Carriage Co. Limited in The Hyde, Barnet, London. Fitted with rakish lines, fender skirts and an abundance of polished louvers, the Mayfair body typifies the “elegance in motion” of automotive design in the era. At the end of World War II, the car was located in London before being purchased by Peter Hessler of Quebec, Canada. The car found new ownership in Toronto, and it was then discovered a couple years later by the father and son team of Richard and Stephen Mertz of Detroit, Michigan.
Richard and Steve painstakingly spent the next 20 years restoring No. 154080 to its former glory. Stunning in its fresh silver and black paint scheme, the car debuted at Meadow Brook Hall Concours d’Elegance and was subsequently featured in Jan Merlin’s keystone book, “Mercedes-Benz—The Supercharged 8-Cylinder Cars.” The car garnered the attention of iconic businessman, philanthroper, automotive enthusiast and noted collector Ralph Engelstadt of the Imperial Palace Auto Collection in Las Vegas, Nevada, who purchased the car in 1995. Shortly thereafter, the 540K underwent a complete refurbishment, repainted in the resplendent red color scheme it wears today. Under new ownership, the car was displayed at the 2011 Pebble Beach Concours d’ Elegance as part of the “Celebrating 125 Years of Mercedes-Benz” festivities.
Equipped with its original 5.4L straight-8 and fed by twin pressurized updraft carburetors, the engine developed 115 HP from the factory, normally aspirated. Engaging the attached aluminum-finned Roots-type supercharger—either manually for short periods or automatically when the accelerator was pushed fully to the floor—increased output to 180 HP, good for a top speed of 110 MPH. Power is sent to the rear wheels through a 4-speed manual gearbox with a direct top gear and featuring synchromesh on the top three cogs. Vacuum-assisted hydraulic brakes keep the car under the driver’s control.
Lowering the black convertible top reveals the richly appointed interior with ivory leather seating, door panels and contrasting carpeting. The white-faced Viegel gauges and ivory switchgear are set within a Mother of Pearl instrument cluster and surrounded by a Zebrano wood dash that includes dual gloveboxes. An extended chrome-plated gear shifter, satin aluminum and black compound steering wheel add flair to the cabin, as do a bounty of polished stainless and chromed trim pieces. Other accoutrements of note include a fold-down windshield with dual aero screens, a centrally mounted grille spot lamp and dual cowl exhaust with notched exits.
While the factory Special Roadsters stand out on their own, this one-off Mayfair-bodied 540K known by Chassis No. 154080 is in the upper echelon of all Mercedes-Benz roadsters ever built. With precision engineering and a plush cabin to coddle the most demanding driver, this Special Roadster is equally at home spiriting through the Alps or being exhibited on a Concours d’Elegance lawn.