1937 Mercedes-Benz 540K Special Roadster

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Thisdescription appeared in the RM Auctions New York Auto Salon & Auction catalogfor September 2001 and is used with permission. © 2001 R.S. Carey and RMAuctions, Inc., all rights reserved.

The1937 Berlin Motor Show, ex-Warner Brothers Studios, Jack Warner

1937Mercedes-Benz 540K Special Roadster

Coachworkby Mercedes-Benz, Sindelfingen

ChassisNo. 154151

EngineNo. 154151

115/180hp5,401cc. supercharged overhead valve inline 8-cylinder engine, 4-speed manualtransmission, 4-wheel hydraulic drum brakes, independent front and rearsuspension. Wheelbase 3290mm (129.5″).

TheMercedes-Benz 540K was the most powerful automobile of its period. Not in sheerengine power, to be sure, but in its total mastery of the road and everything onit. And of the 406 examples built during the 540K’s production life from1936-1939 the most dominant were the Special Roadsters designed and executed tothe highest standards in Mercedes-Benz’s own karosserie inSindelfingen. Only twenty-six 540K Special Roadsters were built. Only six ofthese were the long tail, covered spare version such as the example on offer.And only one of these has the unique combination of history, originality,provenance and presentation of the ex-Jack Warner 540K Special Roadster offeredhere.

Mercedes-Benzalways commanded a place as the premier supplier of fine motor cars to thepolitical, artistic and commercial aristocracy; the 540K was the culmination ofits motor vehicle development before World War II, development that had takentwo parallel courses following the merger of Daimler and Benz in 1926. Themerged company’s commercial success depended upon bread-and-butter models likethe mass-market 170 series and the middle-market 290 and 320. During the sameperiod the 460 and 500 Nürburg, with side valve engines and chassis that stillreflected pre-merger Mercedes designs, met the demands of the upper middle classGerman market.

Theproliferation of models in all market segments helped Mercedes-Benz survive theworst days of the Great Depression, with production growing from a low of only6,000 cars in 1932 to over 25,000 in 1935. These proliferating mass- andmid-market Mercedes-Benzes are important to today’s collectors because theyprovided the financial, operational and functional resources to support theall-conquering Mercedes-Benz Silver Arrow Grand Prix team – with itssuccession of ever more powerful and better handling GP Monopostos culminatingwith the M163-engined W154 of 1939 – and the corps of artisans, skilledtechnicians, designers and craftsmen who constructed the 540Ks.

WhileMercedes-Benz maintained its factories and employment with small and mediumsized cars, it catered to the market’s most demanding clientele with a limitedoffering of the finest motor cars ever built. Based on a strong and rigidchassis these pioneering automobiles introduced coil spring four-wheelindependent suspension using parallel wishbones at the front and swing axles atthe rear. They featured synchromesh on the top three gears of their four-speedgearboxes, 12 volt electrical systems, central lubrication and vacuum-assistedhydraulic brakes. These massive high speed conveyances owed little to the S, SSand SSK machines of the Twenties except one glorious attribute: each was fittedwith Mercedes-Benz’s driver-controlled supercharger that boosted engine outputby about 60% in short full power bursts.

Thefirst of the series, the 380, was introduced at the Berlin Motor Show in 1933and was produced only for two years, 1933-34, before being phased out in favorof the much more powerful 500K in 1934. The 500K, in turn, was succeeded during1936 by the ultimate motor car of the Thirties, the Mercedes-Benz 540K. Thesemost significant cars were built in almost insignificant numbers. In 1935, forexample, when Daimler-Benz built over 25,000 automobiles only 190 of them werethe top of the line 500K, barely ¾ of 1% of Daimler-Benz’s production.

Notunexpectedly with such minute quantities, each car commanded the best ofMercedes-Benz’s resources. Each was individually constructed to the finestGerman standards, using only the most enduring materials and the finestcraftsmen drawn from Daimler-Benz’s thousands of employees. Remarkably, at atime when most luxury automobiles were supplied as rolling chassis tocoachbuilders of their new owners’ choice, Mercedes-Benz created almost allthe body designs for its premier models in house and built them in the extensivefacilities at the Sindelfingen Werk. Under the guidance of Wilhelm Haspel (whowould go on to be Chairman of the Daimler-Benz management board from 1942-1952)Sindelfingen became both a highly efficient facility for production bodywork andthe source of some of the most elegant, sporting and finely crafted limitedproduction coachwork ever created.

Theultimate Mercedes-Benz 540K was the Special Roadster. Exceptional at the time,the 540K Special Roadster has subsequently firmly established itself at thepinnacle of classic cars. Priced at 28,000 reichsmarks (about $12,000 inGermany at the prevailing exchange rate; the New York importer, Mitropa Motors,asked $14,000 landed in the US – about 40% more than the most expensivecatalog bodied Cadillac V16.) The 540K Special Roadster is an awe-inspiringblend of size, performance and style, possessed of a commanding presence that ispalpable in any surroundings.

Constructedon a nearly 130″ wheelbase chassis and stretching fully 17½ feet overall,the Special Roadster effectively accommodates only two passengers. Yet, theSindelfingen designers have succeeded in so skillfully blending its elementsthat its proportions are harmonious. The gently sloping Mercedes-Benz radiatoris tucked back behind the front wheels’ centerline between sweeping frontfenders. The fenders then dominate the long hood before gently and voluptuouslycurving up to create the rear fenders which in turn flow delicately into thetail. Subtle bright accents complement and outline the form of the bodyelements, punctuated by functional and styling details that draw the eye andmitigate the effect of the 540K Special Roadster’s size. Two massive exhaustpipes emerge from the hood’s right side and disappear into the fender, likethe scaled coils of a legendary serpent lurking below the hood’s surfaceprepared to devour lesser automobiles. These were automobiles built to impress,but to do so with impeccable taste. In 1937 owning a Mercedes-Benz 540K SpecialRoadster must have been comparable with today’s experience of having aGulfstream V at one’s disposal.

TheSpecial Roadster’s imposing presence is matched by its impressive performance.The stiff frame and fully independent suspension supports its three tonseffortlessly, soaking up irregularities in byways and at its best showing the540K’s relaxed 85mph cruising speed on the highway. Mercedes-Benz fitted acamber compensator spring to the 540K to offset the swing axle independent rearsuspension’s tendency to sudden camber changes and the resulting drivingexperience is balanced and satisfying. This is no sports car, but for two peopleto cover vast distances of good highways it is nearly unmatched.

It isthe sudden burst of power when the supercharger is engaged by fully depressingthe throttle pedal that tests both the driver and the 540K chassis. The suddenshriek of the blower’s 7 psi boost pressure unmasks the dragon within the 540K’sengine compartment, adding 65hp at 3400 rpm. Mercedes-Benz chose to pressurizethe carburetor on its supercharged cars so the howl of gears, the blower itselfand the scream of air being squeezed is unmuffled, creating a siren’s roarthat clears the 540K’s path with alacrity. At full song a 540K will never belikened to a wraith or phantom but to the keening of banshees.

Of thetwenty-six 540K Special Roadsters only six were created in the long tail stylewith fully enclosed rear spare tire recessed into the rear deck, the bestdeveloped expression of the 540K Special Roadster’s design and expression, andthe example offered here is the best of this limited series. Specially preparedby Mercedes-Benz, unique in several small but significant respects, having apainted metal instrument panel and equipped with the rare black steering wheeland shift knob, it was presented as the magnificent centerpiece of the factory’sdisplay at the 1937 Berlin Motor Show. Warner Brothers Pictures purchased it offthe show display for its impresario Jack Warner, who probably fell under thespell of the 540K Special Roadster during one of his frequent trips to Europe.The factory then prepared it for delivery in the United States with aspeedometer calibrated in miles and a “Made in Germany” plaque. Theimporter, Mitropa Motors in New York, was so proud of the Jack Warner 540KSpecial Roadster that it was featured in their advertising.

InHollywood, a rarified environment where magnificent motor cars were the order ofthe day, where stars and studio bosses affected the latest and fastestautomobiles as status symbols, Jack Warner retained his 540K Special Roadsterfor over ten years. In 1949 it was acquired by legendary ConnecticutMercedes-Benz collector George Bitgood through Dr. Sam Scher. Dr. Bitgood, aveterinarian still fondly remembered in his home town for his kindness toanimals and their owners, slowly built a small and reclusive collection of thefinest cars, particularly supercharged 8-cylinder Mercedes-Benzes, during thelate ‘40s and ‘50s. Preoccupied with his veterinary practice, the JackWarner 540K Special Roadster remained, untouched, in one of Dr. Bitgood’sgarages, a dirt-floored building with its unhung doors leaning precariously overthe entrances, sharing space with two other 540K roadsters, the PrincessCherwachidze 500K Special Roadster, an original SSK and a clutch of 540KCabriolet Bs in various stages of dilapidation. The present owner acquired it in1993 directly from Dr. Bitgood, through Herbert Von Fragstein and Paul Russell,and then commissioned its restoration by Paul Russell and Company in Essex,Massachusetts.

PaulRussell and Company’s Alex Finigan commented recently that the Jack Warner540K had been preserved in the most remarkably original condition through itsyears with Warner Brothers and Dr. Bitgood. Before starting the restorationRussell’s shop carefully inventoried the complete car’s condition anddocumented the minute details of its assembly and construction, effort which haspaid off in the Warner 540K’s restoration to the same configuration in whichit was delivered by Mitropa Motors two generations ago. One small hole in theleft rear wheel arch was the only rust on the car. The body’s heartwood beechand ash wood framing, the only materials considered good enough to be used byMercedes-Benz Karosserie in Sindelfingen for the 540K, had survived entirelyintact, an attribute almost unheard of for pre-war coachbuilt classics, as hadall the body panels and trim except for the spare tire cover and bumpers.Because of its sound and original condition Finigan describes this as “theeasiest prewar restoration we’ve done.” Other than recreating the lostspare tire cover and bumpers the only reproduction parts needed in therestoration were the white rubber body seals and trim strips which were uniqueto the Special Roadsters.

TheJack Warner 540K’s original colors were carefully duplicated. Individual hidesthat matched the originals’ texture, tannage and grain were selected for theinterior. The period-correct surface dying process and the original supplier’stechnique were carefully duplicated. The engine, drivetrain and chassis wereoverhauled and restored to original condition.

Followingrestoration the Jack Warner 540K Special Roadster took First in Class and theMercedes-Benz Trophy at the 1995 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, followed byBest of Show awards at the VSCCA Castle Hill Concours d’Elegance in 1995, theDallas Concours d’Elegance in 1996 and the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegancein 1997. It has won numerous other Best in Class and special awards at the mostimportant concours. It has not been used or shown since appearing at the N.H.International Speedway “The Elegance” in 1998 where it received fourawards including the Judges’ Trophy and Best Restored, attesting both to theinherent quality of the automobile itself and to the caliber of its restorationand continuing care.

Thenext owner of Jack Warner’s 540K Special Roadster will be effectively only thethird owner of the car since new, Dr. Sam Scher’s ownership being incident toits transfer from Warner Brothers to George Bitgood. The Jack Warner 540KSpecial Roadster’s long tail, covered spare style is the ultimate expressionof five years’ development, refinement and evolution by Sindelfingen’sdesigners, stylists and craftsmen, the most desirable of all the provocative andpowerful 540K Special Roadsters and this example is considered to be the best ofthe six cars built in this style.

TheJack Warner Mercedes-Benz 540K Special Roadster has an unbroken provenance fromnew and today displays only 11,000 miles on its odometer. Starting “on thebutton”, its low miles, remarkable originality and meticulous restorationwill give its new owner the complete experience of driving a barely broken-in1937 Mercedes-Benz 540K with the most desirable and attractive coachwork evercreated for this chassis, and perhaps for any chassis in history. Its conditionis impeccable, its style is grand, its presence magnificent, its provenancepristine, its history includes one of the century’s most important MovieMoguls and carries the aura of stars, starlets and larger-than-lifepersonalities.

Thismost “powerful”, beautiful and imposing automobile of the Classic Erastill has the grandeur to stop traffic. With its supercharger engaged itsgrandeur is matched by an eloquent orchestra of tortured air and shriekinggears. This is no swaggering poseur. This is one great and powerful automobile.

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