Following the creation of Mercedes-Benz in 1926, the merged company prospered by producing mass-market models. But it also maintained a prestigious niche as a supplier of fine custom- built vehicles to the European elite, who demanded superior build quality, high performance and exclusivity.
This earnest quest for automotive perfection reached incomparable heights in the mid-1980s with the creation of two superb models for the richest of customers. It must have been hard to imagine that the 500 series of 1934 could be improved upon – but this elegant sportscar was indeed bettered only two years later. Would-be buyers who were accustomed to the best of everything constantly lusted for more power, and Mercedes-Benz obliged by offering them the 540K.
The 540K was certainly exclusive – built only to order, each car was fabricated to the customer’s exact requirements on an advanced chassis that featured four-wheel independent suspension for the smoothest of rides. There was enough power to suit the most demanding customers, too – K was for Kompressor, the supercharger that boosted output from the beautifully engineered straight eight engine.
Under 400 were produced, but body styles varied considerably. Popular choices included a two-door sports roadster, assorted two- door cabriolets, two-door tourers, two- and four-door fixed-head and convertible coupes and saloons. Most famous of all is the ‘Spezial Roadster’ designed by Hermann Ahrens and crafted (like almost all 540K bodies) by Mercedes-Benz’s own custom bodyshop, Karrosserie Sindelfingen. These racy two-seaters can only be described as spectacular, with sweeping wings, external exhaust pipes, a recessed grille, raked windscreen and distinctive bonnet that make this an instantly recognizable masterwork.
If lovers of elegant 1930s speedsters could drive one vehicle of their choice, many would surely opt for a 540K (though Formula One guru Bernie Ecclestone was persuaded to part with his … for $8.25 million!).
COUNTRY OF ORIGIN:
1936 (until 1939)
5,401 cc OHV Straight Eight
The fastest models reached 115 mph (185 km/h), achieving 0-60 mph (97 km/h) in 15 secs
YOU SHOULD KNOW: it is said that after Jean Bugatti saw the early prototype of the sensationally streamlined 540K Autobahnkurier (only two made) he hurried home and immediately began work on the equally iconic Bugatti Type 57 Atlantic (only three made) – spot the similarity.