Image credits: © Mercedes-Benz.

1936 Mercedes-Benz 540K news, pictures, specifications, and information
Special Roadster
Coachwork: Sindelfingen
Chassis Num: 130949
Engine Num: 130949
Sold for $11,770,000 at 2012 Gooding & Company.

1936 Mercedes-Benz 540K von Krieger Special Roadster : 'The Price of Perfection'

Life is full of tragedy and comedy and 'all the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players' (Shakespeare 2.7). Rarely can the fullness of life, with all of the emotions and intricacies, become captured in an inanimate, unfeeling object. However, there are those special moments when true pieces of art are created. And though they may be, in and of themselves unfeeling and cold, they have the ability to take on the identity of their creator or possessor and become alive, a silent story-teller. One such piece of art that narrates a story full of nobility and destitution, of love and loss, would make its way to auction at the 2012 Gooding and Company event held in Monterey, California.

While the Gooding and Company auction in Monterey is all about exquisite automobiles with incredible pedigrees, to fully understand and appreciate the 1936 Mercedes-Benz 540K offered one needs to know and understand the story of the players in the drama for which the car would be custom made and delivered.

Just one look at the exquisite and voluptuous lines designed by the brilliant visionary coachbuilders at Sindelfingen and it immediately becomes clear who the clientele for this particular 540K Special Roadster would have been.

Some of the last of German aristocracy, Baron Benno von Krieger and his wife Josephine came to be settled in a suburb of Berlin during the Golden Era of the Weimar Republic when the Junkers family still exerted considerable influence on German politics and society. Amidst this world of glamorous parties and improbable prestige, the Baron and his wife would raise their two children, Gisela and Henning.

By the early 1930s the economic crisis felt all over the globe was putting tremendous strain upon families, no matter what their rank or situation. The rising tide of the Third Reich was also beginning to come into play and the strain on the German nobility would only increase. In the base of Benno and Josephine, the pressures would come to bear on the family itself and would become too much and the two would file for divorce.

Also, by the early 1930s, there was a shift happening amongst the noble families. The days of being chauffeured around in horse-drawn carriages had come to an end. The early fantastical coach-built designs around the early decades of the 20th century still lent to aristocracy being delivered to and from important engagements. However, motor racing would open up a whole new world, and it would become a considerable influence on the von Krieger's son, Henning.

R. H. Johnson would write in a 1952 edition of Motor Sport, 'The noise of a Mercedes blower is, to the occupants of the car, bloodcurdling and diabolic… After the first terrifying bursts of boost have been attempted and it is found that the engine does not blow up, the experience becomes extremely exhilarating.'

The only ones that could afford to experience such exhilaration were those with the means to do so. Therefore, the world of the luxurious and exotic automobile would change. No longer would the big, square designs of most coachbuilders do. The owner would now be in the driver's seat. Every aspect of the car now needed to portray the sense of wealth, affluence and artistry to which one would be accustomed. Perhaps for the first time the whole of the automotive experience came to speak of one's wealth and position. Whereas before it had all been about comfort and appointments around a big and luxurious car, it would now change to become an amalgamation of artistry and sport with the kind of performance necessary to also speak of one's position and command.

Henning would be born at just the right time and would emphatically demonstrate the new era in aristocracy. Like others in his position, Henning had the wealth and the means to partake of only that which the best motor racing drivers in the world had the privilege. The early 20th century was certainly a period of invention and adventure. Like the jousting knights of centuries past, aviation and motoring, especially cars built for motor racing, belonged to a certain aristocracy of its own—the ones that either had the means or the talent to take part. Everyone else had to watch and admire from the sidelines. Henning wasn't one of them.

By the time he reached driving age, Henning would be given a Mercedes-Benz SS the family owned and used. Supercharged, Henning would become accustomed to the whirling siren sound of the Roots-type supercharger and would be forever hooked on cars with the looks and the performance to match.

The car that fit Henning perfectly was Mercedes-Benz's 500-Series of automobiles. And, as a graduation gift for the then 19 year old Henning, Josephine would put in an order for a Special Roadster.

Originally ordered to be a 500 chassis, Mercedes had already made the switch to the 540K and just used that chassis instead of what had been ordered. Therefore, because of when the car was ordered by Josephine, Henning's new Special Roadster, when it was built, would be one of the first fifty 540Ks ever to be built.

Though only a graduation gift, Josephine would spare no expense when it came to her son's new car. After separating from her husband, Josephine would, by no means, become a woman without means. She would become an extremely influential and wealthy real estate dealer around Paris, France, which is where she and the kids would move to after the divorce became final.

Henning's 1936 Mercedes-Benz 540K Special Roadster would be finished and delivered to the young man with an entirely black finish and pigskin leather upholstery. Featuring such elegant touches as a burl wood writing table, full-leather dashboard and an extremely expensive and extraordinary Telefunken radio, the Special Roadster certainly was to be something special in which Henning would be seen riding around the streets of Berlin.

But Henning wasn't the only one in the family to make use of the Special Roadster to help emphasize their social standing. Henning's sister, Gisela would be an enduring figure in the Paris social scene. She would be noted for her ability to be at the right party and always in the right company. An elegant beauty in her own right, Gisela would attract many a suitor, and would turn them all down. Her elegant grace and exotic looks would claim its share of victims, with one even going so far as to throw himself out of his plane over the English Channel after Gisela refused his hand in marriage. And at the wheel of the 540K Special Roadster, she certainly knew how to torture her most ardent admirers.

But while it would seem that life would be most tragic for everyone but the von Kriegers, the course of events would turn and the carefree days of the noble family would be turned upside down and it would seem the only suitor the family would welcome from then on would be that of tragedy. Instead of living out their days in comfort and ease, events would transpire that would eventually leave them destitute and struggling to retain their sanity.

It would all begin when Germany invaded Poland in 1939. Amidst a life spent living summer months along the French Riviera, Paris and London, the von Krieger family would soon find themselves amidst suspicion from French authorities because of their German roots and the influence they possessed. This would lead to the family being taken from their plush surroundings and spending a period of time in an internment camp.

Henning would not believe in the cause of the Third Reich but would be forced to return to Germany to take up a rank of corporal in the German Luftwaffe. Josephine and Gisela, however, would manage to escape to Monaco and, eventually, neutral Switzerland.

With their European world totally turned upside-down in a war-torn Europe, Josephine made arrangements for her and her children, and the Special Roadster, to make the journey to the United States in 1949. Arriving on the Queen Elizabeth, the family would settle in Manhattan's Upper East Side.

The family would live just a couple of years in the United States before Josephine would fall ill and would return to Europe. Unfortunately, there would be nothing that could be done for her and she would die in December of 1951 in Lausanne, Switzerland. Then, in 1958, Henning would become diagnosed with melanoma. He would, unfortunately, pass away in January of 1959.

The dark side of the apparent 'perfect' life was beginning to take its toll and by the 1960s, just Gisela and Benno remained. But the dark clouds had already formed over Gisela's world.

The traumatic experiences during the Second World War would cause the socialite to begin a process of retreating within herself. The move to the United States would actually be in an effort to change the environment around the young baroness who, by that time, had already been diagnosed with depression and bouts of tension.

Throughout those early years in the United States, the Special Roadster would be seen turning heads travelling up and down streets in Manhattan. But whereas the car once symbolized freedom and zest for life, it would later represent something else entirely.

By the mid-1950s, Gisella and Henning now lived in Connecticut and were both granted American citizenship. The move to Connecticut was to be a move back to simplicity and tranquility, but Henning's illness in 1958 transported Gisela back into a veritable prison of depression and exhaustion. After returning to Europe with her brother as he underwent treatment for his melanoma, Gisela's world began to shrink and shrink. The car too would find itself locked away, caged just like the baroness.

Throughout its time in New York City, Gisela would take great care of the Special Roadster having it serviced by Zumbach's in Manhattan. Once Henning and Gisela moved to Connecticut, she would continue to look after the car sparing no expense, just as her life was filled with no expenses. However, when Henning fell ill and Gisela returned with him to Europe, the once proud and grand roadster would find itself locked away awaiting Gisela's return, the return that would never happen.

Whereas in days gone by the Special Roadster seemed to remind of elegant parties and a life of luxury, like a bearer of bad memories, the car would soon become a neglected family member. Once intended to be revisited but never again receiving any members of its family, just like the noble lady in which it carried around for so many years, 130949 became a recluse, a distant memory always beloved but seemingly destined to never again regain its senses and state of nobility.

Gisela's life, out of the whole of the von Krieger family, would be the most tragic. Left all alone and with no husband or family of her own, she would never again return to the United States and would never again see the Special Roadster that had represented clearer, care-free days as one of Germany's most affluent families.

Instead of enjoying her wealth and those finer things surrounding her, Gisela would remain locked away with literally no means of communicating to the outside world with the exception of sending and receiving mail. Such was her seclusion in the last decades of her life that her body would go weeks before being discovered dead in 1989. Surrounding her body in her disheveled apartment would be jewelry and expensive dresses, lying around like waded pieces of paper. It was clear these pieces of finery, including the one nearly forgotten about locked away back in Connecticut, could not save her.

Unlike Gisela, the 540K Special Roadster would not die alone. And throughout its years of being locked away, unable to receive visitors and live its life, there were still would-be suitors trying to pull the car out of its prison trying to let it, once again, breathe the fresh air of life. Gisela von Krieger herself would say, 'This love of good cars is said to be men's purest passion.' And the stark differences in the life of Gisela and the Special Roadster would bear this truth out. While Gisela would continue to lock herself away and would never accept the hand of any of her suitors, the Special Roadster would find a number of suitors pursuing it toward the later stages of Gisela's life. Among them would be Daimler-Benz, George Maley and Harold C. Bott. But just as she had with all of the men in her life, Gisela would turn down every possible suitor for her prized Special Roadster. And who really could blame her, for it was the finery that was maintaining the aura of perfection, the lie hiding the reality.

It seemed the car would never escape its prison even after Gisela's death. Tied down in litigation problems and issues with the von Krieger estate, the car would still remain locked away with some not even aware of its existence anymore.

Then, in 1991, Mr. Gooding would receive an intriguing phone call from a man unsure of what he had found. All the man knew is that 'it's an old, black two-seat Mercedes.' But what Gooding would find behind the last door in an unassuming building in Greenwich, Connecticut would be 130949.

Issues with the estate would delay the car from being sold. Finally, in 1998, the von Krieger Special Roadster would find its way into the hands of its current owner. The current owner, an East Coast collector of perhaps the finest coachbuilt automobiles, would commission Chris Charlton of Classic Car Services to undertake a complete restoration.

When discovered in Greenwich, the car was a veritable time-capsule as it still contained lipstick-stained cigarettes in the ashtray and a map. Though covered in dust and bearing some obvious signs of wear and aging, the car's grand presence was still undeniable and demanded restoration. So much of the car was original, including the matching chassis and engine, but still, Charlton would have an incredibly difficult task ahead of himself as he fought to return the car to its original state.

Mr. Charlton would be beyond meticulous. He would catalogue every aspect of the car and would take hundreds of photographs of the car in its un-restored state so as to maintain an exceedingly high level of originality and perfection.

No expense would be spared throughout the process of the restoration and the result would be one unparalleled beauty of a car. Formal and raw at the same time, Charlton would remain true to the essence of the car. Finished in a tuxedo black with a rich tobacco leather upholstered interior, the car is elegant inside and out and certainly would be the perfect car in which to arrive at one of the social events of the year, whether it be back in the late-1930s, or today. Tastefully accented by brilliant chrome brightwork, all of the right aspects of the car stand out amongst the dark black background of the Sindelfingen body.

Charlton would remain true to the original vision of the car in many, perhaps not so obvious, ways. One of those elements particularly significant to this particular car would be the flat lenses on the headlights. Seeing that the car would be driven around the streets of Paris, the headlamps on the car would have to be of yellow hue. It was found the flat lenses worked much better with the yellow headlamps than the more normal convex lenses.

When all finished the old 1936 Mercedes 540K would shine with a brilliance not seen in decades. Like the von Krieger family itself, the car had come to overwhelmed with aging and neglect. But now… now the car shown with a brilliance reminiscent of the days when Gisela and the car were the belle of the ball.

Charlton's meticulous process had taken years, but when it made its debut at the 2004 Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance the collective gasp would make it clear all of the work had not been in vain. The emperor had some new clothes and was stepping out in them.

The car, with its tall, long nose covering the 5.4-liter inline eight cylinder engine, sweeping fenders, ivory fixtures, incredible chrome brightwork and that long, contoured rear end would hold the attention of onlookers throughout the event. As a result of the incredible work achieved by Charlton, and the high originality of the car itself, 130949 would go on to Best in Class honors.

Mr. Gooding would remember the moment when he would discover the Special Roadster in the storage room in Greenwich. He would state, 'It was an amazing discovery…Of all the great long-lost cars I've ever seen, the Special Roadster was, by far, the most memorable. It was truly a time capsule from a bygone era and had an incredibly haunting presence.' But thanks to the work of Mr. Charton, the Special Roadster would emerge from the darkness and back into the light, the pain of the past being a portion of its sum worth.

Though the von Kriegers would be passed and gone, the Special Roadster would be one former member of the family that would live on, and amongst the social circles that would have made the family proud. In 2010, the von Krieger Special Roadster would be selected as the only pre-war Mercedes-Benz to be chosen for a special exhibit held by the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Georgia. The exhibit would be called, The Allure of the Automobile: Driving in Style, 1930-1965, and would bring together 18 of the world's finest and most rare automobiles.

While already honored as one of the world's finest automobiles, its current owner of some 14 years was still interested in maintaining the original essence of the car. Therefore, the car would be returned to Mr. Charlton to have the car refinished. The decision was clear: to return it to the state it would have been when Henning took delivery of the car back in 1936. Therefore, Mr. Charlton would have the livery refinished in its original black and would tweak some other aspects of the car to bring it back to its nearly original form. Accented by double-whitewall Firestone tires, the von Krieger Special Roadster demands attention anywhere it shows up and is, rightfully, expected to command top dollar at the 2012 Gooding and Company auction in Monterey.

But the prospective buyer isn't just buying a 540K. The buyer will be welcoming the car's past, the light and the dark of it all. Materially, the buyer will also be welcoming, perhaps, one of the most well-researched and documented of all 540Ks. Complete with a treasure trove of correspondences, invoices, photographs and other pieces of information, the authenticity of 130949 cannot be denied. Just the momentous amount of material from the von Krieger family itself commands a noteworthy sum and just adds to the legacy of this Special Roadster.

A true work of art is said to evoke every kind of emotion. And this particular Special Roadster has that ability in spades. All of the elegance, all of the luxury, and too, all of the pain, the heart-break and loneliness of perfection can be experienced when partaking of this beauty. Every bit the tragic saga of the von Krieger family itself, the true sense of worth, of its captivating beauty comes not in and of itself, but through the lives of the family it had been a part. Behind the charm, the well-rehearsed manners and the opulence are the emotions, experiences of an aura of pain and loss, seclusion and tension. And it is this captivating, unspoken of emotion this car evokes when it is truly beheld by the onlooker.

The car is telling the story without a script. Filled with beautiful lines, remarkable appointments and comforts, there is also stark feelings of pain, neglect and seclusion. Obviously rare and worthwhile for its obvious provenance, it is the not so obvious that saves this amazing car. It well and truly is the one member of the von Krieger family that has survived. It has made its journey through the darkness, the depraved moments of existence and has truly returned to its carefree days. It has managed to do what neither of its owners ever could.

Perhaps never before, or since, has there been a car evocative of so many emotions and speak so much. In its own right, the Mercedes-Benz 540K is evocative for it has all of the necessary elements of a truly remarkable story. In its own right, the car is a car of significance and great influence. It is elegant and graceful, and yet, diabolic and terrifying at the same time. It is rich and simple. It is a piece of art that united the masses. And in the case of the von Krieger Special Roadster, it too is filled with love, joy, pain, loss and neglect, all of life's experiences blended together into something far more simple but hard to define—perfection.

Brynan, David. 'The von Krieger Special Roadster', Pacific Grove: Gooding and Company, 2012.

'Lot No. 123: 1936 Mercedes-Benz 540K Special Roadster', ( Gooding and Company. Retrieved 14 August 2012.

By Jeremy McMullen
Sport Cabriolet A
Coachwork: Sindelfingen
Chassis Num: 130945
High bid of $1,100,000 at 2004 RM Auctions. (did not sell)
Sold for $2,035,000 at 2008 RM Auctions.
Sold for $2,970,000 at 2011 RM Auctions.
Sold for $3,002,390 (€2,324,000) at 2012 RM Auctions.
High bid of $3,246,100 at 2014 Rick Cole Auctions. (did not sell)
This Mercedes-Benz 540K is part of the Series 29 08, in which the first 5.4-liter motors were utilized. The coachwork is of series 820600, for which ten bodies were built and five of those were given the five-liter and the remaining five the 5.4-lite  [Read More...]
By Daniel Vaughan | Oct 2011
Special Cabriolet
Coachwork: Sindelfingen
The Mercedes-Benz 540K was a very special car and it was usually ordered by very special people - this was no exception.  [Read More...]
Cabriolet C Special
Coachwork: Sindelfingen
The early thirties saw Daimler-Benz begin to design high-speed touring cars, culminating in 1935 in the construction of the 540K. The eight-cylinder, 5.4-liter, big-bore engine was supercharged, the designation 'K' stands for 'Kompressor' - and enga  [Read More...]
Cabriolet C Special
Coachwork: Sindelfingen
This 540K Special Cabriolet C is a custom-built and one-off design by Sindelfingen, the Daimler factory coachbuilder.

The elegant coachwork created for the Mercedes-Benz 500K and 540K at the renowned Sindelfingen Werk, is considered among the most important of the classic era, and perhaps of any era.

In 1932, design and custom bodies became functions of the Sindelfingen factory, among others.

The 540K chassis was designed wîth coachbuilders in mind, providing a platform for a wide variety of body styles.

The 540K was described by a journalist in the thirties as having - aggressive styling, - and that image may have been the reason that this car was expressly commissioned for Mr. William A.M. Burden, a great, great grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt.

He was interested in building a special car that was avant-garde.

Mr. Burden was an American financier and an automobile enthusiast. He was Assistant Secretary of Commerce for air 1943-47, ÚS Ambassador to Belgium 1959-61, and Chairman of the New York Museum of Modern Art. In the year 1936, Mr. Burden had this car built to his personal specifications.

As an avid Mercedes-Benz enthusiast, Burden wanted a design, which called for more style, and included pontoon fenders, the elimination of running boards, and a rear mounted spare wîth a provision for a second one.

Its most striking feature was the unique slanted grille shell over the radiator, and no exposed radiator cap or mascot.

His goal was apparently to emulate the racing Mercedes-Benz of that era.

It was thought that the end result had a distinctively sleek, French look, resembling late model Delage and Delahaye designs by Chapron or Letourneur et Marchand.

Of the 32 Cabriolet C that were produced, only this Special has all of these unique ingredients, including two, narrow height side windows, similar to the A, producing a sort of chopped look.

Similar to the Special Roadsters, this 540K has a disappearing top when retracted, wîth a tidy cover, that smoothes out the whole look of the deck area.

This cabriolet C is unlike any other ever built.

All of these not so subtle changes are what set the look of this car apart from the much more commonly produced variety.

The supercharged straight eight engine produces 180 horsepower and working through a four speed manual transmission, is capable of moving this automobile at over 100 miles an hour.

In its day, that gave it legendary status.

The ride is compliant due to the four-wheel independent suspension.

Following the ownership by Burden, the second proprietor, a reporter for the Long Island Press, drove the car for many years. Úpon his death, his widow met wîth the current owners and sold them the car in 1963.

Since it was almost completely intact, LaVine restoration in Nappanee Indiana was commissioned to perform and complete the restoration to match the factory photographs.

It was a time-consuming and very costly project, but the end result was magic.

The car is stunning, and is worthy of the accolades that followed its completion.

The engine and transmission function perfectly and were never taken apart.

After its 100-point restoration, the car was first shown at Hershey in 1993, where it received a first.

Other awards have followed, some of which are listed postscript, and it has been kept in show-worthy condition, to this day.

The importance of this fine automobile can not be overstated. It is a worthy gem, for any collection.

It comes wîth comprehensive and extensive documentation, including factory photographs and order sheet.

Source - Vehicle Owner
Cabriolet A Special
Coachwork: Sindelfingen
This 1936 Mercedes-Benz 540K Special Roadster is powered by a 5.4-liter supercharged engine and has coachwork in the style of Sidelfingen. During this era, many of the 540K specials received coachwork by Karrosserie Sidelfingen in various configurati  [Read More...]
Cabriolet A Special
Coachwork: Sindelfingen
This 1936 Mercedes-Benz was bodied in Sindelfingen, Germany. Built specifically for the Sultan of Jaoac, who, in 1936, was one of the wealthiest men in the world.  [Read More...]
Special Cabriolet
Coachwork: Sindelfingen
Chassis Num: 130913
Engine Num: 130913
Sold for $1,028,500 at 2007 RM Auctions.
Sold for $913,000 at 2010 RM Auctions.
Sold for $1,540,000 at 2014 RM Auctions.
In 1934, Mercedes-Benz introduced the 500K - the 'K' represented Kompressor, which is German for supercharger. Power rose from 100 bhp to 160 with the supercharger engined. There were a total of 342 cars built before the introduction of the 5.4-liter  [Read More...]
By Daniel Vaughan | Oct 2014
Special Roadster
Coachwork: Mayfair Carriage Company Ltd.
Introduced in 1936 as the successor to the legendary 500K, the 540K was advertised as the fastest production car in the world. It featured a 5.4-liter 8-cylinder engine with Roots-type supercharger. This 540K was bodied by Mayfair. A total of 419 540  [Read More...]
Spezial Coupe
Coachwork: Sindelfingen
Chassis Num: 130944
Sold for $3,080,000 at 2011 RM Auctions.
This year's RM Auctions event in Monterey, California would produce two Mercedes-Benz 540K Spezials for bidding pleasure. One of them would be a Spezial Roadster. The other would be a Spezial Coupe. Bidding around the Spezial Roadster would set the t  [Read More...]

By Jeremy McMullen
Special Roadster
Coachwork: Sindelfingen
Chassis Num: 113659
Sold for $836,000 at 2006 RM Auctions.
This 1936 Mercedes-Benz 540K Special Roadster is powered by a 5.4 liter supercharged engine and has coachwork in the style of Sindelfingen. During this era, many of the 540K Specials received coachwork by Mercedes-Benz's own Karrosserie Sindelfingen  [Read More...]
By Daniel Vaughan | Dec 2006
Cabriolet B
The 540K model, designed by Hermann Ahrens, was offered from 1936 to 1938 and was built by Karosserie Sindelfingen, the Mercedes-Benz in-house coach-building subsidiary. Three chassis variants were available: two longer versions with differing engine  [Read More...]
Cabriolet B
Chassis Num: 130921
Engine Num: 130921
Sold for $698,500 at 2017 RM Auctions.
This Mercedes-Benz 540 K wears a Cabriolet B body created by the factory's coachbuilding shops at Sindelfingen. The Cabriolet B offered seating for four-passengers, with a comfortable rear seat for two, and a soft top with rear quarter windows. There  [Read More...]
By Daniel Vaughan | May 2017
The Mercedes-Benz 500K was introduced in 1934 with the 'K' representing a Kompressor which is German for supercharger. In non-aspirated form, the engine produced 100 horsepower. With the adoption of the Kompressor the horsepower jumped to an impressive 160 making them one of the fastest grand touring cars of their time. The vehicles rode on a 116 inch wheelbase.

In 1936 the 540K was introduced which increased power even further. The base version produced 115 horsepower while the supercharged increased horsepower to 180. The engine bay was lengthened and the wheelbase was extended by twelve inches which allowed for more stately and elegant vehicles. Chrome accents were used throughout added to the visual appeal. The vehicles were elegant, powerful, and produced in limited numbers. Production continued until 1940 with only 419 examples being produced.

The Mercedes-Benz were among the most desirable and elegant vehicles of their day. They were constructed of the finest materials available. The craftsmanship is legendary and undeniable excellent. Most of the chassis received coachwork by the Mercedes-Benz in-house coachworks facility named the Sindelfingen Body Works. The others were sent to coachbuilders such as Erdmann & Rossi.

When completed, the vehicles carried a price tag that only few could afford. During World War II many were hidden and protected along with other priceless works-of-art.

Though the 540K models were all built to the same mechanical and chassis configurations, they varied based on their coachwork designs making many unique creations. Configurations varied such as four-seat cabriolets, long-tail roadsters, and high-door luxury styles. The vehicles were tailored to the buyer's requirements and requests.

With production low and craftsmanship at their peak, these vehicles are well sought after in modern times. They continue to win 'Best in Show' and class awards at various concourses throughout the country.
By Daniel Vaughan | Aug 2006
Two new – and very different – Mercedes models were displayed at the Berlin Motor Show in March 1934. One was the 130, Mercedes-Benz's first production car wîth a rear-mounted four-cylinder engine which developed 26 hp from a displacement of 1.3 liters. The other was the 500 K, an imposing, elegant sports car wîth supercharged eight-cylinder engine; wîth the supercharger engaged, it developed 160 hp from a displacement of 5,018 cc.
The 500 K was the successor to the 380 presented only one year earlier, and a descendant of the tremendously powerful, supercharged S, SS, SSK and SSKL sports cars – genuine muscle cars, as we would call them today, and virtually invincible in motor sport.

The first 500 K – 'K' for Kompressor = supercharger, to distinguish it from the 500 sedan without supercharger – had been designed as an elegant two- or four-seater sports car wîth roadster and cabriolet bodies tailored at the Daimler-Benz plant in Sindelfingen. With this model, the company bid farewell to the Roaring Twenties and the Big Four mentioned earlier. The latter had still had extremely firm chassis wîth rigid axles and leaf springs, i.e. hardly any damping at all, and their bodies were plain and above all functional, not to say uncomfortable.

The new supercharged Mercedes sports car appealed to well-heeled buyers because it was not only powerful but also more elegant, more comfortable and easier to handle than its predecessors – features welcomed in particular by the growing number of lady drivers.

Daimler-Benz had laid the foundations for this type of car as early as 1933 by introducing the 380, the first Mercedes-Benz sports car wîth swing axle. It was the first car that pampered its occupants wîth independent wheel suspension; the latter featured a sensational world first, a double-wishbone front axle that combined wîth the double-joint swing axle introduced in the 170 as early as 1931.

In this ground-breaking design, wheel location, springing and damping were for the first time separated from each other, creating a new level of precision in straightline stability. In its essence, this front axle, fitted like the rear axle wîth coil springs, has remained the design model for generations of automobiles throughout the world to this day, and it also featured in the 500 K, of course.

It was the customers' craving for power, however, that prompted the replacement of the 380, not exactly a lame duck wîth its supercharged 140 hp, by the 500 K only one year later. The newcomer's engine generated 160 hp wîth the supercharger engaged; even without the supercharger in action, it still had an impressive output of 100 hp at 3400 rpm. Depending on fuel quality, which varied greatly in those days, the compression ratio was between 1:5.5 and 1:6.5. The fuel was apportioned to the cylinders by a Mercedes-Benz double updraught carburetor. The driver engaged the double-vane Roots supercharger by depressing the accelerator pedal beyond a pressure point.

With the exception of first gear, both the standard four-speed and the optional five-speed transmissions were synchronized. A single-plate dry clutch linked the engine wîth the powertrain which transmitted engine power to the rear wheels. The car rolled along on wire-spoke wheels which were as elegant as they were robust.

All these features combined to permit a top speed of 160 kilometers per hour – a dream for sports cars in that day and age. The penalty was paid in the form of fuel consumption: between 27 and 30 liters were blown through the carburetor on 100 kilometers. The 110-liter tank in the rear gave the car a decent radius of action.

To meet the individual wishes of the demanding customers, three chassis variants were available for the 500 K: two long versions wîth a 3,290 millimeter wheelbase, differing in terms of powertrain and bodywork layout, and a short version wîth 2,980 millimeters.

The long variant, the so-called normal chassis wîth the radiator directly above the front axle, served as the backbone for the four-seater cabriolets 'B' (with four side windows) and 'C' (with two side windows) and, at a later stage, also for touring cars and sedans.

The roadsters, the two-seater cabriolet 'A' (with two side windows) and the ultra-modern, streamlined Motorway Courier, the first car wîth curved side windows and classified by the manufacturer as a sports sedan, were set up on a chassis on which radiator, engine, cockpit and all rearward modules were moved 185 millimeters back from the front axle. This configuration was a concession to the zeitgeist, a small trick that created the visual impression of a particularly long front-end and, therefore, the desired sporting appeal.

The most ravishing model of this species was the two-seater 500 K special roadster launched in 1936, a masterpiece in terms of its styling, wîth inimitably powerful and elegant lines. It has been filling onlookers wîth enthusiasm to this day, reflecting, as it does, the spirit of its day and age as well as the design perfection of the 500 K models. Its price tag – 28,000 Reichsmark – was 6,000 marks above the average price of 'simpler' models. People were able to buy a generously furnished house for that money.

The short-wheelbase chassis was used only for a few two-seaters wîth special bodies. On these models, the radiator was back right above the front axle, and the models carried the designations 500 K sports roadster, sports cabriolet and sports coupe.

The 500 K's chassis complete wîth helical-spindle §teering had been adopted – though in further refined form – from the preceding 380: the new double-wishbone axle wîth coil springs at the front and the double-joint swing axle - complemented by double coil springs and additional transverse balancing spring – at the rear. The vacuum-boosted service brake acted hydraulically on all four wheels, the mechanical parking brake on the rear wheels. The chassis weighed as much as 1,700 kilograms; the complete car tipped the scales at 2,300 kilograms and the permissible gross weight was around 2,700 kilograms.

No matter what version of the 500 K you look at, the elegance of its body sends people into raptures even today: every single one had been given its own, unparalleled personality by the ingenious coachbuilders in Sindelfingen. Only few customers opted for bodywork tailored by independent bodybuilders to their own wishes (the price lists quoted the chassis as individual items), especially since the Sindelfingers rose above themselves in accommodating the customers' special wishes, for instance for individual fender versions, rear-end designs or interior appointments. Within two years, 342 units of the 500 K were produced.

In response to the virtually insatiable craving for performance on the part of well-heeled customers all over the world, the 500 K was replaced in 1936 by the 540 K wîth supercharged 180 hp engine. This model was sold to 319 motoring enthusiasts.

The history of supercharged Mercedes-Benz cars goes back to World War II and has its roots in aeroengine production. Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft had introduced mechanical air compressors which supercharged the engines and thereby compensated for the power loss of aeroengines at higher altitudes, ensuring their stable performance.

The first Mercedes models wîth supercharged engines were displayed at the Berlin Motor Show in 1921 – between bicycles wîth auxiliary engines and mini-cars. They caused quite a stir among automotive experts. With the supercharger, an engine booster had been introduced which, from 1926, catapulted Mercedes passenger, sports and racing cars into a new dimension of performance.

Source - Mercedes-Benz
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Image Left 1935 500KImage Left 1935 540K1937 540K Image Right
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