16-17 August 2013
1939 Mercedes-Benz 540K Special Roadster by Sindelfingen
- Chassis no. 408383
- Engine no. 408383
- Body no. 200641
- Order Number 317029
Sold for $7,480,000
- A fully one-off, owner-commissioned 540K Special Roadster
- Built for the Horn brothers of Berlin
- Formerly the property of Alf Johansson and the Lyon Family Collection
- Features original mileage
- All matching numbers, including original and rare five-speed transmission
- Freshly restored Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance award winner
Mercedes-Benz’s success with the 500K was aided by the continuing defaults of its sporting luxury competitors as the Great Depression worked its way through the ranks of society, politics, royalty, and finance. In 1936, the company followed up on that success with the 540K. Regarded by many and respected by all as the high point of the Classic Era among German automobiles, the 540K reflected the restless pursuit of perfection by Mercedes-Benz’s engineers, technicians, and craftsmen, and by the coachbuilders of the Sindelfingen Werke.
The ultimate 540K was the Special Roadster. Constructed on a nearly 130-inch wheelbase chassis and stretching over 17.5 feet in overall length, it was a massive automobile in which to accommodate only two passengers. Yet, that awe-inspiring blend of cost-be-cursed size, performance, and style is what gave it a commanding presence that remains palpable in any surroundings. Better still, Hermann Ahrens and the Sindelfingen designers succeeded in so skillfully blending the car’s styling elements that its overall proportions are harmonious. Subtle, bright accents complement and outline the body elements, punctuated by functional and stylish details that draw the eye and mitigate the effect of the car’s size.
The Special Roadster’s imposing visage was matched by equally impressive performance. A stiff frame and fully independent suspension supported its two-ton mass effortlessly, soaking up irregularities in highways and, at its best, showing the 540K’s relaxed 85 mph cruising speed on the Autobahn. Mercedes-Benz fitted a camber compensator spring to the 540K, to offset the swing axle independent rear suspension’s tendency to sudden camber changes, and the resulting driving experience is balanced and satisfying. The Special Roadster was no sports car; instead, it was the original grand tourer, a car in which two people could cover vast distances of good highways in comfort at an outstanding clip.
Of the 419 chassis delivered during the 540K’s production life, from 1935 to 1939, only 25 were Special Roadsters. Few of those were one-off designs, and fewer still were built on the most desirable later chassis, as, by 1939, most of Europe was being drawn into growing darkness. Fortunately, the Horn brothers of Berlin could still see the light.
THE HORN BROTHERS’ SPECIAL ROADSTER
Chassis number 408383 was completed for the brothers, proprietors of one of the city’s most exclusive boutiques, in August of 1939. As a late 540K, it was equipped with the five-speed transmission with overdrive fifth gear that was introduced that year, and it may well have been the final Special Roadster built.
It is believed that Rolf Horn, one of the brothers, had a major influence in the conception and design of the car, which was not surprising, as he was a man who regularly dealt in beautiful art. While the automobile retains the 540K Special Roadster’s traditional chassis layout, with a raked vee’d radiator set back between the front fenders, a long hood, and cut-down doors, it features unique front and rear fenders, which are of a nearly teardrop shape and fully skirted.
The sweeping running boards, characteristic of early Special Roadsters, were eliminated in favor of small frame covers. The low doors have roll-up windows and rise abruptly past the hinges to a hard boot cover over the folded top, which gives the rear deck a smooth, aerodynamic surface and taper. While the windshield is a single piece, it is sharply raked to fall in line with the cowl, and it can be opened for ventilation. Most notably, a slim chrome beltline traces the hood break and then sweeps downward, paralleling the door tops before tapering to a fine point at the rear fenders.
The coachwork is liveried in rich dark blue with matching leather upholstery; the chassis beneath is essentially hidden below the body and fenders. Even the 540K’s signature outside exhaust pipes subtly drop into the right front teardrop fender, almost out of sight, and they only emerge as two small tailpipes below the rear bumper. Black hub and rim wire wheels with bright spokes and Mercedes-Benz’s signature wheel-balancing weights accent the wide whitewall tires. Accessories are few: a combination spotlight and rearview mirror for the driver and a Telefunken radio, with German city bands marked on its dial.
Following the delivery of this creation, the Horn brothers are believed to have driven it until war made such luxuries impossible, at which point it was put into storage and vanished from sight.
In 1962, the Special Roadster was discovered in the Soviet Union by Alf Johansson, a Swedish reporter who had been stationed in the U.S.S.R. since 1945. Years later, Johansson and his 540K were featured in Henry Rasmussen’s The Survivors: European Classic Cars. The owner detailed his two-year quest to see this car in the suburbs of Moscow, where it was reportedly stored at the summer dacha of a Soviet general. When the general had passed away, Johansson was able to make contact with his son, from whom the car was eventually acquired after two months of persistent negotiations.
The 540K’s exportation from Soviet-era Russia was no less challenging; ultimately, in a daring show of bravado, Johansson simply drove it over the border into Sweden. He can be credited with preserving a very valuable piece of Mercedes-Benz history for future generations.
A few years later, the Special Roadster was sold to an American enthusiast. Following ownership by the late Tom Barrett and the Imperial Palace, it eventually passed into the well-known Lyon Family Collection, in California. For over two decades, it was carefully maintained in their stable of the world’s finest automobiles, and it was treated to regular maintenance by professionals.
Prior to its acquisition by the present owner, the 540K was inspected by two veteran experts from Mercedes-Benz Classic Germany, who concluded, in their expert opinion, that this car is a matching-numbers example. The engine is original to the chassis and retains the original number plate. The transmission is of the correct series, as is the steering box, and all of the correct stampings can be found throughout, including on the bodywork. The body number was found on numerous parts, further corroborating the car’s originality. In summary, this car is composed of very original components, exactly as it left the factory.
While it has continued to maintain such originality, the Mercedes-Benz has, in its present ownership, been lovingly restored to original condition, which was an easy task, as its 26,000 kilometers are believed to be the actual reading since new. Great care was taken by the owner, working with James Friswold, to retain all of the correctly numbered components, and every nut and bolt was removed and returned to its original grandeur. The result of the superbly finished restoration was a well-earned Second in Class at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance in 2012.
The 540K Special Roadster is among the most instantly recognizable, valuable, and desirable of all automobiles built during the Classic Era, and acquiring one is an instant mark of discerning taste and prestige for any collection. It is, quite simply, the ultimate bragging right. Offered here is the opportunity to purchase not only a Special Roadster, but also one that may have been the last built and boasts a fully unique, owner-commissioned design, with features that elegantly bridge the gap between 1930s elegance and 1950s streamlining. It also offers the advantages of a five-speed overdrive transmission, matching numbers, a wonderful story, and an excellent restoration. It is a singular car, presented at a singular moment.
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