1937 Mercedes-Benz 540K Cabriolet A by Factory Sindelfingen

Sold For €1.400.000

Villa d'Este

Chassis No.
Engine No.
115/180 bhp, 5,401 cc OHV supercharged inline eight-cylinder engine, four-speed manual gearbox, coil spring double-wishbone independent front suspension, swing axle rear suspension with coil springs, and four-wheel vacuum-assisted hydraulic drum brakes. Wheelbase: 2,980 mm (117.3")

- Built for 14th Maharajah of Indore

- 540K – the ultimate specification in desirable Cabriolet A form

- Concours-quality restoration by RM Auto Restoration

- Very original, complete car before restoration

- Multiple concours awards including Pebble Beach

The rulers of India’s Princely States were legendary for their love of fine motor cars. Typically possessed of great wealth, they bought lavishly, Rolls-Royce being a favourite marque, but their tastes were also wide-ranging and embraced such European cars as Mercedes and extended also to the American Duesenberg. Pre-eminent among these collectors of fine cars was the Maharajah of Indore.

Maharajah of Indore

Prior to the 1947 independence, the British Indian Empire comprised some 570 states, each ruled by a family dynasty. Indore, presently a city of about 1.5 million in the state of Madhya Pradesh in West Central India, was ruled during the Empire period by the Maratha Maharajas of the Holkar dynasty. His Highness Yeshwant Rao Holkar II ascended to the raj in 1926, becoming the 14th Maharajah upon the abdication of his father, H.H. Tukojirao Holkar.

With great riches from the fertile lands and industrial strength of his princely state, the new Maharajah indulged his cravings for jewels and automobiles. The latter became regarded as the most spectacular collection in India, comprising numerous cars, all ordered to his special tastes. In 1936 alone, he purchased three superb cars, a 4.5-litre Lagonda, a Bentley coupé and a supercharged Duesenberg, all painted in the Holkar colours of sunglow saffron and black. The Duesenberg, bearing the highest recorded Model J chassis number, was a long-wheelbase chassis bodied by J. Gurney Nutting as a streamlined art deco right-hand drive roadster. It is the most renowned of his cars but does not completely overshadow the remainder of the collection, which comprised such vehicles as a Hispano-Suiza J12, Bugatti, Delahaye, Pierce-Arrow and three Alfa Romeos. Most were painted in the dynasty colours and were equipped with red and blue running lights to indicate who was driving: red for the Maharajah, blue for his wife, the Maharani.

Chassis no. 154081

In 1937, H.H. Yeshwant Rao Holkar II ordered a Mercedes-Benz 540K from the factory in Untertürkheim, Germany. The 500K and 540K were a development of the Typ 380, which was the work of engineer Hans Nibel, who had developed a straight-eight of pushrod OHV design with 3,823 cc displacement. The new Typ 380 had all-independent suspension; a double-wishbone design with coil springs was used in front, with coil-sprung swing axles at the rear. The 380, however, proved to be somewhat underpowered, making 90 bhp when normally aspirated and 140 with the double-vane Roots-type supercharger – a bit underwhelming for a two-ton car. Nibel then came up with a larger 5-litre engine giving 100/160 bhp, introduced in 1934 as the Typ 500K, with “K” in this case meaning kompressor or supercharger. The wheelbase was extended to 3,290 mm (129.5 inches), and a range of cabriolets, roadsters and sedans was offered. Production of 500Ks totalled 354 over three years, followed by a further 419 540Ks with a larger, 5,401-cc engine.

Nibel’s magic with the engine brought results. The Autocar tested a 500K and clocked a 0-60 time of 16.5 seconds (remarkable for the mid-1930s) and a top speed of 100 mph, the blower letting out “its almost demoniacal howl” when it was engaged. Motor enthused, “here is a massive ‘unbreakable’ car capable of travelling indefinitely at high speed.” Another reporter cited the “sheer insolence of its power.”

For his Mercedes, His Highness specified factory Cabriolet A coachwork from the Daimler-Benz works at Sindelfingen. Styled and engineered by Hermann Ahrens, these svelte creatures display an unusual degree of élan for manufacturer-produced coachwork. Built on the short, 2,980 mm (117.3 inch) wheelbase, the Cabriolet A was a two-passenger drophead coupé, of which 83 were built. The 500K’s engine was enlarged to 5,401 cc and fitted with the same type Roots supercharger. This engaged at full throttle, raising horsepower from 115 to 180, or could be manually applied at part throttle if desired. The Maharajah drove spiritedly, so the 540K’s supercharger was just what he needed.

H.H. Yeshwant Rao Holkar II died in 1961. His daughter, Usha Devi, Maharaj Sahiba Holkar XV, currently holds the title as the 15th Maharani of Indore. Her father apparently gifted this Mercedes-Benz to someone during his lifetime. In the late 1970s, Christopher Renwick found it in a Mumbai motor agent’s shop. It had been left there years earlier by its then-owner and had not run in some time, but it gave the appearance of being a low-mileage car that had seen little use. Renwick recalls that, once recommissioned for the road, it drove very well. He was able to buy it, exported it to Britain and subsequently sold it to a German collector.

Some years later, it became available once more and was eventually exported to the United States, acquired by a prominent collector. The new owner immediately commissioned RM Auto Restoration to perform a nut-and-bolt rebuild, which was completed in July 2002. As acquired it had been once restored, painted a light shade of metallic blue, and was nearly complete. Even the vast majority of wood was intact and original. The only significant missing component was the spare tyre cover, which was constructed anew. In the comprehensive restoration the car was finished in a deep, deep midnight blue, with harmonising rich blue canvas hood. The odometer, which read 17,000 at the time, was reset to zero.

In its maiden outing, it garnered a quick third place in the 1925-39 Mercedes class at the 2002 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance. The following year it snared a triple crown at Meadow Brook Hall: the David Holls Memorial Designers Choice Award, the Most Significant Mercedes-Benz and the Founders Trophy for Best of Show.

As presented it has near-flawless brightwork, tan leather interior with blue carpet and a highly-varnished burl walnut dashboard with mother of pearl inlay. The VDO instruments are black-on-beige, illuminated in a light orange glow at night. Rear wheel spats and understated blackwall tyres complete the car’s elegant appearance, allowing the eye to focus on the car itself and not its rolling rubber.

In the world of collector cars, one seldom finds the opportunity to acquire an automobile as important as a pre-war supercharged Mercedes-Benz. Add to that a superb, award-winning restoration with royal provenance, and the astute collector is presented with a very rare opportunity indeed.


Contrary to what is stated in the catalog, this lot is not subject to VAT on the full purchase price. It is eligible for import into the UK at 5% VAT. Please note that this car is also eligible for import into the UK at 5% VAT.

Lot Number

6 December 2017

New York - ICONS

Sotheby's 10th Floor Galleries, New York, New York

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1. A packed auction room as the top-selling Mercedes-Benz 540 K crosses the auction block.jpg

18 - 19 January 2018


Arizona Biltmore Resort & Spa, Phoenix, Arizona

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