The magnificent Mercedes-Benz 540K represented the pinnacle of the pre-war achievements by the Stuttgart firm during the 1930s. A development of the 500K, whose independently suspended chassis it shared, the 540K was powered by a 5.4-litre supercharged straight-eight engine. The 540K was one of the first models developed under Mercedes' new chief engineer, ex-racing driver Max Sailer. Mercedes-Benz's new flagship model, it featured the company's famous Roots-type supercharger system in which pressing the accelerator pedal to the end of its travel would simultaneously engage the compressor and close off the alternative atmospheric intake to the carburetor. 

Presented at the Paris Salon in October 1936, the 540K was hailed by Mercedes-Benz as conjuring up 'visions of breath-taking exploits of racing cars and drivers of international fame, but also of superlative comfort and coachwork of exquisite beauty, fine paintwork, brightly polished metal, the finest hardwoods and leather - massive and yet outstandingly attractive bodies - in short: the car for the connoisseur.' It had an engine that developed 115PS un-supercharged or 180PS (178bhp) with the compressor engaged, while the gearbox was a four-speeder but with a direct top gear rather than the overdrive ratio used on the earlier 500K. With the supercharger engaged, the 540K's blown straight eight gave it a top speed approaching 110mph (177km/h. Servo-assisted hydraulic brakes provided adequate stopping power.

Tested by Britain's Motor magazine, the 540K was judged to have less heavy steering and handling than its predecessor, the 500K, plus a more comfortable ride, even though the same all-round independent suspension layout with parallel links and coil springs at the front and swing axles at the rear was retained. The Motor's test car returned 102mph over the timed quarter-mile with the supercharger engaged and 85mph with it disengaged. The servo-assisted brakes came in for fulsome praise, the blower was found to be relatively quiet and the springing more comfortable than that of the 500K, while the steering and handling also compared favorably with that model.

In May 1938, the 540K was tested by Motor's rival magazine Autocar and achieved the highest maximum speed of any road-test car up to that date: carrying three passengers, the car reached 104.65mph (168.5km/h) on the race circuit at Brooklands, Surrey. 'One's foot goes hard down, and an almost demonical howl comes in,' reported test driver H S Linfield. 'The rev counter and speedometer needles leap round their dials: there is perhaps no other car noise in the world so distinctive as that produced by the Mercedes supercharger.' Late in 1938, a revised 540K made its appearance, with oval-section chassis tubes instead of channel frame members, while the adoption of sodium-cooled valves followed the company's highly successful racing practice.

 

The manufacturing record of the 540 K reveals its exclusive nature: 97 being produced in 1936, 145 in 1937, 95 in 1938 and 69 in 1939 before the war ended series production (though three more were built up to July 1942). In recent years, the rarity, style and performance of these big supercharged Mercedes have made them one of the most sought-after of all classic cars on the few occasions they have come on the open market.

The manufacturing record of the 540 K reveals its exclusive nature: 97 being produced in 1936, 145 in 1937, 95 in 1938 and 69 in 1939 before the war ended series production (though three more were built up to July 1942). In recent years, the rarity, style and performance of these big supercharged Mercedes have made them one of the most sought-after of all classic cars on the few occasions they have come on the open market.

 

Testament to the quality of the brand over other automobiles in the 1930s era, even as the decade progressed the unapproachable supercharged Mercedes-Benz remained extremely popular with their well-established British clientele. Numerous examples were delivered to the UK including this car. 

This car was delivered as it can be seen today, as a flamboyant rakish two-seater roadster echoing the famed SSK of Count Trossi, with fender skirts and a plethora of louvers. Importantly, it was one of the very rare examples to have been delivered with a 'zurtückgesetztem Motor' or set-back motor. This specification was reserved for the more sporting cars Mercedes built and enabled the coachbuilders to create cars with an altogether more aggressive and sporting stance, as evidenced here. Its builder was the lesser known Mayfair Carriage Company Ltd., based in the locale of Follett in the Mayfair region of London. Founded as the "Progressive Carriage Company" in 1920, Mayfair is best known for its fine, high-quality coachwork. By 1929, the firm had changed its name to "Mayfair". One source states that "By the 1930s, (they) were responsible for creating some of the most luxurious and impressive coach bodies of their time." Nearly 400 Rolls-Royce chassis were clothed in Mayfair's coachwork, as were a few pre-war Bentleys, several open and closed Alvis Speed models, Lagondas, Armstrong-Siddeleys, at least one Sunbeam, a Buick, and we believe a pair of Mercedes-Benz, a 500K, chassis 123689, and this car. 

After the war, the car was advertised by noted dealer J. Olding & Co. Ltd. in London, then later renowned Brooklands based dealers Thompson & Taylor. Its final UK ownership appears to have been with a John S. Truscott Ltd. again in London in 1955, at which point it was purchased by Peter Hessler of Canada. Hessler brought the car home to Quebec City, Quebec, keeping it for a couple of years before it was sold to Gisbert von Bock, of Toronto, who would own it for most of the next decade. Von Bock sold the 540K to Paul Suckling in 1968 who retained the car for 30 plus years.

The Mercedes was then acquired by Richard C. Mertz and his son, who were charmed greatly by its design and encouraged by David Holls, a Senior Member of the Design Team at General Motors. After a long pitch of offers on the car, Mertz secured it and over the course of the next two decades, and his son Stephen were able to retore this striking automobile to its former glory.

At the end of a long journey, Mertz was able to debut the car at what was then one of the highest profile Concours in the nation, at Meadowbrook Hall. A series of photos of the car taken then, resplendent in a two tone scheme of black over silver are depicted in numerous books, not least being prominently featured at the start of Jan Melin's second authoritative work Mercedes-Benz - The Supercharged 8-Cylinder Cars. Its history in this period is well charted with features in Torque magazine.

It is not surprising that this put the Mercedes on the radar of noted collector Ralph Engelstad of the Imperial Palace Collection, in Las Vegas who acquired the car in 1995. Shortly after this, it was acquired by him, and as was the fashion of the day it was refurbished with a repaint in the single red scheme it remains today. 

It remained at the Imperial Palace until 2002, when it passed to General William Lyon, who retained the car until 2007, when it was sold at public auction to the current owner, where it has resided in a distinguished private collection. In this custody, the car has been shown at Pebble Beach in 2011 as part of the 125 Year Celebration of Mercedes and Benz. Even among its peers, such as the factory bodied Spezial Roadsters, 154080 is a car that stands out for its extraordinary and unique design, it will no doubt stand-out at any major Concours.

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