While much of the country weeps in its beer over our sagging financial fortunes, the market for exotic cars blusters along at a fairly torrid pace.
A rare 1937 Mercedes 540K Special Roadster—one of six on the planet—that was locked away in a Connecticut veterinarian’s garage for more than 40 years fetched a cool $3,630,000 at the RM Auction Company’s sale in Scottsdale, Arizona, last January.
The hush-hush attitude of the molto wealthy seeking anonymity from the notorious glare of their money was in full force on this one. The buyer was widely thought to be Bruce McCaw of the Seattle area, who made a bundle when his family’s cellular business was turned into AT&T Wireless. McCaw, who owns the PacWest CART racing team, angrily threatened to sue if we dared to write that he was indeed the buyer. “I did not purchase that car. I know who purchased it, but I’m not at liberty to tell you. And I am not starting a museum in the Seattle area,” said Himself. (We should mention that the McCaw family car collection is reputedly 400 vehicles big, and that $400,000 of McCaw money helped finance a feasibility study for a car museum in the Seattle-Tacoma area that would be home to the late Harold LeMay’s 2300-car collection. And McCaw reportedly spent more than $90 million in a decade buying rare cars.)
The car is from Mercedes’ prewar luxury era. The 540K was the culmination of a whole series of Mercedes luxury cars, the first of which emerged in 1933 as the 380, with a 3.8-liter in-line eight. It weighed so much that even a supercharger didn’t help. The next version—the 500K—had five liters and a name change to promote the supercharger (“K” denoted its Kompressor), which wailed like a banshee at speed.
The 540K had an independent suspension all around, with unequal-length control arms in the front and coil-spring swing axles in the rear. An innovative feature was horizontal assist springs linking the two axle halves together, designed to prevent the dreaded rear-wheel tuck-under. The brakes were power-assisted. The gearbox was a four-speed.
The in-line eight was, surprisingly, not an overhead cammer but rather an L design rated at a modest 115 horsepower—at least until the Roots compressor kicked in, boosting it to 180 horsepower. Between 1934 and 1939, 761 units of the 500K and 540K were built in all, 419 of which were 540Ks, with perhaps 60 of them being roadsters.
Mercedes 540Ks were described by a European journalist in the 1930s as having “aggressive styling and Teutonic arrogance.” Well, those were ordinary 540Ks. The Special roadsters go from there to over the top, due to their enormous hood lengths versus the shortness of their cockpits, giving the phrase “close coupled” real meaning. According to Jan Melin in Mercedes-Benz: The Supercharged 8-cylinder Cars of the 1930s, Special Roadsters had concealed tops, metal boots, and divided “V” windshields. Two-seater Special Roadsters in the 500K series were not new; what made succeeding 540K Special Roadsters more desirable was that all 24 of them had the stylish long-tail body. And this one is the ne plus ultra of 540K long-tailed Special Roadsters because only six had their spare tires hidden under the rear deck well, advancing the cause of aerodynamics a mite.
In the RM Auction Company’s impressive catalog, it is noted that the Special Roadsters were specially high-priced when new—about $12,000 in Germany, or roughly 40 percent more than a Cadillac V-16 cost at the time. In The Greatest Cars, Ralph Stein wrote decades ago: “A 540K cost over $10,000 in New York in the late 1930s. Misguided collectors pay five times that today.” Stein would no doubt be apoplectic over current prices.