Mercedes-Benz 540K

The 540K was a giant beast that roamed the autobahns from the 1930's onwards, but its performance was always compromised by the weight of its staggering design
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Few cars of the 1930s now attract more awe, interest and serious investment than the Mercedes-Benz 540K, of which 409 were made between 1936 and the final dribbling away with twenty armoured saloons in 1942-3. It was the third stage of a development that began in 1933 with the marque's first straight-eight engine. This, of 3,823ccs, gave 140bhp when supercharged and 90bhp when not; mounted in a chassis then said to be the first in the world to offer independent front suspension by swing axles with parallel wishbones and coil springs, the combination should have been the basis of an

Few cars of the 1930s now attract more awe, interest and serious investment than the Mercedes-Benz 540K, of which 409 were made between 1936 and the final dribbling away with twenty armoured saloons in 1942-3. It was the third stage of a development that began in 1933 with the marque's first straight-eight engine. This, of 3,823ccs, gave 140bhp when supercharged and 90bhp when not; mounted in a chassis then said to be the first in the world to offer independent front suspension by swing axles with parallel wishbones and coil springs, the combination should have been the basis of an

effective high performance car - but it was not. The Type 380 was given bodies of impressive handsomeness in the idiom of the day, most of them designed in house at Sindelfingen (only 19 of the 150 chassis were clad by outside coachbuilders), but all weighed two tons or more and performance, with only 84 mph the top speed reached by the two-seaters with superchargers screaming, was more than matched by many sports cars with engines only half the size.

The remedy, within a year, was to increase the capacity of the engine to 5,018ccs, raising power to 160bhp blown and 100bhp unblown, but as at the same time the chassis was slightly lengthened to 10 ft 10 ins, the weight too increased. This, the Type 500K (K for Kompressor, or supercharger), again fitted with impressive bodies much the same in style as those of the 380, was not noticeably better in performance - the Sindelfingen designers must have been particularly dim-witted not to notice the correlation between weight and speed; outside coachbuilders cannot be blamed, for they were responsible for only 41 of the 354 chassis constructed. In 1936, another increase in engine capacity, to 5,401ccs, with blown output raised to 180 bhp and unblown to 115 bhp, M-B at last provided a reasonable match of weight and power, and the car, still clad with bodies closely akin to those of the 380 and 500K, could genuinely reach 100 mph on Germany's new autobahns.

In 1938, in its final incarnation, the 540K was significantly lightened when the girder-like frame of the chassis was replaced with oval-section tubes - the influence of the Grand Prix racing at which M-B were so successful in the Hitler years; with this improvement the heavy cars could almost reach 110 mph.

A road test in Autocar recorded a maximum of 104.65mph circling the Brooklands race track, then the highest figure achieved by a road car, and the writer expressed his glee with "One's foot goes hard down, and an almost demoniacal howl comes in. 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.''

With the outbreak of war in 1939 the proposed further boring-out of the engine to 5,800ccs for a 580K was aborted, probably after only one such car was made; the 600K that is sometimes put forward as the last of the breed had a V-12 engine, not a straight-eight; the 540K is thus the true summit of development, the late models with the lighter chassis the best. In 1936, 97 were built; in 1937 output rose to 145; in 1938 it fell back to 95; in 1939, when war put an end to series production, 69 left the factory; three more were made by 1942-3 bearing the armoured saloon bodies, and 17 existing cars were stripped and re-bodied to match them.

I first saw and heard a 540K in the summer of 1946; a schoolboy on a bicycle clinging to the tailboard chain of a lorry slogging uphill on Hendon Way, one swept past, a very close-coupled drop-head coupe, a long, low, lean and deliciously menacing thing of red paint and too much chrome - and for the first time in my life I recognised the nature of Toad's "Poop poop'' infatuation with the motor car.

And so it remains. The Sindelfingen bodies of the 540K do not have the svelte character of their French contemporaries; nor do they match the gentlemanly restraint of British coachbuilders; nor are they even remotely like the engaging spivs of American design; never discreet, they are splendid, important-seeming, but at their most extreme, when their tails flair and their chrome embellishments emphasise their flowing lines, they display a "Fuck you'' arrogance that engenders seething envy. Envy has two ways of seething. Mine, generous, is an ecstatic dissolution of reason; others in its grip, however, can be extremely nasty. One otherwise reliable writer on old cars, in 1954 described the Mercedes supercharger thus: "It made a tremendous screaming noise, and if it made little difference to the very moderate performance, at least encouraged the occupants to imagine they were going a lot faster.'' He went on to write "...it needs a true Nazi to keep using the strident supercharger... without it the performance is negligible.''

A decade later the post-war prejudice was still evident when another ungenerous soul opined of the 500K and 540K that few good words had ever been written about them and that he was not inclined to reverse the trend - with steering "speculative and exceedingly heavy,'' gear-changing very slow, and suspension "boulevard'' on Autobahns but "distinctly hazardous'' everywhere elect, "we can only damn further by faint praise of enduring German craftsmanship and... the aesthetic appeal of some of the less extravagant coachwork.''

I find it difficult to believe that the cars were significantly worse to handle than cars from Daimler, Rolls and Bentley, and that the pre-war tester for Autocar was a teenager seduced by a great noise - for him to have held a 540K weighing two tons with three passengers at over 100mph could hardly have been done with "speculative'' steering and "hazardous'' suspension. As for the Nazi jibes - Goering and Goebbels each had a 540K and there is no doubt that Gauleiters and other Nazi officials favoured them, but then they favoured paintings by Raphael, Rembrandt and da Vinci too.

Hitler, though he showed interest in the VW Beetle as an instrument of social engineering, seems to have evinced no Toad-like response to larger cars.

Look at the next "extravagant'' 540K that comes on to the market and think of it in terms not of steering, suspension and performance, but as a work of art, and surrender to its beauty as did St Francis to the Stigmata.

CAR CHOICE Please write to Car Choice, Features, Independent House, 191 Marsh Wall, London, E14 9RS, or email James Ruppert at carchoice@independent.co.uk, giving your age, address and contact number, and details of the type of vehicle in which you are interested

The illustrations are from the superb "Autolegends" by Michel Zumbrunn, published by Merrell

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