Mercedes-Benz 540 K Special Roadster
First unveiled at the 1936 Paris Motor Show, the Mercedes-Benz 540 K is perhaps the finest and certainly the most significant pre-War car to hail from Stuttgart. Spurred on by the success of their lavish flagship model 500K, Mercedes set out to improve this car in every conceivable way, producing what they envisioned to be the most desirable automobile of the 1930s and beyond. No expense was spared on the 540 K, which in standard form must have been a truly staggering sight to behold when it first hit the tarmac in 1936, yet even this car, which was hand built by Mercedes’ own expert coachbuilders of the Sindelfingen Werke, paled in comparison to the ultimate iteration of the 540 K, the ‘Spezial Roadster’. Complete with its sculptural ‘longtail’ rear-end, and imposing ‘high-door’ side profile, the Special Roadster is the car you’d imagine Jay Gatsby to only bring out on weekends, such is its rarity and sense of magnificence.
The 540 K Special Roadster is more akin to a fine piece of artwork than it is a car. It embodies a lost time when automobiles were designed and constructed as unabashed luxury objects rather than mass manufactured and limited by a set of government-implemented rules and safety protocols. At over 17.5 feet long, the 540 K is nearly two feet longer than a 2016 S-Class - Mercedes’ modern day limousine - which holds four passengers in pure comfort. The Special Roadster remarkably only holds two. It is a huge car but one that feels incredibly well proportioned thanks to the masterful eye of designer Friedrich Geiger, who also penned the legendary 300SL ‘Gullwing’. The distinctive Mercedes grille is set back away from the front bumper, shortening the front end and allowing the swooping fenders to take centre stage as they glide over the wheel arches towards the back of the car before exploding up to form part of the flowing rear ‘long-tail'.
Whilst it is undeniably beautiful, the car is an exercise in function over form in some respects, too. The almost comically long bonnet is required to accommodate the equally mammoth 5.4-litre straight eight power plant, which puts out 115bhp, that is when the driver-activated Roots-type supercharger isn’t spinning up. Its Roots-type blower only engages when the accelerator pedal reaches the end of its travel, producing an additional 65bhp and a truly unforgettable sound. In 1938, Autocar’s H S Linfield described it with admirable vigour, “One's foot goes hard down, and an almost demonical 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”. The Special Roadster was no sports car however, it’s opulent leather interior and immense weight of over two and a half tonnes ensured that. What it was was the world’s first luxury grand tourer, offering its two passengers the opportunity to travel over long distances in outstanding comfort and decadent style.