Lot 143

Monterey 2022

1938 Mercedes-Benz 540 K Cabriolet A by Sindelfingen

Offered from Masterworks of Design


$1,132,500 USD | Sold

United States | Monterey, California



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  • A 540 K of particularly interesting history on both sides of the Atlantic
  • Formerly owned by Peter Ustinov, Ralph Buckley, and Road & Track publisher John Bond
  • Originally delivered without sidemounted spares
  • Older restoration in attractive, subtle colors

One of the third series of 540 K Cabriolet As, the example offered here, chassis number 189391, is especially desirable for having been ordered without sidemounted spares, an unusual feature for this generation of the style. The result had an especially clean, tailored air, with smooth, rounded lines that hint at French coachbuilding and, more pointedly, the famed fastback Autobahnkurier on the same model.

According to its Kommission sheet, a copy of which is on file, this car was ordered by the British Mercedes-Benz agency; their records indicate that the order was on behalf of a Mr. Manson, and registered as FLC 217. From early photos, it appears that this may have been one of the rare examples built without the spare tires mounted in the fenders. Historian Ronald Johnson noted that the car, having apparently remained in England through the war, was then acquired in 1951 by Peter Ustinov, the multiple award-winning British actor, filmmaker, writer, and renowned raconteur. When not working with the camera or socializing, Mr. Ustinov an avid motoring enthusiast who enjoyed many fine and unusual performance automobiles, including examples of Alfa Romeo, Delage, and an S-series Mercedes-Benz. According to the Johnson records, Mr. Ustinov sold his 540 K in 1953. The transaction was likely through the dealers Simmons of Mayfair, which advertised the car around this time in Motor Sport magazine.

In July 1953 the 540 K was acquired from Simmons by Ralph Buckley of Absecon, New Jersey. Mr. Buckley was one of the pioneers of the American antique automobile hobby, maintaining a highly respected restoration shop that made a specialty of Brass automobiles and worked on them for some of the earliest, most prominent collectors. His name appears frequently in the books of Ralph Stein, one of his clients, and he is still especially well-remembered as an expert in the famed T-head Mercer. A photograph on file, courtesy of the Simeone Foundation Automobile Museum, shows the 540 K in the US in 1953, wearing an early New Jersey license plate and thus likely in Mr. Buckley’s ownership.

From Mr. Buckley the Cabriolet A made its way to California and into the ownership of John Bond, the longtime publisher of Road & Track magazine and an immensely influential figure in the American automotive press. He was one of the first automotive magazine editors to institute strenuous long-term road tests of new models and was famed for his strongly held, occasionally controversial viewpoints. Mr. Bond maintained a small, well-chosen collection of his own cars at his clifftop home in Fallbrook. In 1977 he met fellow enthusiast Jim Wilson of Hermosa Beach, who visited the Bond residence and, smitten with the 540 K, soon arranged its acquisition. In a letter on file, Mr. Wilson recalled the car as being very complete, with no indication of restoration work aside from a repaint.

Mr. Wilson spent the next five years undertaking a complete mechanical and cosmetic restoration, with several photographs on file showing progression of the work. In 1983, he and his wife exhibited the finished Cabriolet A at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, winning 3rd in Class. Several years later he sold the car, along with a second 540 K, to Richard Wesselink, who passed both to Manfredo Lippmann of Guatemala. A passionate automobile enthusiast, Mr. Lippmann’s love of Mercedes-Benzes led him to become probably South America’s greatest and most avid collector of the company’s products—as well as, at one point, the Guatemalan importer! He would eventually acquire numerous important examples, including several significant supercharged cars.

As presented today, the Wilson restoration remains largely well-preserved, with the deep claret finish in very good overall condition, and the tan leather interior showing only minor stretching and age. The original late-style skirting of the front fenders seen in early photos appears to have been lightly modified to have more of a subtle curve, similar to earlier 540 K styles, and sidemounted spares were fitted. The restoration boasts several satisfyingly authentic touches throughout, such as the original body number suffix “205” stamped into the hood hinge, and the original chassis and engine number stampings are still present as well. Overall, the restoration is still highly appealing, and the car would make an excellent 540 K to drive and enjoy following servicing.

Boasting a fine history with highly interesting, notable figures and a restoration still in largely good order, this is a wonderful example of the third-series Cabriolet A, offering superb engineering and streamlined beauty in equally abundant measure.