1937 Mercedes-Benz 540 K Special Roadster by Sindelfingen
Sold For $9,900,000Inclusive of applicable buyer's fee.
RM | Sotheby's - ARIZONA 28 - 29 JANUARY 2016
- Offered on Friday
- An original U.S.-delivery example, with known history since new
- The most desirable “longtail,” “high door,” left-hand-drive configuration; as original
- Believed to have traveled only 10,277 miles from new
- One of a handful of known pre-production examples of the 540 K
- An elite landmark, offered for sale for the first time in decades
115/180 hp, 5,401 cc OHV inline eight-cylinder engine with driver-activated Roots-type supercharger and two-barrel updraft pressurized carburetor, four-speed manual transmission with synchromesh on third and a dog clutch on fourth, independent wishbone coil front suspension, independent swing-arm rear suspension, and four-wheel servo-assisted hydraulic drum brakes. Wheelbase: 128 in.
The Mercedes-Benz 540 K was one of the most prestigious and, in the eyes of many, the most beautiful automobile of the interwar years. Its combination of power, light weight, and sheer beauty made it the master of the road, and it was a testimonial to the astonishing capabilities of the German automotive engineers of the day. It was also breathtakingly expensive, guaranteeing exclusivity among its owners; just 419 chassis were built, and of those, only a handful carried the superlative longtail Spezial Roadster coachwork that may well have been the high point of the coachbuilder’s art at Mercedes-Benz’s own Sonderwagenbau in Sindelfingen.
The Special Roadster is the ultimate Mercedes-Benz 540 K. Remarkably, it effectively accommodates only two passengers. Yet, the Sindelfingen designers succeeded in designing a car that looks much smaller and lighter than it is. The gently sloping and instantly recognizable Mercedes-Benz radiator is tucked back at the front wheels’ centerline behind sweeping front fenders. The fenders then dominate the long hood before gently curving up to create the rear fenders, which in turn flow delicately down, wrapping into the tail. Subtle bright accents complement and outline the form of the body elements, punctuated by functional and styling details that draw the eye and mitigate the effect of the roadster’s size. Two massive exhaust pipes emerge from the hood’s right side and disappear into the fender, suggesting the power that lurks inside.
Exceptionally priced at 28,000 Reichsmark, or about $12,000 US at the prevailing exchange rate, the Special Roadster was priced by New York importer Mitropa Motors at about $14,000 landed in the United States—about 40 percent more than the most expensive catalogue-bodied Cadillac V-16. As a result, only a mere handful of supercharged eight-cylinder Mercedes-Benz automobiles sold in the United States were Special Roadsters. Among them is the exceptional automobile offered here.
REGINALD SINCLAIRE AND HIS 540 K
Chassis number 130894 is one of the earliest known examples of the 540 K known to exist. Jan Melin notes in the first volume of Mercedes-Benz: The Supercharged 8-Cylinder Cars of the 1930s that the factory recorded cars up to chassis number 130900 as 500 Ks, with 13 examples having the 5.4-liter motor and being, in effect, pre-production 540 Ks. The possibility of 130894 having special status or being used for display purposes while still in the hands of the factory, like other closely numbered Special Coupes and Roadsters, is still being explored at the time of publication. It was subsequently delivered through Mitropa Motors, the aforementioned U.S. distributor, in New York City on April 24, 1937.
The original owner of the car has long been believed to have been Reginald Sinclaire of Larkspur, Colorado. The Sinclaire name is one known in many circles. He was born in Corning, New York, the heir of Henry Purdon Sinclaire, one of the founders of Corning Glass. Prior to U.S. involvement in the First World War, Reginald Sinclaire became a member of the famous Lafayette Flying Corps, a group of American volunteers who flew in the French Air Force. He relocated to the Colorado Springs area in 1921 and, with the exception of further service in the U.S. Navy during World War II, remained on his beloved Larkspur Ranch for the rest of his life.
The 540 K Special Roadster was not the first or last great automobile that Sinclaire owned. A man of means and with a keen interest in automobiles at a unique time in history, he is very similar to his East Coast contemporary in New York, William A.M. Burden, in having owned important luxury automobiles both before and after the Second World War. Among the cars that were counted in the Sinclaire stable were a 540 K Cabriolet B and a Duesenberg Model SJ. According to recent conversations with two of his grandchildren, he continued to indulge himself in the best new cars in the post-war era; they distinctly recall several Mercedes-Benzes remaining on hand, including a 300 SL Gullwing. He also enjoyed a Maserati, an Aston Martin DB4, and a Bentley S3 Continental.
The Sinclaire grandchildren note that many of their grandfather’s cars were kept in a large garage at the ranch. Others were maintained at the Broadmoor, a luxury hotel and resort in Colorado Springs. For seven decades, the Broadmoor had a garage where its affluent clientele would have their cars stored and serviced. The hotel also stabled polo ponies for many of those same patrons. A recent conversation with the Broadmoor’s archivist confirmed that Reginald Sinclaire was a familiar name; he stabled both cars and ponies there and was a close friend of the Broadmoor’s colorful owner, Spencer Penrose.
Reference to Sinclaire’s pair of 540 Ks appears in the June 1948 issue of the Horseless Carriage Club of America Gazette, as part of a mention of notable old cars in Colorado: “Robert Donner of Colorado Springs has a Duesenberg; so does Reginald Sinclaire of Colorado Springs, and two Mercedes-Benz cars to boot.” A photo of Sinclaire with the Cabriolet B while on a hunting trip appears in Life magazine in 1949. It is likely that he kept the Cabriolet B and Special Roadster until the mid- to late-1950s, around the same time that he is known to have sold the Duesenberg.
A CENTERPIECE OF GREAT COLLECTIONS
In 1957, the Special Roadster appeared at an exhibition of antique automobiles, “Horseless Carriage Days,” held at the Denver Art Museum, as is also documented in the HCCA Gazette. It was shown by James S. Harrison, of 1 Cheyenne Mountain Boulevard in the affluent Broadmoor neighborhood, who was vice president of Import Motors, a dealership that specialized in new foreign cars. It is likely, given his address and profession, that Harrison would have known Sinclaire and purchased this car directly from him, some time prior to display in Denver.
Later in the 1950s, the Mercedes-Benz came into the ownership of E.W. Price, a great enthusiast in Boulder, Colorado, who counted two Duesenbergs, an Auburn, and a Cord among his fine collection. However, his daughter Layne recalls that the 540 K was his special pride and joy. It was sold around 1962 when Mrs. Price lobbied for their three daughters to attend private school. The purchaser was Irving Tushinsky of Sun Valley, California, passing next to his good friend Thomas Barrett III, the well-known antique automobile dealer.
Barrett in turn sold the Special Roadster to his greatest client of the era, Axel Wars, as part of what became a magnificent collection of important pre-war automobiles, believed to have numbered over 100 specimens. At the time of the Wars Collection’s dispersal in the mid-1980s, the 540 K’s next owner commissioned the well-known Mike Fennel of Saugas, California, to restore the car in its current livery.
The Sinclaire 540 K Special Roadster has been maintained in the collection of its current owner since 1989. It presents in wonderful condition, with the odometer displaying a mere 10,277, a figure that is believed to be original. The car retains all its original drivetrain components, including engine number 130894, and a recent inspection by an RM Sotheby’s specialist indicated numerous original wood components bearing the body number 200335. The typenschild on the firewall, bearing the chassis number and order number of 218872, is also the original plate installed by the factory in 1937!
SUMMARY OF A LEGEND
Few of the Special Roadsters were built in this most desirable configuration, with high doors, a long tail, and factory left-hand drive. It is believed that only six left-hand-drive longtail roadsters exist today. These cars are held in esteemed collections as centerpieces and seldom ever come to market. When they do, they are even less frequently truly great cars that have led relatively obscure lives, such as the Sinclaire Special Roadster.
The offering of chassis 130894, after 26 years in the same stable, is sure to garner tremendous interest from the world’s most discerning Mercedes-Benz collectors, who recognize this as an automobile of unparalleled elegance and uniqueness, as well as one that will afford them an opportunity for display at any of the most prestigious motoring events around the world. It is many things, among them the finest design of Sindelfingen, the finest factory coachbuilder of them all. It is also an important historical artifact of the West, as the pride and joy of one of the most significant and fascinating automotive enthusiasts—the airplane-flying, cattle-ranching, supercharged-eight-loving socialite Reginald Sinclaire.
Special is, quite simply, an understatement.