Arizona | Lot 234
1937 Mercedes-Benz 540 K Coupe by Hebmüller
$995,000 USD | Sold
| Phoenix, Arizona
17 January 2020
- Offered from five decades of private ownership
- Desirable set-back radiator and unique coachwork
- Striking coupe roof added by coachbuilder Hebmüller
- Retains its original chassis, engine, and coachwork
- One of the most exciting CCCA Full Classic “garage finds” in recent memory
- Ideal basis for a full restoration and modern concours debut
THE 540 KOMPRESSOR
The Mercedes-Benz 540 K was among the most prestigious and, in the eyes of many, the most beautiful European automobiles of the interwar years. The combination of its supercharged eight-cylinder power at 180 horsepower with the blower engaged, its light weight, and its sheer flamboyant beauty made it the master of the German road and a testimonial to the astonishing capabilities of the engineers who conceived it. It was also breathtakingly expensive in all its coachbuilt variants, guaranteeing exclusivity among its owners. Just 419 chassis were built, the majority delivered in one of eleven factory body styles produced by the famed Sindelfingen Werk.
Few 540 Ks were more beautiful than the second-generation Cabriolet A, of which only thirty-two examples were built. This design offered fuller front fenders that elegantly flowed rearward towards the rounded tail, which housed dual spare tires. The elegant styling and great power of the supercharged engine and its external exhausts were further enhanced via a feature identified colloquially as the “set-back radiator.” Referred to by the factory as Fahrgestell mit zurückgesetztem Motor, “chassis with setback motor,” in fact the radiator and entire drivetrain were positioned 185 mm farther back on the chassis than standard. This gave the car a completely different air, with a longer, more aggressive front end, which is most closely associated with the fabled Spezialroadster.
As a complete package, it ranks among the most elegant and graceful German coachwork of its era and today is among the most highly sought-after by enthusiasts. The survivors are prized, and the few truly unique examples that have been missing to the larger collecting world for half a century seldom if ever become available. Chassis 154143 was destined to become completely unique in its own right.
CHASSIS NUMBER 154143: THE MISSING COUPE
The 540 K offered here is noted by Daimler-Benz as having been ordered under commission number 233173 and delivered on 12 July 1937. The purchaser was Brabender GmbH, a company which still today supplies laboratory instruments for material testing in chemical and food processing industries. Located in Duisburg on the Rhine and Ruhr rivers, the Brabender 540 K was equipped with the chassis, engine, gearbox, and coachwork (save for the top) that it retains today.
According to the Hebmüller family, it was brought by its subsequent owner, the Henkel family of Düsseldorf, of Henkel & Cie. Chemical Works, to the Karrosseriewerke Joseph Hebmüller Söhne around mid- to late-1951. Hebmüller is a well-regarded coachbuilder established in Wuppertal in the late 19th century and, ironically, known for its cabriolet bodies. At its client’s instruction, Hebmüller removed the convertible top and windshield pillars and superbly integrated a new coupe roofline onto the factory Sindelfingen coachwork. It is interesting to note that at the same time, Hebmüller added a similar roofline to a 170 S cabriolet for a director of the Henkel industrial concern—arguably not a coincidence.
The flat windshield became a vee’d two-piece unit with crank-out windows; the door windows were changed to fit the new profile of the roof; extended skirts with chrome strips were added to the front fenders, as well as rectangular marker lights; and the rear of the body was modified to become slightly truncated, with more modern taillights installed and a metal cover added over the rear-mounted spares. Finished in a dark hue, the result was a handsome, highly sporting presentation reminiscent of the factory Spezialcoupe.
The Mercedes-Benz subsequently moved to the U.S. and was refinished in a two-tone scheme of cream with grey fenders and roof; a Golde canvas sunroof, not from the original Hebmüller conversion, had also been added by this time. Its earliest appearance in the United States was around 1954 with Henry A. Rudkin Jr., whose mother, notably, was the founder of the Pepperidge Farm bakery. In 1956 it appeared with Dr. William Hoffman of New York City.
Later it was acquired by John P. Quirk of Hastings, Nebraska; the special appearance was certainly not lost on Mr. Quirk, as he also simultaneously owned one of the Sindelfingen-bodied Spezialcoupes. Subsequently, both Mercedes were offered by him at auction in Denver, Colorado, in 1968, at which point chassis 154143 was acquired by the present owner’s parents and driven back to Nebraska. During the trip home, the car was repeatedly pulled over by the constabulary of the small towns they passed through, simply to ogle the car. This was to the great pleasure, if inconvenience, of the new owners. Maintained in working mechanical order by its new owner, the 540 K regularly made local appearances with its owner and his wife in period costumes, to the great admiration of the town’s history and classic car enthusiasts. The last opportunity for the locals to appreciate the Mercedes-Benz came in a county parade and car competition in 1980. The judging panel in this small agricultural city—perhaps hewing to what they knew best—awarded Best of Show to a restored John Deere antique tractor (it is worth noting that the owner’s 1957 Corvette also did not place). After this ignominious defeat, the owner put the car into the garage he had built himself specifically to protect and store it, and the 540 K coupe made no more public appearances until reemerging in late 2019.
That the coupe existed is known, but its whereabouts have remained largely a mystery, even to noted historian Jan Melin, who featured an older photograph of the car in his respected book, Mercedes-Benz: The Supercharged 8-Cylinder Cars of the 1930s. Accompanying the car's file is also a detailed history report prepared by a marque historian, including several additional period photographs depicting the product of Hebmüller’s work in the early 1950s. Today the 540 K remains in very solid, intact overall condition, still as it spent decades in its owner’s garage, with its 1960s paint scheme and red leather interior both showing considerable wear. Features of its “enthusiast era” restoration remain intact, including additional driving gauges mounted below the dashboard.
The coupe has most recently received a mechanical recommissioning by RM Auto Restoration to return it to running and stopping order, and it would be an interesting automobile to freshen mechanically and tour, or, perhaps, as the ideal basis for a complete concours restoration, be it as a coupe or Cabriolet A. Indeed, photographs of the car after completion by Hebmüller demonstrate the stunning result in a dark color with hardtop–these teasing images depict what could be, and it would arguably be among the most spectacular 540 K coupes when completed, an automobile equal to or greater in beauty than almost any other closed coachwork on this chassis. Either way, it would be a showstopper to see arrive at any concours d’elegance the world over.
Marking the rare opportunity to acquire one of the ultimate lost supercharged Mercedes-Benzes, the Missing Coupe has remained one of the great mysteries of the supercharged Mercedes world, long pursued, but never found...until now.