| Coral Gables, Florida
- A unique example of this design on the 540 K chassis, delivered new to Paris
- Retains much originality of components, including numerous original stampings
- Very desirable late-production specification with five-speed transmission
- Previous winner of Best of Show at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance
- Formerly owned by James Melton, Otis Chandler, and General William Lyon
- One of the most important, indisputably attractive extant 540 Ks
Chassis number 408371 was among the first of the later-production Mercedes-Benz 540 Ks with the most developed drivetrain, including a five-speed transmission that much improved flexibility for the road. It was the only 540 K bodied to this design, an evolution, if you will, of the standard Cabriolet A, with the raked, vee’d windshield and low, sloping tail of the famed “long tail” Special Roadster, as well as a rather low top. The result was a much smoother and sportier design, well-suited to the performance of the 540 K chassis.
While initially delivered to Paris on 29 April 1939, the car made its way stateside by the early post-war era. It was acquired by the popular singer James Melton, who in this era when radio ruled the American entertainment industry, broke many hearts and made a great deal of money with his silvery tenor voice. Melton was the celebrity “car guy” of the 1930s and 1940s, gathering an impressive collection of largely Brass Era automobiles in a period when it was still an eccentric and unusual hobby. He made his collecting and use of interesting automobiles part of his public persona. So “new” was the idea of collecting automobiles that he received some of his greatest prizes as gifts from their original owners, who contacted him directly and were just happy someone would take the old car off their hands!
As a “new” car by the standards of the Melton collection, the 540 K, with its fenders lightly modified as was the style of the time, was something of a daily driver, and he did drive it—to Indianapolis in 1947, where it was photographed alongside Don Lee’s Mercedes-Benz W154, and at Watkins Glen, prior to the Seneca Cup, in 1949. It was also described in his 1954 book on his collecting, Bright Wheels Rolling, which captures both his genuine thrill of ownership and one of the most wonderful parts of the 540 K driving experience:
Most superchargers draw from the carburetor, but the Mercedes type blew through the carburetor…It was standard on the last big passenger model Mercedes-Benz built before World War II, the 540 K, and I used to have a lot of fun with mine. The whistle of the compressed air going past the obstructions and turnings of the carburetor made a noise that would lift the wig off a dressmaker’s dummy. Also, the supercharger didn’t run all the time, but only on demand, when you put your foot flat down…When I engaged the supercharger, people riding with me would go halfway through the roof and look wildly around for the panic button. They were ready to bail out.
Melton is believed to have sold the 540 K shortly before his passing in 1961, as one of the final automobiles to leave his collection. It lived quietly for nearly a decade before being acquired by the equally colorful personage of Otis Chandler, publisher of the Los Angeles Times. A passionate enthusiast, Mr. Chandler enjoyed vintage automobiles for nearly 40 years, and was noted for his careful study, patient pursuit, and learned acquisition of only the finest available examples, making his name a mark of quality in a car’s provenance that is still meaningful today.
The 540 K was restored for Mr. Chandler by the late Richard Martin in a striking two-tone green livery, with the fenders restored to their original shape as indicated by his correspondence with the factory and as related by Mr. Martin in later years. Fresh from restoration, it was shown by Mrs. Marilyn B. Chandler, its owner’s equally sporting, big game-hunting spouse, at the 1973 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, winning Best of Show—then, as now, the highest honor in all of automobile collecting, and, significantly, the only time that a Chandler car won the award.
Following its time with the Chandlers, the 540 K was acquired by Tom Barrett for his client Axel Wars, and was exhibited in the Wars private museum in San Diego (actually a converted roller rink, complete with beautiful polished plank flooring). The Wars collection was dispersed in the early 1980s and the Special Cabriolet A passed to another great connoisseur of supercharged Mercedes, General William Lyon, who kept it for nearly a decade and saw it featured in Beverly Rae Kimes’s 1990 book, The Classic Car. In the early 1990s the car received a new cosmetic restoration by Mike Fennel of Saugus, California, in which it was refinished in bright scarlet, then the preferred hue of a 540 K. Afterward it remained largely tucked away in another private West Coast collection until its acquisition by the current owner.
Recently the former Best of Show-winner has been freshened by RM Auto Restoration, with the fitment of a new, more appropriate black leather interior with new carpets, black top, and blackwall tires, which utterly transform its appearance. As this work was underway, the car was inspected by RM’s artisans, who found that, thanks to the sensitive hand of the original restorer and the careful preservation of the car by successive owners, it remains unusually authentic for a 540 K. Original stampings are still present everywhere, from numerous pieces of trim to the underside of the wood, including the reverse of the floorboards. Detailed photographs of the stampings throughout have been taken and are available for inspection.
The 540 K is a performance masterpiece of its era, and this example has much to recommend it: superb authenticity and originality of components, the most desirable five-speed transmission, unique coachwork on its chassis, and marvelous known provenance with the greatest names in American collecting. Its well-proportioned lines are as beautiful as the siren song of its supercharger.