There’s no doubting that for sheer beauty combined with exceptional performance, nothing compares with the Mercedes-Benz 500K and 540K supercars of the 1930s. Chief among these, certainly, is the 540K Special Roadster.
It’s definitely no secret that, as we mature, our personalities, and, indeed, preferences for certain things, change, and we often look back at our younger years with a certain degree of amusement. Not surprisingly, our taste for classic cars can also take a surprising twist as we mature. Yes, there are many who have become addicted to a certain marque and model of classic that is, to them, the ultimate childhood dream come true. On the other side of the coin, there are those who choose something quite different to replace every sold classic. There are also classic car owners who are passionate, marque-specific enthusiasts, such as Garry Boyce — the owner of our featured 1938 Mercedes-Benz 540K Roadster — who have reached a point from which shape and form mean as much to them as any mechanical innovation or specification.
Following a three-pointed star
Garry’s passion for classic cars has played a predominating part in his life, from both performance and engineering points of view. During his early years, Garry reckons he would have definitely been labelled a ‘boy racer’ by today’s standards. Starting out with mopeds and motorcycles, he progressed on to four wheels. His first car was a 1933 Ford Model Y and this was followed by a 1946 Fiat Topolino, a Vanguard, an A40 Farina, and then a Renault Dauphine Alpine, the last non-Mercedes car he’s owned since then.
As a 15-year-old apprentice fitter and turner, Garry quickly became involved in the local classic car fraternity, and, during the ensuing years, Garry’s career expanded to encompass all types of engineering positions before he finally moved into managerial roles within his chosen industry. It was during this period that Garry gained an attitude towards excellence in everything he did.
With that kind of mindset, it was clearly obvious to Garry that, at the time, Mercedes-Benz represented innovation, premium build quality, longevity, and engineering excellence, and he made a vow that one day he would arrive at a position where he’d be able to afford one.
Finally, in 1988, Garry purchased his first Mercedes — a 190E 2.6. However, for a genuine car enthusiast, the real highlight arrived in 1994 when he purchased his first real ‘collector’ car — a new E320 W124 coupé, the vehicle that would represent the starting point of his collection. Interestingly, that E320 is the only new Mercedes-Benz Garry and his wife, Alison, have ever owned, and they purchased that car direct from the Niederschlager in Hamburg, a sister company for direct purchase for export.
Garry was now at the point of no return. He’d caught the bug, and the only cure was to add a few more Mercedes into the garage, starting with a 1964 220 SECB coupé. In 1998, he acquired a 1957 190SL, a suitable alternative to the 300SL coupé or roadster that were, at that time, well beyond Garry’s means. Then, in 1999, Garry purchased his first ‘Pagoda’ — a 1968 280SL. This rare beast, fitted with a ZF five-speed manual gearbox, of which only 26 right-hand drive examples were ever built, was nicknamed the ‘California Coupé’.
The flight of the Gullwing
During the years he was slowly building up his car collection, Garry never lost sight of his ultimate childhood dream — to own a 300SL coupé, the legendary Gullwing. However, achieving that dream seemed to be utterly and completely out of the question, so, instead, he concentrated his thoughts and efforts on the next best thing, a 300SL Roadster.
He’d always admired that car’s sensuous, voluptuous lines as well as its superb performance and handling characteristics, but, due to high international prices, he felt that the most logical way forward would be to search the world for a suitable restoration project.
Finally, after many years of difficult searching — bearing in mind that many surviving 300SL Roadsters had already been fully restored as befitted their status as genuinely iconic and collectible classics — in 2001, Garry finally discovered a roadster in a somewhat distressed state in the Netherlands. The car was number 154 off the production line and, henceforward, would be referred to by Garry’s wife as “piles of junk in cardboard boxes” following the arrival of said boxes in New Zealand.
Sorting through everything, Garry embarked on a five-year restoration project, beginning in 2003 and completed in 2008. The end result, a stunning 300SL Roadster finished in silver, featured on the cover of the February 2008 edition of New Zealand Classic Car.
Overall, the car’s incredible complexity made the reconstruction and reassembly process torturous, although Garry would later sum up the final result as “scrumptious”. The final test came in February 2008 when the car was presented at the Ellerslie Intermarque Concours d’Elegance in the Masters Class event. The Mercedes ended the day in top position, having earned a total of 565 out of 590 points — the highest score ever awarded to a Concours competition car in New Zealand at that time. That same year, Garry took the car to Sonoma in Northern California, US, for the Gullwing Group International Convention. Here, in competition with 68 other SL Gullwings and Roadsters, Garry’s car was judged Best Show Roadster and Best of Show. A truly creditable achievement and an outstanding advertisement for the quality of classic car restoration in New Zealand.
There can be few classic cars as rare and desirable as the Mercedes-Benz 300SL ‘Gullwing’, so imagine what it would be like to discover one of the fabulously rare alloy-bodied examples. It’s fair to say that nothing much happens in the classic-Mercedes world, locally or internationally, without Garry knowing about it, so it wasn’t surprising to learn that he became aware of an extremely rare 300SL lightweight Gullwing as well as a 1958 300SL Roadster hiding away somewhere in the Waikato.
Garry’s persistence finally paid off, and, following a somewhat drawn out negotiation process, he was able to negotiate the purchase of both cars. A decision was then made to embark on the restoration of both cars simultaneously in an endeavour to apply synergy to the project.
As the culmination of an exhaustive and comprehensive restoration, Garry finally unveiled his new masterpiece — a gorgeous 1956 Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing, number 27 of the only 29 aluminium body cars ever produced — at the 2015 Ellerslie Intermarque Concours d’Elegance and, once again, took out top honours in the coveted Masters Class competition. The Gullwing featured on the cover of our April 2015 edition. And, as you read these words, Garry’s second 300SL Roadster is currently in the final stages of restoration.
Over the years, Garry’s passion for cars has developed to the stage at which he views them as enjoyable pieces of artwork with the advantage that you can drive them.
This philosophy influenced his decision immensely when he started searching for his next Mercedes-Benz. After selling his 300SL Gullwing to an offshore buyer, he had begun looking for a car that would suit his changing taste in cars, when a beautifully restored 1938 540K Roadster, due to go to auction in the US, caught his attention.
Garry was instantly mesmerized by the intoxicating artistic style, grace, and performance capabilities of this piece of rolling sculpture — a car he described as “Big, brutal, in your face and absolutely gorgeous!”
That’s a view shared by the late Griffith Borgeson, one of the world’s greatest automotive historians, who had this to say in reference to the 540K Roadster: “There is a harmony and balance of line and mass … which very simply defies any conceivable improvement. They are sculptural perfection. For many people of taste, more beautiful cars will never be designed and built.”
For Garry, the 540K Roadster epitomizes the legend painted across one of the central support beams in his impressive garage — “Finer 20th Century Automobiles, Examples of Highly Complex and Mobile Three Dimensional Craftsmanship, Are Higher Forms of Art and Design Than Mere Two-Dimensional Paintings or Sculpture”. Garry purchased the 540K in late July 2015.
An exercise in elegance
Back in those long-gone days when the price of fuel was just tuppence ha’penny a gallon, the Mercedes-Benz supercharged 5.4-litre straight-eight engine’s unquenchable thirst was of little concern for the rich and famous private owners who were able to fork out an asking price that, at the time, was about the same as the cost of a custom-built Rolls-Royce Phantom III.
The Mercedes 540K Roadster was also a formidable performer, being the ultimate development of the supercharged Mercedes range that had its origins in the company’s World War I aero engines. The 540K’s performance definitely benefitted from Paul Daimler’s — son of the company’s founder — experimentation with superchargers in an effort to to make Germany’s warplanes fly faster and higher than any other.
Prior to World War II, Daimler-Benz, the parent company of Mercedes-Benz, was the leading manufacturer of luxury cars in Germany. The company also enjoyed a great deal of success on the Grand Prix circuits and in sports car events due, in part, to advancements in technology, including supercharging, fully independent suspension, the use of light alloy materials, and overhead camshafts.
In 1932, Mercedes-Benz started building a range of large, fast grand tourers, and, in 1936, the 540K was unveiled at the Paris Motor Show as one of the cars commemorating the 50th anniversary of the invention of the first automobile by Karl Benz. It also became Mercedes-Benz’s flagship model, built to special order only.
The 540K was superbly engineered and boasted all-independent suspension, with features such as unequal-length control arms in the front and coil-spring swing axles in the rear. Uniquely designed horizontal springs linking the two axle halves together to prevent the rear-wheel tuck-under was another inventive feature of the suspension.
The 540K engine utilized the same pushrod in-line straight-eight developed for the earlier 380K model of 1932 but enlarged accordingly. Power output was a modest 115hp (84.5kW), but, when the supercharger kicked into action, those figures were boosted significantly to 180hp (132.3kW). The 540K driver had the option of maximizing power by engaging the supercharger via a small clutch. Mercedes-Benz warned that, to preserve engine life, the supercharger should only be fully engaged for short bursts.
The car also featured a luxuriously appointed interior, complete with a mother-of-pearl instrument panel, rich leather seating, and twin spotlights flanking a swept-back front windshield, and the finest pre-war styling, penned by Hermann Ahrens, epitomizing the company’s masterwork.
Ahrens had joined the company in 1932 to manage the Sonderwagen (Special Vehicles) section, designing and building limited-production coachwork for the top Mercedes-Benz models. With an impeccable eye for shape and form, the 28-year-old Ahrens had total responsibility for the both design and production of the coachwork on all limited-production Mercedes-Benz cars, including the great sports roadsters and coupés.
The 540K was essentially a larger version of the 500K and stood at the top of an entire range of Mercedes-Benz luxury cars, the first of which had emerged in 1933 as the 380.
The 540K also shared the same mechanical set-up and chassis configuration as the 500K but was significantly lightened by the replacement of the 500K’s weighty chassis sections with much lighter oval-section tubes — a process inspired by the company’s development work on the famous Silver Arrows, the legendary race cars produced by Mercedes-Benz between 1934 and 1939. The cars also shared the same body styles, which ranged from a rather conservative cabriolet to the exotic and rare Special Roadster.
It was Ahrens’ artistic flair that that elevated the 540K into a place among the immortals of motoring history. He was responsible for the car’s glorious, sweeping scallop-edged guards, integrated running boards, and doors that beautifully complement the arrogantly long bonnet with a low windscreen and the exterior exhaust pipes of the supercharged 500K and 540K. The handsome V-shaped grille, another standout feature, nestled between the imposing front guards, gives the impression of a ship’s hull cutting through bow waves. At the stern, an equally impressive, elegantly tapered tail completes the true marvel of proportion that was harmonious despite its extreme length of over five metres. This massive handcrafted art-deco sculpture was the absolute pinnacle of automotive desirability from the moment it was launched in Paris.
Garry took a well-earned break from the rigorous task of having a car judged at this year’s Ellerslie Intermarque Concours d’Elegance and decided instead to let us display his elegant 540K Roadster in the Newmarket Room. If you were fortunate enough see the car, spare a thought for those who witnessed the unveiling of this piece of rolling sculpture at the 1936 Paris Motor Show.
1938 Mercedes-Benz 540K Roadster
- Engine: Supercharged in-line-eight
- Capacity: 5401cc
- Bore/stroke: 88/111mm
- Valves: Overhead, two per cylinder
- Comp. ratio: 6.13:1
- Max. power: 134kW (180bhp) at 3400rpm
- Fuel system: Single updraught carburettor / Roots-type supercharger
- Transmission: Four-speed manual with preselector change
- Suspension F/R: Independent with double wishbone, coil springs, hydraulic dampers/Independent, swing axles, double coil springs, hydraulic dampers
- Steering: Worm-and-nut with separate linkage to each front wheel
- Brakes F/R: Lockhead hydraulic drums all round, servo-assisted
- Overall length: 5150mm
- Width: 1820mm
- Height: 1580mm
- Wheelbase: 3290mm
- Track F/R: 1515/1502mm
- Kerb weight: 2300kg
- Max speed: 169kph
- 0–100kph: 16 seconds
This article was originally published in New Zealand Classic Car Issue No. 303. You can pick up a print copy or a digital copy of the magazine below: