1939 Mercedes-Benz 540 K Sindelfingen Spezial Roadster
Lot 34 | Monterey Jet Center Auction | Not Sold
PLEASE NOTE: Internet Bidding is NOT available for this lot.
Chassis No. 408383
Engine No. 408383
Body No. 200641
THE CREATION OF A PIECE OF ART
The Mercedes-Benz Spezial Roadsters appealed to a global audience represented by a who's who of international social and economic elite. Ownership of these cars within their domestic Germany was no doubt a source of pride, and this was no less true with chassis number 408383, completed in August 1939 for Rolf Horn. Mr. Horn, along with his brother, operated Gebrüder Horn, one of Berlin's most exclusive fashion houses, and was a noted art collector focusing on German expressionists. Clearly a man with strong aesthetic instincts, there is no doubt that he played a significant role in the design of his bespoke automobile.
Unlike any other Spezial Roadster, this car incorporates several important details such as fully skirted aerodynamic fenders similar to those used on the famous Autobahnkurier; cut-down doors which were a nod to the earlier road and competition-oriented roadsters. Completely unique touches not employed on any other factory body include deleted running boards, with only a vestigial, sculpted frame cover remaining and a subtle arch on the tops of the fenders which was mimicked along the rear of the body, imperceptibly hinting at a tail fin. Of course, Horn's Roadster employs the highly desirable disappearing top and covered rear-mounted spare. It notably lacks the typical chrome flashes, utilizing earlier-style painted hood-side louvers instead of the prominent chromed hood screens, making the iconic chromed side exhaust all the more eye-catching, and further employs a chrome belt molding which narrows as it flows down the voluptuous curves of the coachwork. Considering Horn's involvement in the fashion industry, one could interpret that he envisioned his Mercedes as an accessory adorning its occupants.
Based on its delivery in August of 1939, the Horn 540 K was among the final and possibly the last Spezial Roadsters built. As a late-production car, it was equipped with a five-speed transmission, providing marvelous flexibility for the road and ensuring it would be as much a pleasure to drive as to behold. Unfortunately, world events would afford Rolf Horn little time to enjoy his car.
ESCAPE AND PRESERVATION
Mr. Horn reportedly put his lightly used 540 K up on blocks in Berlin, and it remained remarkably unmolested. In 1946 it was discovered in what had become Soviet-controlled East Berlin, and was used by Soviet diplomats in the city until 1953. Afterward, it made its way to Russia and was acquired by early Russian enthusiast Arthur Leshtin, a prolific savior of significant Classics during this era, including several other supercharged Mercedes-Benz. Leshtin refinished the car and used it to take his bride on a tour of Crimea, after which he returned it to its original black color.
In the early 1960s, Leshtin sold the 540 K to Alf Johansson, a Swedish-born translator living in Moscow. Johansson used it as his everyday automobile in the city for three years. In 1967 when he departed the Soviet Union, Johansson agonized over the fate of the 540 K, as he never expected the border guards to let it cross out of the country. In the end, he simply took his chances, drove it over the border to Sweden, ostensibly for a vacation, and was shocked to have not been stopped for this bit of machismo which ensured the survival of the Horn Roadster.
Johansson continued to maintain his 540 K until the late 1970s, during which time he and the car were featured in Henry Rasmussen's The Survivors: European Classic Cars, in a famous tale that- completely inaccurately- attributed the car to Stalin. It was eventually acquired from Johansson in late 1977 by prominent American dealer, Tom Barrett, who in turn placed it with his great client Axel Wars. It was exhibited among many other significant cars in Wars' private museum in San Diego which was a converted roller-skating rink. A number of photos on file depict the Mercedes throughout its time in Moscow as well as during Barrett's ownership and on the polished wood floor of the Wars collection.
Afterward the car was one of many great supercharged Mercedes amassed within the Imperial Palace Auto Collection in Las Vegas, then in the late 1990s was sold to the renowned collector General William Lyon, sharing his stable with several other important 540 Ks. In sum, this car spent the last forty years of the 20th Century within great collections and in the hands of those who knew and loved the very best of the marque.
In 2011 General Lyon parted with several of his prized Mercedes; at that time this car was inspected by a team from the Mercedes-Benz Classic Center in Germany. It was importantly noted by the Mercedes team that the major components were all original to one another and that the body number was even found on numerous components. Subsequent inspection indicated that the stamped motor number on the block appears to be from a later date, however the Horn Spezial Roadster does indeed retain all of its original factory aluminum Typenschild, Kommissions-Nummer, body, chassis, and motor identification plates.
From General Lyon, the car was acquired by another enthusiast, who over the next year worked alongside marque specialist Jim Friswold to perform a fresh restoration, which also involved the addition of some discretionary chrome embellishments on the rear of the body. In 2012 these efforts were rewarded with a class award at the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance. The following year the 540 K was purchased by Dr. Richard Workman who refined the car with further mechanical service, receipts for which are on file, and afterward continued its impressive show career, winning its class at Amelia Island and Pinehurst, and Best of Show at Sports Sunday at Mar-a-Lago, among many other laurels.
In the last half decade, the 540 K has been meticulously maintained as part of a highly significant collection of historic automobiles, while enjoying regular road use and exercise to ensure that it would maintain in fine running order, while remaining in seclusion from the rest of the automotive world.
Today it remains both a fine performer and, still, a wonderfully authentic automobile. Indeed, this is among the most noteworthy of all 540 Ks – an original left-hand drive, five-speed, one-off roadster, which retains wonderful authenticity and boasts an extraordinary history of dedicated owners who have appreciated and preserved it.
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