Back to the future.
Timeless and unique.
Fellbach near Stuttgart. A March day with some cloud. One of the most fascinating models in the history of the motor car is driving along a country road: a Model 540 K compressor car. As the compressor starts to roar, the eyes of the 86-year-old passenger light up: he last heard that compressor when he was ten years old – and was sitting in one of the fastest cars of his day. In those days, his father was a test driver at the Dunlop works, where a 540 K Streamliner was used as a test vehicle for tyres. Today his son, the grandson of the 1938 test driver, is driving.
The Mercedes-Benz 540 K Streamliner is a fascinating unique item. In summer 2014 it will be presented to the public at the Concours d’Elegance in Pebble Beach, California – accurately restored and rebuilt right down to the last detail.
In the beginning there was ambition.
The history of the Mercedes-Benz 540 K Streamliner began in Sindelfingen in 1937. In the early 1930s, the “Special Car Construction” department specialised in building expensive individual items. Very soon, the “Sindelfingen Body” stood for exceptional bodies made with the best craftsmanship. As a rule wealthy private customers commissioned the cars, but in the case of the 540 K Streamliner it was a different story: this time the customer was the car manufacturer itself. The aim was to develop a car, under the leadership of Hermann Ahrens, that could reach top cruising speeds on the planned long-distance race from Berlin to Rome in 1938 and at the same time provide excellent comfort. The car conveyed all the innovative talent of Mercedes-Benz with an outstanding technical and stylistic standard.
Accent on aerodynamics.
Accordingly, with the 540 K Streamliner, the most recent developments in aerodynamics were applied: the aluminium body was magnificent with its flowing lines, its low-level silhouette, a minimum of protuberances on the surfaces and a panelled undercarriage. Even the classic Mercedes star was not upright above the radiator, but to reduce wind resistance was painted on to the front of the bonnet. And the prestigious Mercedes-Benz pointed radiator had disappeared behind a streamlined front which for its time was a particularly avant-garde style element. In short, the design of the 540 K Streamliner was based faithfully on the knowledge of aerodynamics of its day. With its powerful compressor charging, the car quickly reached high speeds which it was able to maintain for long distances.
Its top speed was 185 km/h – an astounding speed for 1938. An unusually long transmission to the rear axle meant that the engines did not overrev at such a tearing pace.
Not all roads lead to Rome.
However, this unique car went a different way from the one planned: the long-distance race from Berlin to Rome was postponed by a year and was finally cancelled due to the outbreak of the war. Also, the developers encountered technical problems which they could not have solved satisfactorily in the given time: a particular problem, for example, was the tyres, which were not yet strong enough to bear the heavy weight at such high speeds. That was why the 540 K Streamliner was used in 1938 as a test vehicle at the Dunlop works, where high-speed tyres were tested for everyday use. After the war, the car returned to Mercedes-Benz, where the body was dismantled. Later, the original chassis was rediscovered.
The chassis number and the unusual rear-axle gear ratio made it clear to the experts at Mercedes-Benz Classic that they were on the trail of the fascinating unique item from 1938.
The journey through time began.
They decided that they wanted to put the car back on the road – in a state absolutely true to the original. Thus began one of the most ambitious projects in the history of Mercedes-Benz Classic. It was based on the authentic components of the original car, such as the chassis and the rear axle. Other original parts from the 1930s were found in the well-stocked collection. Restoring and rebuilding the missing parts was a task for the specialists. Just rebuilding the aluminium body, only traces of which were left on the chassis, took up 4800 hours of work – and absolute faithfulness to the original was only possible because extensive research into the Mercedes-Benz Classic archives unearthed some important documents:
in addition to the so-called tender draught, delivery books and historic photos, the most important find ofall was a line drawing, precise to the millimetre, on a scale of 1:1. The preparation for the reconstruction alone took over a year.
The paint was finished.
In 2013, rebuilding began. All the fine details were considered in painstaking work. Based on traces of paint remnants from decades ago, the paint for the exterior was mixed, true to the original. Time and again, gaps in the documentation created difficulties for the experts at Mercedes-Benz Classic and forced them to put themselves in the shoes of the developers of those days. The final result was brilliant: at the Concours d’Elegance in Pebble Beach, the car was presented to the public in its original perfection. At first glance, you could guess the high speed it could reach. And in the interior, finest grey leather and a curved dashboard of finest walnut recalled the ambience of a Mercedes-Benz luxury car of the 1930s. In short, the 540 K Streamliner conveyed its unique fascination just as it did 76 years ago.