- One of three surviving long-tail, covered-spare Special Roadsters
- Originally delivered to King Mohammed Zahir Shah of Afghanistan
- Cosmetically refinished in the 1950s, but never truly restored; retains an astonishing degree of originality throughout
- Formerly owned by noted collectors Vernon Jarvis and Robert Bahre
- Seldom shown publicly in decades; available for the first time at auction
- Remarkably counts just five owners from new, and driven fewer than 13,000 miles
- An especially significant 540 K in the most desirable configuration
LONG-TAIL, HIGH-DOOR, COVERED SPARE: THE ULTIMATE 540 K
All Sindelfingen body styles for the Mercedes-Benz 540 K evolved through generations and variations, and the Special Roadster was no exception. Its original low-door style, essentially the same as the previous 500 K, was eventually succeeded by the so-called long-tail, high-door design. This is the car that enthusiasts think of when envisioning the iconic 540 K Special Roadster: great flamboyant sweeps of subtly skirted fenders, their power accentuated by a set-back radiator, and doors that curve back past a concealed top into a flowing upturned tail. It is as visually perfect a design as ever existed in the 1930s.
This is particularly true of the cars produced with a covered rear spare, hidden beneath a flush decklid with a very subtle, chrome-edged dorsal fin—a nod, perhaps, to French coachwork trends. It is the covered-spare, long-tail, high-door design that forms, truly, the ultimate Special Roadster, and the ultimate expression of Sindelfingen’s skill.
Just three original examples of this most sought-after design remain extant, of which that offered here is the only one presently available for sale now out of long-term ownership.
THE KING’S SPECIAL ROADSTER
According to a copy of the original Kommission paper, a copy of which is on file, the car was ordered for the King of Afghanistan in May 1937, and was delivered to him in Kabul in September 1937. The last monarch of his country, Mohammed Zahir Shah had succeeded his assassinated father not even four years earlier, at the age of 19, but for his first three decades left the country in the charge of his uncles. During this time Afghanistan built diplomatic relations with the great powers of the world, organized a national bank and state industries, and saw the construction of modern roads upon which a young King could motor swiftly around a rapidly growing and increasingly modern Kabul.
Later owner Vernon Jarvis noted in an accession form for his collection that “at the outbreak of World War II, [the 540 K] was sent to France and stored at the Afghanistan Embassy in Paris, where it remained until 1948. The King then gave it to his son-in-law...who brought it to England in 1950 and drove it only occasionally in London until 1952. The Prince sold it to Chipstead Motors, Limited in London during the summer of 1953, from whom it was purchased by Mr. A.W. Giles of Old Catton, Norwich, England for Mr. Vernon D. Jarvis, Dec. 22, 1953.” The car was shipped from London to Jacksonville, Florida, via the Ocean Ranger, to begin its new life abroad.
“HISTORY ON WHEELS” AT SILVER SPRINGS
Vernon D. Jarvis was a successful businessman from Illinois and an early American collector of Full Classics, building an enviable stable that included truly outstanding examples of Duesenberg, Delahaye, Isotta Fraschini, Cord, and many other great marques. His exceptional cars, including this 540 K, were exhibited alongside an impressive model circus, period-correct storefronts, and other oddments of the past in the Carriage Cavalcade, later known as the Early American Museum, built by Jarvis at the Florida tourist destination of Silver Springs.
For 30 years, visiting families could take a break from riding in glass-bottom boats or observing the milking of rattlesnakes at Ross Allen’s Reptile Institute, and view not just “History on Wheels,” but truly one of the best collections of prewar automobiles ever assembled in this country—a surreal experience only possible in mid-century America. Photographs on file show the car on exhibit in the spot lit halls of the roadside museum, as well as, in one of its few journeys “out,” at a 1958 car show in Sebring.
In 1986, the 540 K was acquired by Robert Bahre, known for his highly astute and ahead-of-his-time connoisseurship of excellent cars, including several important Mercedes-Benzes. Mr. Bahre was known for his bravado in the pursuit of exactly the right automobile; to acquire its motoring treasures, he quite literally bought the contents of the Early American Museum, en masse and wall-to-wall, right down to Mrs. Jarvis’s doll collection and costumed mannequins. In Mr. Bahre’s ownership, the King’s Special Roadster appeared in Beverly Rae Kimes’ noted book, The Classic Car, in 1990. Not long thereafter, it was sold to the current owners, as Mr. Bahre embarked upon the construction of his masterpiece, the New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
Since its acquisition for the collection, the 540 K has remained tucked away, seldom emerging for public view and, significantly, escaping the restorer’s touch. Indeed, to this day the car is still wearing the two-tone maroon finish and “new” floor mats, top cover, and leather seat upholstery that Vernon Jarvis described applying in December 1953. The Jarvis acquisition document notes that upon the 540 K’s purchase it had recorded 11,700 miles, but the odometer was reset as part of the previous work; today the odometer reflects 883 miles, indicating that this Special Roadster has yet to cover its 13,000th mile.
As one would expect, the car remains, with the exception of the aforementioned cosmetic finishes, a largely untouched and undisturbed. Not only does it retain all of its original mechanical components and the factory Typenshield and Kommission tags, it is rolling on the period Dunlop tires on which it likely emerged from England and even bears the body number stamped in the original floorboards.
One of the few surviving important pre-war cars remaining in such condition, its state of preservation, increasingly appreciated by connoisseurs today, is part and parcel of what makes it so highly significant.
Offered with a small collection of documents and photographs assembled by marque specialist Jonathan Sierakowski, having had only five private owners in seven decades, and kept exactly as road-trippers once ogled it at Silver Springs, the King of Afghanistan Special Roadster is one of the great supercharged Mercedes-Benzes and, in fact, among the ultimate Classics.
There is none other with its patina, its originality, or its past, which combine in an aura all its own.