Mercedes-Benz 380 K, 500 K & 540 K
(from DaimlerChrysler Press Release)
Two new – and very different – Mercedes models were displayed at the
Berlin Motor Show in March 1934. One was the 130, Mercedes-Benz's first
production car with a rear-mounted four-cylinder engine which developed
26 hp from a displacement of 1.3 liters. The other was the 500 K, an
imposing, elegant sports car with supercharged eight-cylinder engine;
with the supercharger engaged, it developed 160 hp from a displacement
of 5,018 cc.
The 500 K was the successor to the 380 presented only one year earlier,
and a descendant of the tremendously powerful, supercharged S, SS, SSK
and SSKL sports cars – genuine muscle cars, as we would call them today,
and virtually invincible in motor sport.
The first 500 K – "K" for Kompressor = supercharger, to distinguish it
from the 500 sedan without supercharger – had been designed as an
elegant two- or four-seater sports car with roadster and cabriolet
bodies tailored at the Daimler-Benz plant in Sindelfingen. With this
model, the company bid farewell to the Roaring Twenties and the Big Four
mentioned earlier. The latter had still had extremely firm chassis with
rigid axles and leaf springs, i.e. hardly any damping at all, and their
bodies were plain and above all functional, not to say uncomfortable.
The new supercharged Mercedes sports car appealed to well-heeled buyers
because it was not only powerful but also more elegant, more comfortable
and easier to handle than its predecessors – features welcomed in
particular by the growing number of lady drivers.
Daimler-Benz had laid the foundations for this type of car as early as
1933 by introducing the 380, the first Mercedes-Benz sports car with
swing axle. It was the first car that pampered its occupants with
independent wheel suspension; the latter featured a sensational world
first, a double-wishbone front axle that combined with the double-joint
swing axle introduced in the 170 as early as 1931.
In this ground-breaking design, wheel location, springing and damping
were for the first time separated from each other, creating a new level
of precision in straightline stability. In its essence, this front axle,
fitted like the rear axle with coil springs, has remained the design
model for generations of automobiles throughout the world to this day,
and it also featured in the 500 K, of course.
It was the customers' craving for power, however, that prompted the
replacement of the 380, not exactly a lame duck with its supercharged
140 hp, by the 500 K only one year later. The newcomer's engine
generated 160 hp with the supercharger engaged; even without the
supercharger in action, it still had an impressive output of 100 hp at
3400 rpm. Depending on fuel quality, which varied greatly in those days,
the compression ratio was between 1:5.5 and 1:6.5. The fuel was
apportioned to the cylinders by a Mercedes-Benz double updraught
carburetor. The driver engaged the double-vane Roots supercharger by
depressing the accelerator pedal beyond a pressure point.
With the exception of first gear, both the standard four-speed and the
optional five-speed transmissions were synchronized. A single-plate dry
clutch linked the engine with the powertrain which transmitted engine
power to the rear wheels. The car rolled along on wire-spoke wheels
which were as elegant as they were robust.
All these features combined to permit a top speed of 160 kilometers per
hour – a dream for sports cars in that day and age. The penalty was paid
in the form of fuel consumption: between 27 and 30 liters were blown
through the carburetor on 100 kilometers. The 110-liter tank in the rear
gave the car a decent radius of action.
To meet the individual wishes of the demanding customers, three chassis
variants were available for the 500 K: two long versions with a 3,290
millimeter wheelbase, differing in terms of powertrain and bodywork
layout, and a short version with 2,980 millimeters.
The long variant, the so-called normal chassis with the radiator
directly above the front axle, served as the backbone for the four-seater
cabriolets "B" (with four side windows) and "C" (with two side windows)
and, at a later stage, also for touring cars and sedans.
The roadsters, the two-seater cabriolet "A" (with two side windows) and
the ultra-modern, streamlined Motorway Courier, the first car with
curved side windows and classified by the manufacturer as a sports
sedan, were set up on a chassis on which radiator, engine, cockpit and
all rearward modules were moved 185 millimeters back from the front
axle. This configuration was a concession to the zeitgeist, a small
trick that created the visual impression of a particularly long
front-end and, therefore, the desired sporting appeal.
The most ravishing model of this species was the two-seater 500 K
special roadster launched in 1936, a masterpiece in terms of its
styling, with inimitably powerful and elegant lines. It has been filling
onlookers with enthusiasm to this day, reflecting, as it does, the
spirit of its day and age as well as the design perfection of the 500 K
models. Its price tag – 28,000 Reichsmark – was 6,000 marks above the
average price of "simpler" models. People were able to buy a generously
furnished house for that money.
The short-wheelbase chassis was used only for a few two-seaters with
special bodies. On these models, the radiator was back right above the
front axle, and the models carried the designations 500 K sports
roadster, sports cabriolet and sports coupe.
The 500 K's chassis complete with helical-spindle steering had been
adopted – though in further refined form – from the preceding 380: the
new double-wishbone axle with coil springs at the front and the
double-joint swing axle - complemented by double coil springs and
additional transverse balancing spring – at the rear. The vacuum-boosted
service brake acted hydraulically on all four wheels, the mechanical
parking brake on the rear wheels. The chassis weighed as much as 1,700
kilograms; the complete car tipped the scales at 2,300 kilograms and the
permissible gross weight was around 2,700 kilograms.
No matter what version of the 500 K you look at, the elegance of its
body sends people into raptures even today: every single one had been
given its own, unparalleled personality by the ingenious coachbuilders
in Sindelfingen. Only few customers opted for bodywork tailored by
independent bodybuilders to their own wishes (the price lists quoted the
chassis as individual items), especially since the Sindelfingers rose
above themselves in accommodating the customers' special wishes, for
instance for individual fender versions, rear-end designs or interior
appointments. Within two years, 342 units of the 500 K were produced.
In response to the virtually insatiable craving for performance on the
part of well-heeled customers all over the world, the 500 K was replaced
in 1936 by the 540 K with supercharged 180 hp engine. This model was
sold to 319 motoring enthusiasts.
The history of supercharged Mercedes-Benz cars goes back to World War II
and has its roots in aeroengine production. Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft
had introduced mechanical air compressors which supercharged the engines
and thereby compensated for the power loss of aeroengines at higher
altitudes, ensuring their stable performance.
The first Mercedes models with supercharged engines were displayed at
the Berlin Motor Show in 1921 – between bicycles with auxiliary engines
and mini-cars. They caused quite a stir among automotive experts. With
the supercharger, an engine booster had been introduced which, from
1926, catapulted Mercedes passenger, sports and racing cars into a new
dimension of performance.