Best in Show – Robert Jepson’s one-of-a-kind 1938 Mercedes-Benz 540K

Gary Anderson with Robert Jepson
Denis L. Tanney
Those distinctive chrome exhaust pipes extending out of the engine compartment and into the front fender would easily identify the stunning deep-blue automobile on the show field as a late-1930s’ Mercedes-Benz 540K, of which only 419 examples were ever built.

Best in Show

Robert Jepson’s one-of-a-kind 1938 Mercedes-Benz 540K

 

Article: Gary Anderson with Robert Jepson Jr.

Images: Denis L. Tanney

 

Those distinctive chrome exhaust pipes extending out of the engine compartment and into the front fender would easily identify the stunning deep-blue automobile on the show field as a late-1930s’ Mercedes-Benz 540K, of which only 419 examples were ever built.

However, enthusiasts with a keen eye and detailed knowledge of the marque’s heritage might immediately notice some distinctive differences that set this example apart from all other 540Ks. These differences are what originally convinced Robert Jepson to add it to his carefully curated collection of automobiles and earned the car its Best-in-Show recognition recently at Hilton Head Concours d’Elegance in South Carolina.

 

The goals of a collection

 

A dozen years ago, finally having space on his farm outside Savannah to maintain and display an automobile collection, Jepson began satisfying his interest in classic cars by buying a few typical interesting cars – including a Model T and a Model A Ford – for the fun of owning and driving them. But with the acquisition of a Pierce-Arrow model at the recommendation of a collector friend, he soon began to focus on distinctive coach-built cars originally produced in very small numbers during the 1930s to suit the specific tastes of individual owners.

 

Having been an investment banker and entrepreneur in his professional career, Jepson took the sensible path of expanding his knowledge of the field by attending auctions and getting to know other collectors and market specialists. Taking their advice, Jepson defined his collecting criteria: He would seek one-of-a-kind automobiles with a specific appeal that set them apart from other examples of that marque and period. At the same time, the models would need to be excellent representatives of the best qualities of their marque with interesting but impeccably documented provenance.

 

Satisfying his criteria

 

While attending a new auction held in conjunction with The Elegance at Hershey in June 2016, a distinctive Mercedes-Benz 540K Cabriolet B caught his eye because it was attractive – and definitely out of the ordinary.

From a distance, the first thing Jepson noticed was that instead of the three-pointed star as the mascot surmounting the radiator – the case with every other collectible Mercedes-Benz he had seen – this car had a standing figure of Diana the Huntress mounted on the radiator cap.  Though he had no Mercedes-Benzes in his collection, and none on his wish list, he walked over to learn more.

 

Looking at the catalog and talking to the representative of the seller, he learned why. This particular car was originally ordered from Daimler-Benz as a bare chassis – frame, power train and running gear only – by Max Gumpel, a noted Swedish Olympic athlete with minor claims to Scandinavian nobility, in 1937.

 

Instead of having Mercedes-Benz’s Sindelfingen plant create the coachwork – body panels and interior – as was the case for more than nine out of every 10 540Ks, Gumpel commissioned the work to be done by Swedish coachbuilder Norrmalm. Only three cars built by that firm are known to exist, and only one – this one – is a Mercedes-Benz.

 

Jepson was immediately interested because the car ticked two of his criteria: as a 540K, it was definitely the epitome of the Mercedes-Benz marque, but at the same time, it was unquestionably unique.

 

Documentation with the car provided proof of an unbroken line of previous owners. The Gumpel family had owned the car until 1955. Because of Gumpel’s standing in society – marked by the very low registration number, A54, on the license plate – he had been allowed to have the car declared as “non-conscription property” during World War II; so it was stored during those war years instead of being crushed for metal as was the fate of so many prewar cars.

 

After the car was sold in 1955, it was owned by collectors in Europe, the United States, Canada and Japan. The last owner, from 2001-2016, was John “Jack” Rich; the car was part of his JWR Collection housed just outside Philadelphia. With his passing, the collection was divided among his children; the 540K would be sold. Documentation and provenance: two more criteria met.

 

Distinctive characteristics

 

Always researching his cars before acquisition, Jepson wasn’t prepared to bid on the car during the Hershey auction. Fortunately the car didn’t sell, so he contacted the owner to learn more.

 

What he learned was interesting in the extreme. The car has the long hood and short cabin of the typical 500 and 540 models, but it has a sturdier appearance. Finished as a Cabriolet B with rear quarter windows, it has more space in the rear seat and larger luggage space.

 

But in addition, the body is four inches wider than the Sindelfingen models, creating a wider cockpit with a two/one split front seat, allowing three people to sit comfortably abreast. Gumpel had a reputation for being a bon vivant – period photographs show Gumpel with Greta Garbo in the front seat – so the ability to comfortably take a large group out on the town might have been useful.

 

Rather than being of the roadster style where the top was generally tucked away, this car has a sturdy weatherproof wool-lined and wool-covered cabriolet top supported by chrome landau irons behind the door openings, usually kept in place.

 

When Gumpel acquired the car, he had every intention of using it frequently, so he specified that it was to be completely roadworthy – even in the Scandinavian winter. Mercedes-Benz automobiles of that day were known for their sturdy reliability, but this car takes that up another notch. Not only is it sturdier – weighing in at 6,300 pounds, several hundred pounds heavier than a normal 540K – it is equipped with a dual saddle-style fuel tank holding 60 gallons of gasoline and dual 12-volt batteries controlled from knobs on the driver’s side of the dash board; there would be little danger of running out of gasoline or not being able to start the car at a remote location in the middle of winter.

 

Other features include distinctive Marchal headlamps, running lamps and spotlights instead of the Zeiss lighting that is typical of most 500s and 540s. The front fascia was also done by a Scandinavian designer and is less ostentatious than most Sindelfingen examples. Though the instrument panel in the center of the dash is of burled wood (an understated option rather that the more typical mother of pearl), the remaining portions of the dashboard are a lovely grained wood in the Scandinavian style. In addition to the two battery control knobs on the driver’s side, there is also a compass mounted in the same place on the passenger side, perhaps for functionality or just to preserve design symmetry.

 

Restoring the car

 

After extended negotiation with the owner, Jepson finally managed to purchase the car and immediately had it shipped to his restorer. Though the car was in very attractive condition and quite complete, with all the unique characteristics intact underneath the paint and leather, the many years of disuse had left it considerably rougher than Jepson might have hoped.

 

Nevertheless, the distinctive nature of that Norrmalm-bodied 540K justified restoration back to its 1938 elegance. After two years of work, the car was finally completed in March 2019.

 

In the fall, Jepson showed it at a series of carefully selected shows, receiving the Chairman’s Award at the Radnor Hunt Concours d’Elegance in Pennsylvania – where our photographer first saw it – then Best of Show at Cobble Beach concours in Canada, and Chairman’s Award at Maryland’s St. Michaels concours. Members of the Mercedes-Benz Club of America at the show couldn’t have been prouder when the 540K completed its season by being selected as Best of Show at that Hilton Head Island concours.

 

IMAGES

Every detail of this  1938 540K Cabriolet is in perfect condition, including the fender-mounted spare tire, chrome trim, radiator and engine-compartment grille, and Marchal headlamps.

 

A rare Norrmalm custom body enhanced with such details as a radiator mascot, Marchal lamps, siren and low registration number distinguish this very special five-passenger Cabriolet.

 

 

The heart of any 540K is, of course, the 5.4-liter straight-eight engine with the Roots supercharger, but the overall appearance was and is intended to impress anyone who sees the car.

 

Inviting two-tone leather interior. Dashboard’s two contrasting woods surround standard instruments and custom compass. Dynamic Diana the Huntress leaps from the radiator cap.

 

Specifications

1938 Mercedes-Benz W29 540K

TYPE: Two-door, five-passenger Cabriolet BCOACHWORK: Norrmalm of Sweden for Max Gumpel

ENGINE: 5,401cc overhead-valve inline 8-cylinderwith Roots supercharger

TRANSMISSION: 4-speed manual with floor selector

HORSEPOWER: 115; 180 with supercharger engaged (DIN) 

TORQUE: 318 lb-ft at 2,200 rpm

LENGTH: 205 in  WIDTH: 79 in HEIGHT: 65 in

CURB WEIGHT: Approx. 6,300 lb 

PERFORMANCE: Zero-60 mph 16.5 sec 

TOP SPEED: 105 mph

NOTE: Dual 12-volt batteries controlled from dashboard

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