The Autobahn Dream

1938 Mercedes Benz 540K AutobahnkurierThere are certain cars that absolutely transcend every single one of the narrow confines of this simplistic definition; these are more than machinery and function, design and esthetics; they are pinnacles of human achievement, masterpieces from the hands of geniuses that are able to perform a seemingly impossible task: create natural beauty by artificial methods.

The late 30’s were a glorious time for Mercedes Benz; before the chaotic WWII days, the German manufacturer was producing some of the most beautiful cars ever made. One of these was the 540K. There’s not much you can say about 540Ks besides the fact that they’re stunning in every way; I especially love the Roadster Specials like the famous “Blue Goose” that belonged to the nefarious Marshal Göring. However, there is a version of the 540K that is even more beautiful: the impressive, surreal, mind blowingly gorgeous Autobahnkurier.

The Autobahnkurier style body was presented in 1934 at the Berlin Motor Show and, unsurprisingly, it caused quite a stir. It’s said that this Mercedes inspired Jean Bugatti to design the legendary Atlantique; if that’s true or not I cannot say, but the Atlantique certainly seems to take a page from the kurier’s book. As the name suggests, the Autobahnkuriers were made to be driven fast on Germany’s brand new motorways but ironically, I’m not sure that any of them has ever even seen one because these particular models all ended up with foreign owners and far away from the Federal Republic. Reportedly only 6 of these precious gems were made, and just 2 of them are considered to be 540s (the others are 500Ks, shorter chassis, a few differently shaped panels, fenders and details). Personally, I’d take it a step further and say that there is only one genuine, proper 540K Autobahnkurier in the world.

You see, the 1934 prototype was built on a 500K chassis but it was equipped with the straight eight 5.4 liter engine of the 540s. This car ended up being given as a gift by the German government to Mohammed Reza, the Shah of Persia (Iran) where it supposedly remains to this day, although it hasn’t been seen for decades. The second car, in my personal and very humble view, is the only true 540K Autobahnkurier in existence because it has the 5.4 engine and it was indeed built on a 540 chassis. This one of a kind survivor has led a very interesting life.

Completed in 1938, the car was especially ordered by Spanish Professor Ignacio Barraquer, an accomplished ophthalmologist; Barraquer’s profession actually sparked a myth about the car that endured for many years. The kurier was said to have been a gift from Adolf himself as a token of appreciation after the Professor had saved the eyesight of one of his top officers. The reported truth is that the Professor/Doctor saw a version of the car at the 1938 Paris Motor Show and decided to order one for himself. However, the Barraquer family itself declares the 540K as a gift from King Farouk of Egypt.

The fact is that, after completion, the kurier was driven from Germany to Gibraltar where it was delivered to his new owner in November of the same year. The car’s future would be a very challenging one; for quite a while Barraquer traveled all along the North of Africa with the kurier, tackling harsh conditions that no car this gorgeous should ever, ever face. Thousands of miles and a head gasket later, the Spaniard made it to Egypt where he had the kurier shipped from Alexandria back home. I love this story and how completely bonkers it is; the decision Barraquer made it’s like if I were to drive across the Amazon tomorrow and think to myself “hmmm, you know what would be great for that? A Ferrari!” I mean, it’s crazy. True, Northern Africa in the late 30’s/early 40’s all the way up to the 60’s was a very different place from it is today but still…look at it man! Does that look like cross-Africa sort of vehicle to you? The fact that I’m now actively arguing with the very late Professor Barraquer is proof of how much in love I am (always have been since I first saw it) with the 540K Autobahnkurier.

1938 Mercedes Benz 540K Autobahnkurier (rear)

The “good” Doctor eventually bought a 300S in the 1950’s and passed the kurier along to his son in law; the German engineered masterpiece remained in the same family (for some time it was loaned to the Antic Car Club in Catalina who kept it on display in Barcelona) until 2004 when it was sold to Deborah and Arturo Keller, American collectors who own and run the Keller Wine Estate in Petaluma, California. The new owners had the kurier restored by prestigious Paul Russel & Co. before it was presented back to the world at the 2006 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, then already in the hands of a new proprietor (reportedly the proud owner of the largest privately held Mercedes collection in the world). In a highly controversial decision, the kurier won the award for most elegant coupe, but lost the “Best in Show” title to a Daimler Double Six Roadster; don’t get me wrong, the Daimler is a very pretty car, but not nearly as mesmerizing and special as the Mercedes. In 2008 the kurier came back for a fight at Villa d’Este where this time it won the best in show award.

I wish I had the appropriate words to accurately describe this car. Adjectives like stunning and perfect just seem hopelessly weak and unable to perform the task properly; even referring to it as a masterpiece feels excessively modest. To me, the 1938 Mercedes Benz 540K Autobahnkurier is on a very exclusive top 3 competition for most beautiful car ever created along with the 1938 Alfa Romeo 8C 2900B Touring Spider and the 1954 Mercedes Benz 300 SL Gullwing and so far, it’s definitely winning.

Consulted Sources:

Used Images (Slightly edited)

2 thoughts on “The Autobahn Dream

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