The Autobahn Dream

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

The late 30’s were a brilliant time for Mercedes Benz as a creative company; before the chaotic WWII days when Mercedes was fully engaged in the nefarious nazi war efforts, the German manufacturer was producing some of the most beautiful cars ever made. One of these was the 540K.

There’s not much we can say about 540Ks besides the fact that they’re stunning; paradoxically, the most beautiful Mercedes were in the hands of the most hideous people; take the Roadster Specials like the famous “Blue Goose” that belonged to the vicious Marshal Göring. However, there is a version of the 540K that is even more beautiful than the Speziales: the impressive, surreal, mind blowing Autobahnkurier.

The Autobahnkurier body was presented in 1934 at the Berlin Motor Show and, unsurprisingly, it caused a stir. 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 with a shorter chassis and a few differently shaped panels, fenders and details. Personally, we’d take it a step further and say that there is only one genuine 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 which names the 540s. It 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 is, in our view, the only true 540K Autobahnkurier in existence because it has the 5.4 engine and it was built on a purpose made 540 chassis.

This one of a kind survivor has led a very interesting life. Completed in 1938, the car was special 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 crazy Adolf himself as a token of appreciation after the Professor had saved the eyesight of either himself or one of his top officers. The reported truth is much simpler, stating 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 declares the 540K as having been a gift from King Farouk of Egypt.

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 challenging one; for quite a while, Barraquer traveled all along the North of Africa with the kurier, tackling harsh conditions that no car this beautiful and unique 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. We love this story and how completely bonkers it is; the decision Doctor Barraquer made it’s as if someone picked an exotic to drive across a tropical jungle.

1938 Mercedes Benz 540K Autobahnkurier (rear)

The Doctor eventually bought a 300S in the 1950’s and passed the kurier along to his son in law; the automotive masterpiece remained in the family (for some time it was loaned to the Antic Car Club de Catalunyna which 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. 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 us wrong, the Daimler is a very pretty car, but not nearly as mesmerizing 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.

We wish we had the appropriate words to accurately describe this car. Adjectives like stunning just seem weak to accurately portrait it. In our humble opinion, 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.

2021 UPDATE: Automotive Views congratulates the Kellers for the Autobahnkurier’s 2021 Pebble Beach Best of Show victory.

Images (Slightly edited)

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

2 thoughts on “The Autobahn Dream

  1. Pingback: Automotive Views

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s