For the latest classic car news, features, buyer’s guides and classifieds, sign up to the C&SC newsletter here
The photograph (below) tells a story. Four friends pose by a large Mercedes-Benz two-seater, its hood closed to protect it from the scorching sun.
One of the men looks directly into the camera: confident, bare-chested, hair oiled, cigarette in hand. The young woman and her companion are standing on the front wing of the Mercedes, or perhaps the bulkhead.
The quartet radiates wealth and zest for life, as if the world is at their feet: it goes without saying that you clamber on to a precious automobile for a better photo.
The worn front tyres reveal that the Benz has been used for its intended purpose. It’s a 540K, one of the fastest and most expensive automobiles of the 1930s, and the man with the confident stare is its lucky owner, Pierre Franchi.
The car was a generous gift from his sister Lucy, the young woman pictured in the shot, probably taken somewhere near Marseille, en route to Corsica from Paris.
The 540K is now the cherished possession of Dutch entrepreneur and grape farmer Hans Hulsbergen, and has won prizes at concours d’élégance in Pebble Beach, Soestdijk Palace and Knokke.
But this particular Benz has lived a turbulent life, extensively researched and recorded by Dutch expert Robert Scheerboom.
We begin the story in 1930s Paris, the era of mould-breaking painters such as Picasso, Chagall and Dalí, writers including Ernest Hemingway and performers such as Joséphine Baker, who sang and danced at the Folies Bergère.
The city was full of energy, especially in Montmartre, Montparnasse and the Latin Quarter.
In the midst of all this, Lucy Franchi and her brother, originally from Corsica, grew up. Supported by Pierre, Lucy developed into an outstanding businesswoman, buying real estate in Paris and opening nightclubs that would become a must-visit for anyone enjoying the nightlife of the French capital.
Her most famous establishment was the bar Américaine La Roulotte (The Caravan) on 62 Rue Pigalle, which would become one of the most famous cafés chantant in the glory days of swinging Paris, where guests not only quenched their thirst but also enjoyed music, cabaret and beautiful performers.
On 3 June 1936, Lucy stepped into the Parisian Mercedes-Benz dealer and importer Ateliers Vautrin on Avenue des Champs-Élysées and ordered a 540K Cabriolet A, choosing to have the entire car built by the factory in Sindelfingen, including the body.
This was not a matter of course for top-class automobiles at the time: rolling chassis were also supplied to be clothed in bespoke bodywork by a coachbuilder, according to the buyer’s preferences.
Franchi revealed not only a well-stocked purse at Ateliers Vautrin, but also excellent taste.
She chose a two-tone paint scheme, dark blue with an ivory nose and the refined addition of a blue stripe running the length of the bonnet, which made the 540K look even more imposing.
She eschewed spats in favour of open wings to give a full view of the ivory wire wheels, and decided against the common style of the time of spare wheels on the front wings, instead having them placed at the back to avoid interrupting the elegant wing line. To add some sporting flair, she specified a strap over the bonnet.
The order for the big Mercedes was placed at an important moment in the model’s history.
In the mid-’30s the 500K had been the Benz flagship, and indeed one of the stars of the global automotive industry.
To maintain that position, an evolution was prepared in Stuttgart. For the 540K, the displacement of the straight-eight engine was increased from 5 to 5.4 litres, again employing a Roots-type supercharger that was only activated when you pressed the accelerator to the floor.
The normal atmospheric intake of the carburettor was then shut off, so that it was fully fed under pressure by the blower.
This system of aspiration had already proven its worth in the Mercedes S-type, developed by one Dr Ferdinand Porsche.
In the 540K, the in-line ‘eight’ delivered some 113bhp without the forced induction; with the supercharger engaged that was lifted to an impressive 178bhp.
The top ratio of the four-speed transmission was extended for relaxed cruising at low revs, and there were servo-assisted hydraulic brakes to haul it in from a top speed of just over 110mph.
The 540K was developed under the supervision of Mercedes’ new chief engineer, former racer Max Sailer, who had succeeded Hans Nibel after his death at the age of 54 in November 1934.
When Franchi signed up for the Cabriolet A, it was so new that Mercedes hadn’t even officially unveiled it yet – that was to happen at the Paris Salon four months later.
In fact, Ateliers Vautin would hand over her 540K during the exhibition, chassis number 130946 having sat in wait for that moment for two months in a warehouse on the Champs-Élysées.
Naturally, Mercedes didn’t want its motor show thunder to be stolen by the appearance of Franchi’s flamboyant Benz on the streets of the French capital.
The unveiling must have been a spectacle, the public getting a first glimpse of the 540K’s impressive radiator, enormous Bosch headlights, long bonnet and outside exhaust pipes.
Those who got a look at the interior would undoubtedly have marvelled at the beautiful woodwork of the dash with its mother-of-pearl inlay.
During the show, Franchi made the grand gesture she had been planning for months, presenting the 540K to her beloved brother as a token of appreciation for the help he had provided with her business ventures.
Afterwards, the large Mercedes was seen regularly on Rue Pigalle, parked in front of La Roulotte, as a beacon for fashionable Parisians looking for entertainment.
Aside from the odd brief, involuntary interruption, the Benz remained in the family for the following 78 years and was used for all kinds of journeys, including the 800km trips to Corsica to visit relatives.
Pierre must have relished the power of the 540K, kicking the throttle right down to engage the supercharger and turn the normally quite quiet Mercedes into a brutal, howling machine that sprinted towards the horizon leaving a cloud of smoke and the smell of unburnt fuel.
He would have been able to use its 178bhp relatively safely on the empty Routes Nationale to the ferry in Marseille, his confidence boosted by the all-round independent suspension and servo-assisted drum brakes, a Bosch-Dewandre invention.
Even the gearbox gate was laid out for spirited driving, with an unsynchronised dogleg first then second and third in the same plane, ideal for fast shifting on smaller roads.
Lucy had a nose for finding new talent, says historian Scheerboom, and offered her discoveries a stage in her establishments.
On one occasion she saw a young woman busking on the street and liked her voice so much that she immediately offered her a role in cabaret show Juan-les-Pins.
The singer’s name was Édith Giovanna Gassion, and as she left her street life behind Louis Leplée of Cirque Medrano took her under his wing and gave her a new stage name: Édith Piaf.
She continued to perform at La Roulotte for many years and owed much of her success to Franchi and Leplée, even dedicating a song to the street that helped her find fame: Elle fréquentait la Rue Pigalle.
Piaf was by no means the only one whom La Roulotte made welcome.
Paris had its own jazz followers in the 1930s, much like Berlin, and many African-American artists moved to those two cities because they enjoyed greater acceptance there than in the USA.
When Hitler came to power in 1933, however, jazz was banned in Germany and some musicians moved from Berlin to Paris – to La Roulotte, among others – where a lively scene developed.
The Franchis happened to meet a self-taught Belgian guitarist with his own unique style: Jean ‘Django’ Reinhardt, who would later become world famous with his ‘gypsy jazz’
Stéphane Grappelli, and other musical celebrities who played regularly at La Roulotte, took care of Reinhardt and formed with him the Quintette du Hot Club de France. The group played mainly at Franchi ’s venues and caused a furore with their new jazz style, and were offered a recording contract after their first performance.
When he had owned the car for three years, Pierre Franchi had an accident in his Mercedes.
The Second World War had only begun to cast its dark shadow over Europe and he was on his way home from Corsica after a family visit when he went off the road – perhaps due to fatigue – and into a ditch.
He sustained a nasty head injury and the Mercedes’ wings were pretty battered, so Lucy quickly sent out another of her brothers with a truck to save the 540K from looters.
On 10 May 1940, the Nazis invaded France. Pierre, by then in Marseille with his freshly repaired Mercedes, was drafted into the military to defend his country, but the heavy steps of enemy boots were already ringing along the Champs-Élysées.
Occupation would last four long years, during which cars could only be used for business transport and the Franchis started their Mercedes only to pick up artists such as Piaf and Reinhardt.
It wasn’t long before the magnificent 540K was confiscated by the Axis forces for the use of a high-ranking officer, and Franchi’s clubs also came under German control.
Jazz was supposedly forbidden, but among the officers there were several fans who regularly visited La Roulotte to hear Reinhardt play – though for safety’s sake his ‘gypsy jazz’ was rebranded as ‘Zazou’
Reinhardt enjoyed some form of protection from persecution in Paris by Luftwaffe officer and fan Dr Dietrich Schulz-Köhn, who ensured that the virtuoso was left alone to continue playing his music in a number of Parisian clubs.
Then came a small miracle: the Franchis unexpectedly got back their precious Mercedes, and immediately stashed it away in a secret location where it would remain until the end of the war.
To whom the Franchis owed the return of the 540K remains a mystery: Scheerboom speculates that jazz-loving officer Schulz-Köhn might have played a part, but it could also be that controversial athlete Violette Morris – who was later accused of espionage – had a hand in it.
Like Lucy Franchi she was gay, and was a regular guest at lesbian nightclub Le Monocle.
In 1944, Lucy Franchi sold La Roulotte to Reinhardt and Pierre entered the movie industry.
After liberation, the 540K was released from exile and Lucy spent Ffr116,440 having it prepared for the road by Garage de Paris Henri Guillard, a process that took four months.
Pierre remained in the film world for a decade – with moderate success – before going on to run casinos.
He continued to use the Mercedes until 1954 when the car was again taken from him, this time by thieves.
To recover his sister’s precious gift, Pierre ran advertisements in newspapers and offered a hefty reward.
A response finally came from a scrap dealer in the south of France. It remains unclear exactly how he got his hands on the Mercedes-Benz, but following a two-year lawsuit Franchi reclaimed his 540K.
Sadly, however, various parts had been taken from the 20-year-old car so Pierre decided on a complete restoration plus a few modernisations.
He added wings with integral headlights – in the style of the then-new Mercedes 300Sc – and had it repainted in light metallic blue, with a larger rear window in the new hood.
He no longer used the 540K daily, but regularly organised a concours d’élégance in one of his casinos, where the modernised Benz was always the centre of attention.
In the 1990s Franchi had it restored once again, this time to its original state as a tribute to his late sister, by the Voisin specialist Dominique Tessier, who was a great admirer of the Mercedes 500 and 540K.
Tessier and Franchi, then well into his 80s, became firm friends and regularly took rides together in the kompressor Mercedes, always taking in a good lunch.
After Pierre passed away, the Mercedes was auctioned in February 2007 by Christie’s and went into a collection in Monaco.
It was later dismantled and changed hands again in 2014, at Bonhams’ debut Mercedes-Benz Museum sale.
Hulsbergen and son Alan love to exercise their cars, and are regulars on the Mille Miglia with others from their fleet manned by friends including Walter Röhrl and his navigator Christian Geistdörfer.
Hulsbergen owns a vineyard in Tuscany and is a long-time sponsor of the Mille, though his ambition is to win the big race for which his oldest car – the Alfa Romeo 6C – is the weapon of choice.
Not completely satisfied with the most recent rebuild of the 540K, Hulsbergen entrusted its perfection to Dutch restorer Gert Jan van der Meij.
Its originality has since been verified by Mercedes-Benz Classic by means of hidden chassis numbers –some of which were even concealed inside the box-sections of the chassis during construction in 1936.
In a swinging life, this 540K has ferried stars through the Paris night and travelled thousands of kilometres on French roads.
It has been confiscated by the Nazis and miraculously recovered; stolen and partially looted in a French scrapyard; modernised then returned to original condition.
All in the same family ownership for nearly 80 years. And, after a brief period of uncertainty, it is once again in good hands – you can bet a good glass of wine on that.
Images: Luuk Van Kaathoven
Mercedes-Benz 540K Cabriolet A
- Sold/number built 1936-’39/83
- Construction pressed-steel box-section chassis, wooden body frame, steel panels
- Engine iron monobloc straight-eight, with single updraught carburettor and switchable Roots-type supercharger
- Max power 178bhp @ 3400rpm (113bhp without supercharger)
- Max torque 318lb ft @ 2200rpm
- Transmission four-speed manual, no synchromesh on first, RWD
- Suspension independent, at front by wishbones, coil springs rear swing axles, trailing arms, twin coil springs each side; hydraulic dampers f/r
- Steering worm and nut
- Brakes drums, with servo
- Length 17ft 2½in (5245mm)
- Width 6ft 3in (1905mm)
- Height 5ft 5in (1650mm)
- Wheelbase 10ft 9in (3290mm)
- Weight 5720lb (2595kg)
- 0-60mph 16.4 secs
- Top speed 111mph
- Mpg 8.1
- Price new RM22,000 (1936)
- Price now £2-2.5m*
*Prices correct at date of original publication