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1937 Mercedes 540K reappears in India after four decades


One of the first places I visited soon after I had moved to Bombay (Mumbai now) in 1985 was the stretch of road known as Walkeshwar Road, specifically the section in front of the fortress-like building known as Daskot. The only place you could peek inside was the basement garage at street level, where you could get a glimpse of a piece of a vintage car through the narrow grille.

It would be another two years – after I launched India’s first newsstand auto magazine Indian Auto – and several attempts at getting an appointment before I finally gained access to that palace, which reputedly housed one of the finest collections of historic vehicles in India.

Getting to finally meet Pranlal Bhogilal (1937-2011), India’s pioneer collector and auto enthusiast, was one of the more important moments in my life, as much as discovering the amazing cars that were parked at Daskot. Among the two dozen-odd automobiles across two levels (mostly Rolls-Royces and Bentleys – Phantom IIIs, a Phantom V, 3½ Litre and 8 Litre etc) the ones that really caught the eye were a low and stylish Invicta S100, and another beautifully elegant – and no less rare – convertible, a Mercedes-Benz 300 Sc.

But it was the other Mercedes-Benz, an astounding 540K – one of two in India – which remained hidden behind the locked doors of a standalone garage on one side of the palace complex.

It would be another two decades or so before I finally managed to get a peek into that dark garage, where I saw this awesome, maroon-coloured convertible…. a sleeping beauty that was not yet ready to be awakened. By then I had seen – and my photographer colleague Makarand Baokar had photographed – most of the 150-plus cars that made up a major part of Pranlal’s collection and his museum called Auto World (in Ahmedabad, 330 miles north of Mumbai), which housed other gems: a Maybach, an Hispano-Suiza, a Cord and innumerable Bentleys, Rolls-Royces, Packards and Cadillacs, to name but a few.

The 540K, though, remained hidden behind locked doors. Until yesterday, when Makarand took photographs of the freshly restored car at Daskot, its home for the best part of the past five decades.

With Pranlal’s heirs, daughter and son-in-law Chamundeshwari and Brijesh Chinai, having begun the process of restoring the collection – ably guided by Bhogilal’s nephew Kashyap Patel – it was the turn of this 540K, from 1937, to have a long-awaited rejuvenation that all Indian enthusiasts had been looking forward to. 

Chassis no. 130908 seems to have been one from the earliest batch of 540Ks. And was, likely, imported into India by Daimler-Benz’s Indian distributor Dadajee, Dhackjee & Co in Bombay, soon after the first 540K was brought in.

Even if British India had a clear preference for English automobiles, what with the Indian princes’ fascination for Rolls-Royce and Bentley, a few of the discerning rajas and maharajas had a penchant for the fastest, too. Which was why more than half a dozen Mercedes-Benz 680S/SS/SSKs found their way to India.

Despite the sporting successes of the S and the SS, as well as the aesthetic appeal of their aggressive appearance and sheer power, Daimler-Benz realised that most wealthy clients (and this would perhaps apply to most of the Indian princes) preferred luxury performance cars for everyday use, and not a supercar for weekend racing.

For them, a new generation of supercharged cars were designed by chief engineer Hans Nibel. These models were less suitable for sporting achievements, with their strengths instead laying in extremely comfortable and relaxed travel at high speeds. The first iteration of this type of car, the Mercedes-Benz 380 (W22) was launched in February 1933, but it was seen as a tad underpowered.

After a year it was replaced by the more powerful 500K (W29). Nibel set great emphasis on smooth running characteristics and superior power that developed gently. At the same time, the engine proved to be really quite majestic: the in-line eight-cylinder of the 500K was more than one metre long.

In the three years the 500K was in production, some 350-odd examples were made. Several made it to India, but only two remain. One is a beautifully restored car in Mumbai, which used to be owned and used by the late veteran aficionado Protap Roy, before being owned by Mota Chudasama. The other example is an almost one-owner car and remains in a remarkably well preserved condition.

The Mercedes-Benz 540K was the logical evolution of the already legendary 500K, and it was unveiled at the Paris Salon of 1936. Although several automotive historians have suggested that Mercedes’ wealthier clients clamoured for a more powerful version even as the 500K was out, it would be more realistic to assume that the German prestige car maker was going to develop an even more powerful flagship model than the 500K, given the optimism of a resurgent Germany of the 1930s in which size, power and speed mattered.

Thus, the same supercharger system as used on the 500K was strapped onto the even bigger engine of the 540K, making Mercedes’ flagship sports car a markedly more powerful machine. The car’s 5.4-litre engine developed 180bhp at 3400rpm with the supercharger engaged, and could easily do 170km/h. For the period, that was remarkable performance – especially as this speed was reached in comfort and security that was already the hallmark for Mercedes-Benz.

Several bodystyles were available: convertible, roadster, tourer or coupé. Symbolising the golden age of classic cars in its most prestigious form, the 540K is even more particular thanks to its rarity, because just over 400 units were ever built between 1936 and 1939.

A handful of these fabulous machines made it to India, but just two are known to survive in the country: chassis 130902 and 130908.

Chassis 130902 belongs to a small collection in Pune, a city that is 100-odd miles south of Mumbai. It needs restoration and work on the mechanicals, and that ought to be done because the bodystyle is most unusual and, likely, is the only one surviving in this configuration. In Mercedes-Benz parlance it’s an open tourer, with four spacious seats, under a retractable soft-top. The commission book entry that survives with Mercedes-Benz until today shows that the car was coachbuilt by Mercedes’ in-house facilities at Sindelfingen.

Ordered new by the Rajasaheb of Akkalkot, Vijayasinhrao Fatehsinhrao III Raje Bhosle, chassis 130902 was delivered in August 1936 to Dadajee, Dhackjee & Co, from where it must have been sent to Akkalkot, which was a non-salute princely state within the Bombay Presidency.

Chassis 130908, the 540K that is the subject of our story, seems to have been acquired by Yashwantrao Martandrao Mukne, who became the Maharaja of Jawhar in 1938. At the time when 130908 was acquired, the 20-year-old Yashwantrao Martandrao Mukne was too young to be crowned the maharaja, and the state of Jawhar (less than 100 miles north of Bombay) was being ‘ruled’ by his mother, the Rajmata Saguna Bai Mukne, acting as the regent.

Even if Jawhar was one of the smaller, not-so-wealthy states, Yashwantrao Martandrao Mukne had a penchant for expensive fast cars, and among his several bolides there was a 1939 Lagonda V12 Drophead Coupé, which he kept in England. The 540K, though, seemed to have spent most of its time in Bombay down in the basement parking area of the prestigious Sterling Apartments in downtown Mumbai, where the maharaja maintained a pied-à-terre.

“We used to play in the basement parking area, around the Mercedes,” remembers Mumbai-based collector Harit Trivedi. “I remember it had a Mercedes-Benz diesel emblem on the radiator. A red number plate was tied to a pillar near the car. The first time I saw the car being driven on the road was on Altamount Road… driven by none other than Pranlal Bhogilal himself, and I said to myself, well he has added another extraordinary car to that dream collection of his.”

“When we went to pick up the car,” reminisces Pranlal’s nephew Kashyap Patel, “it had a Perkins P6 diesel engine in it. We were very disappointed. But while removing the car, we saw that the original engine was lying around there, too. Which we picked up as well.”

This was in 1976. Pranlal had the brilliant mechanic Anji Mehra put the original powerplant back into the 540K, but there was a problem. The gearbox, which must have seen a lot of abuse, was extremely troublesome, and just wouldn’t shift. And nobody could address that. Therefore, the car remained garaged for more than four decades, hidden away from envious eyes.  

Pranlal Bhogilal passed away in 2011. A few years ago, Chamundeshwari and Brijesh Chinai decided to revitalise the museum and the collection, and the Mercedes-Benz 540K, one of its crown jewels, was given to the well reputed Indian restorer Marespand Dadachandji (with Darayush Netarwala assisting for matters technical). They completed its restoration within 12 months – just in time for the 540K to be ‘unveiled’ recent at the Oberoi Concours in Udaipur, in India.  

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