The luxury motor loved by the super-rich (and a few dictators)
Sixty years ago, you could almost imagine the bone china being dropped in shock at Rolls-Royce’s Crewe HQ. Mercedes-Benz, manufacturer of quality but prosaic mainstream saloon cars, had just unveiled its 600 – or Grosser Mercedes – at the Frankfurt motor show and in one fell swoop redefined the entire ultra-luxury car class.
The 600 (with the internal designation W100-series) wasn’t just hand-built, and outrageously expensive and expansive, it was also a technical tour de force, and shook the car industry’s traditionally conservative prestige sector to its core.
Nothing about the 600 was conventional. With a dry weight of 2,600kg and measuring more than 20ft long in extended-wheelbase Pullman form, it dwarfed almost every other rival on the market; the Mercedes three-pointed star bonnet badge even grew by 20 per cent so it was proportionate with the rest of the car.
From its all-new 6.3-litre, V8 engine – complete with a dry sump, overhead camshafts and fuel injection, when such niceties were rare – to its advanced double-wishbone suspension and granite-like body structure, Mercedes aimed the 600 at being the best of the best.
Even its operating system was like no other, with hydraulics powering the windows, seats, sunroof, and boot lid, while also providing a soft-close function for the doors, avoiding the need to slam them shut. The system, which was fiendishly complex and necessitated the use of about 1,000 rubber seals, also gave three-way suspension adjustability from the driver’s seat, while the 600 rode on cushions of air rather than regular coil springs.
And this radical, forward-thinking approach to engineering, which was to future-proof the 600 enough for a near 20-year production life, was wrapped in a body that also eschewed convention. Designed in-house by Paul Bracq, who was also responsible for Mercedes’ glamorous “Pagoda” SL convertible, the car’s height was only 1,495mm, giving it a low and sinister appearance, especially when painted black – which many were.
So it was no surprise that the 600 attracted a certain type of buyer through its life, and not one (to Rolls-Royce’s ultimate relief) that would have necessarily migrated from makers of more urbane machinery.
Those buyers would have been among the super-rich, too. By 1966, an “entry-level” 600 cost £8,926, versus the just-launched Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow at £6,557 (the long-wheelbase 600 Pullman was significantly more, at £9,994). Small wonder that it rapidly became the go-to luxury accessory of the insanely wealthy and famous.
It suited extroverts perhaps more than those from old money so, predictably, Elvis Presley owned one, as did Playboy’s founder, Hugh Hefner. The Beatles’ George Harrison bought Coco Chanel’s old 600, and also acquired bandmate John Lennon’s Grosser when he moved to the States. Fittingly, actor Jack Nicholson’s character Daryl Van Horne drove and wrecked a 600 in the 1987 film The Witches of Eastwick.
The scene actually demonstrates what a hot rod the 600 was for a supposedly sedate limousine, as the crazed Van Horne thrashes down twisty New England roads, side-swiping errant cyclists along the way. In fact, Nicholson was so impressed that he bought the car after production ended and had it restored for his personal use.
But the 600’s profile was never higher than when it was used to transport heads of state. HM Queen Elizabeth II travelled in a 600 during her 1979 tour of the Gulf States, while President Richard Nixon toured cities in the US during 1970 in a 600 Landaulet, which combined the Pullman’s extended wheelbase body, but incorporating a convertible roof over the rear-most section of the interior. Even Pope Paul VI was smitten by the uber-Merc, taking delivery of his Landaulet in 1965.
Not all 600 owners were from the great and good, though, with some pretty despicable types seeming to have formed a magnetic attraction to the Grosser over the years. Think of a powerful despot from the 1970s and you can almost guarantee they’ll have been wafted around in a 600. Saddam Hussein, Chairman Mao, Pablo Escobar, Fidel Castro were all owners, with Ferdinand Marcos keeping four in his household at one point.
Central African emperor Jean-Bédel Bokassa owned two, one of which was used for his coronation in 1977. According to a New York Times report, some children threw rocks at his car as he paraded through a city, after which he had them imprisoned and then stoned to death for damaging his precious motor.
And then there was the infamous President of Uganda Idi Amin’s 600 ownership, which was used as part of a cunning plan in July 1976 to rescue hostages from Entebbe Airport in Kampala. Israeli commandos, dressed as Ugandan soldiers, used a near-identical 600 to Amin’s car as a decoy to enter the airport, before storming the terminal and successfully freeing the hostages from terrorist control.
Given the 600’s technical complexity, it must have been a challenge to maintain the car to the high standard needed for state service, though. TV actor Gary Mavers, best known for his roles in Peak Practice, Emmerdale and Casualty, is now an unlikely Grosser expert, having single-handedly restored two of the three 600s he’s owned, which are painstakingly documented on his Classic Obsession YouTube channel.
“The hydraulics were always this car’s Achilles heel,” Mavers tells me. “Then there’s the phenomenal cost of re-chroming all that brightwork. And when you’ve got the car back on the road, there’s the horrific fuel consumption to deal with [Mercedes quoted 15.9mpg]. But they are so over-engineered, and I do regret selling them.”
David Atkinson, the retired chartered accountant who has owned the standard-length 1965 600 that we’re driving today for the past 10 years, echoes Mavers’ sentiments. “I was once quoted £12,000 by Mercedes for a new rear bumper, and the hydraulics system is similar to what you’d find in an aeroplane. If you use the wrong fluid (it needs to be mineral-based, not synthetic), it’ll rot the seals and wreck the system.”
Thankfully, Atkinson’s car had not fallen foul of such botchery, and as I make myself comfortable in the broad, velour-trimmed driver’s seat I’m struck by the excellent view out of the cabin, thanks to a deep window-line and partial wrap-around front screen. Also, unlike in most modern cars, you can actually see the front wing tips, making it easy to place on our sinuous Welsh road test route.
The dashboard bristles with dials and controls set into expensive-looking wood veneers, while a large two-spoke steering wheel, complete with chrome horn-ring, faces you. Flick the switch to close the driver’s window (no whirring motors, thanks to hydraulics), pull the column-mounted auto-gearbox selector into Drive and we’re away. It’s unnervingly rapid for a 58-year-old, two-and-a-half-ton limousine, and while the power steering is quite light and low-geared, it’s gratifyingly communicative, allowing you to aim this leviathan at apexes with surprising accuracy.
Even on scarred and pitted rural roads, the ride is cosseting, too, yet when you start to pick up speed into bends the big Benz corners flatly, belying its overall bulk. I resist the temptation to sound the loudest of the four horn settings available (it came with a health warning for anyone standing nearby), but take solace that I’d hardly need to.
After all, if you saw that over-sized three-pointed star in your rear-view mirror, would you really know who was sitting in the back?