In addition to being a world-renowned authority on one of the most fascinating cars ever built, Karl Middelhauve, is a fantastic storyteller.
Background for those who just came in: The 1963–1981 Mercedes-Benz 600 is the only cost-no-object production Mercedes ever built; MSRP when new was around $20,000, but current values start at three or four times that. Routine maintenance can cost as much as a new Toyota Corolla, and a full restoration generally runs well into six (or even seven) figures. It's complicated, artful, and glorious.
Here, a deeper look at the 600's special brand of genius. Enjoy.
1. It was purchased by a bunch of dictatorial sociopaths who didn't mind killing other people. And Jack Nicholson.
Because for many years the 600 was the most luxurious and obnoxiously refined vehicle on the planet, the rich and famous swarmed to it. Most everyone knows this. Everyone knows, too, that der Grosser was a favorite of heads of state—the 600's massive, imposing bodywork says nothing so much as I Am Coming to Rule Your Face, Peons, and I Will Drive Over Your Brain if You Don't Agree.
What isn't widely known is the extent of the car's ownership roster. On a 2009 episode of the British television show Top Gear, co-host James May rattled off the following list of confirmed 600 owners: Leonid Brezhnev, Fidel Castro, Nicolae Ceauşescu, Idi Amin Dada, Enver Hoxha, Hirohito, Saddam Hussein, Mao Tse Tung, and Marshal Josip Broz Tito. Other owners reportedly included Irish leader Éamon de Valera, Iranian Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Korean dingbats Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, Ferdinand Marcos, Deng Xiaoping, and Cambodian king Norodom Sihanouk. Time magazine says King Hussein of Jordan ordered one when new, as did Archbishop Makarios III of Cyprus and Indonesian president Suharto.
But wait! There's more! Confirmed celebrity owners include Elvis Presley, George Harrison, John Lennon, Hugh Hefner, Jamiroquai's Jay Kay (he bought Coco Chanel's old car), and Jack Nicholson, who purchased his after driving it in The Witches of Eastwick. Harrison even bought Lennon's old car when the latter moved to the United States from Britain, so he had two. Fancy, eh?
2. The 600's legendary hydraulic system, which powers everything from the reclining rear seats to the sunroof, is remarkably complex and can be frighteningly durable if you don't make a simple mistake and kill it.
The 600's specially designed, engine-driven hydraulic system controls the windows, the front and rear power seats, the fresh-air ventilation system, door closure, trunk closure, the sunroof, and suspension damping. It runs on mineral oil and operates at a nominal 3200 psi. It was dreamed up as a way to provide the car with absolutely silent accessory operation, and it is, in a word, amazing.
Middelhauve on the system's durability:
"The problem is, once you have a small leak in the system, you go to [an inexperienced] mechanic, he looks at it, it's red fluid, so he pours in transmission fluid. But the oil in the 600's system is mineral-based, not synthetic. If you consistently refill it with transmission fluid, it eats up the rubber seals. It takes about two years or so, and then the car is like a sieve. Fluid fills the doors and seeps out of the bottoms.
"The other thing is, the wrong fluid also affects pump performance. And when you have a wear factor in the pump pushing 3200 psi against a dead [suspension] air cylinder, the pressure can swing to twice that or more. That ultimately ruins the pump. The cylinder has a piston with nitrogen on one end at about 1000 psi, and if the gas cushion wears down, then the pump only will operate the car when it's running. All this takes years, though. If you service the system right with the right fluid, it's not that bad."
No, of course not. Sounds simple enough, right?
There's also this: "If a line breaks, the stream of hydraulic fluid can go right into your finger. It's just like a knife."
Good to know.
3. A window can take your arm off. The window switch, which makes it possible to take your arm off, costs $11,200.
The 600's windows are operated by a variable-rate switch—essentially a pressure-sensitive valve body that lives in the door and routes fluid to the window regulators.
When lowering the window, this switch acts in a simple on-off fashion; push it, the window moves at one speed. When raising the window, however, the switch offers a variable rate—pressing it gently creeps the glass up, but nailing it slams the window shut fast enough to slice off a body part. You can hear it whunk into the door. It sounds like a cleaver pounding into a chopping block.
For some ungodly reason, this switch, which also operates all four windows from the driver's side, currently retails for $11,200 from Mercedes-Benz. Fortunately, it can be repaired for a more reasonable price. The suspension-height switch—the cockpit valve that adjusts the 600's ride height—goes for a more manageable $1400.
And you thought your old S-class hoopty was a money hole.
4. You can break the trunk hinges with your bare hands.
Like virtually everything else here, the 600's trunk open/close mechanism is powered by 3200 psi of pressurized oil. Pull the lever beneath the lid, the trunk pops open. Push it—without touching the lid, natch—the trunk closes. Quickly. Attempt to push the lid closed with your hands and you can bend the trunk hinges.
Yes, that's right: This car is so fancy you can break the trunk by trying to close it yourself. But really, who expects to close a lid with their hands, anyway? ("Rich people do not touch things, dahling. We have people and buttons for that.")
5. Its designer, Paul Bracq, wasn't a one-hit wonder.
Here we have a man with one hell of a résumé: In 1953, Paul Bracq, the 600's designer, graduated from the École Boulle, the famous art and design school in Paris. In 1957, after a short stint in the military, he became chief of Mercedes-Benz's advanced design studio in Sindelfingen. He's credited with the 1960s "Pagoda" SL and the W108/109, W111, and W114/115 sedans. After leaving the company in 1967, he did consultant work and helped design France's high-speed TGV passenger train.
It doesn't stop there. Bracq was chief of BMW design from 1970 to 1974. He's responsible for the shape and detail of the E12 5-series, the 2002 Turbo, the E21 3-series, the E24 6-series, and the E23 7-series. He also penned the two 1970s BMW Turbo concept cars, the functional design studies that presaged Munich's M1 supercar. Shortly after leaving BMW, he landed at Peugeot, where he designed interiors for more than two decades. He now lives in France, where he devotes his time to his career as a world-renowned painter.
Did we mention how we've done nothing with our lives?
6. Its front suspension is shared with no other Mercedes model of the period.
The 600's independent front suspension can be summed up in two words: ball joints. Where lesser Mercedes-Benzes used a service-intensive and wear-prone kingpin setup, the Grosser featured front uprights located by ball joints. This was a technically progressive move for the time—remember, the 600 came out in 1963—and from a company not known for rapid adoption of engineering advancements. No other Mercedes of the era was so equipped.
7. History has seen stiffer, heavier, and more ridiculous private limousines. But this one was built out of industrial-grade, bunker-busting German bluster. Fittingly, it's all but indestructible.
Middelhauve on the 600's construction: "Because of the mass and the construction of the car, the [600's] plain chassis was stiffer than an entire [W112, 1961–1967] 300 sedan. You jack a wheel up at the front, the rear wheel goes off the ground, too. It's so stiff, so stable. As for the rest, the steel that's in there—I haven't seen a 600 where the rockers are rusted through. It just doesn't happen."
Every piece of 600 trim, both interior and exterior, is handmade or hand-finished. Everything is custom-fit to each individual car—the brightwork, for example, was all produced, ground to fit, and then sent off to be plated.
Note: The 600's three-pointed-star hood ornament is roughly 20 percent bigger than the hood ornament fitted to other Mercedes-Benzes of the same era. Same for the trunk badges. Blame the car's massive scale, the importance of proportion in good design, and a bunch of absurdly anal-retentive Germans. God bless 'em.
8. The twin-tone horn is loud enough to relaunch the Titanic.
Two horns. One rocker switch on the dash, just above the steering column. One side of the switch is blank; the other features a pictogram that looks like a flugelhorn or something.
Tap the switch one way, you get a normal car horn. Tap it the other way, you get the Queen Mary'scompressed-air monster hooter, a godlike bellow so loud it causes sidewalks to crumble and makes nearby squirrels explode.
Or, you know, you can do it next to a schoolyard on a sunny spring day in Los Angeles, like we did, and create a pack of cheering, screaming, jumping kids. Perfect.
9. The parking brake is magic. As is the cowl vent, the trunk-mounted hydraulic spares kit, and just about everything else.
The footwell-mounted parking brake releases automatically when you put the car into drive or reverse. If this doesn't sound impressive, try that in your '63 Chevy.
The cowl vent, a retractable, body-colored steel panel that sits in front of the windshield, is—surprise—hydraulically operated. It's controlled by a switch on the dash: Open it, the panel silently drops into the cowl and fresh air comes gushing onto your feet. Close it, the air shuts off. (It's open in the above photo.) You end up playing with the vent at stop lights just to watch it glide into place. Mesmerizing.
A vacuum system locks all four doors, while the hydraulic system helps draw them closed so you don't have to slam them. There's a three-way switch on the steering column that lets you vary pressure in the hydraulic-suspension dampers. The hydraulic spares kit in the trunk contains small brass spacers; they're to be used to keep the power seats from collapsing if the hydraulic system fails. The kit also contains three hydraulic blocks, three line connections, a set of hydraulic line plugs and clips, four wood wedges to insert in the window channels to keep the windows up, a spare hydraulic flex line, an instruction booklet, and an oil container. Current cost to replace the kit: more than $3000.
10. You could have a 600 built however you wanted, and many people did.
From 1963 to 1981, Mercedes built a mere 2677 600s. Only 428 of these were the famous Pullman model, essentially a long-wheelbase sedan. Three hundred four were standard four-doors, 124 were six-door jump-seat models; of this total, 59 were Landaulets, with convertible tops over the rear passengers. Forty-one were armored. One was built with a high roof for the Vatican. One coupe was built as a prototype in 1965. All hailder Grosser—we'll not see its like again.