by James Kraus
For me, the Mercedes-Benz 600 will always be the gold standard by which large passenger cars are judged. By virtue of its size the 600 was imposing and magisterial, but due to its simple and elegant minimalist design, it was in no way ostentatious. It could be thought of as a Bauhaus limousine built to the less is more and God is in the details tenets of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.
This car burst upon the scene in 1963 (first production in 1964) as a totally new and quite different concept in the rarefied world of exclusive automobiles. Prior to the 600, the choices in such a vehicle were the Daimler DR450, a Rolls Royce Phantom V or a Cadillac Fleetwood 75.
While imbued with old-world elegance and the finest Connolly hides, West of England cloth and Wilton carpets (often overlaid with lambswool rugs), the Daimler and Rolls could be seen as a bit baroque and stuffy in the midst of the new jet age. They were also designed with the focus on letting the chauffeur attend to the driving.
The Cadillac, overflowing with all the latest electrical assists, was still (though considerably toned down from the late ’50’s) quite flamboyant with rear fins, a toothsome front grille, and an ersatz rear grille to match. It too was no driver’s car, still riding atop GM’s full size X-frame chassis of 1959 with drum brakes, over-boosted steering and minimal damping.
The 600 represented a new concept in luxury transport. The Paul Bracq design was simple and elegant with a slim flat roof, narrow C-pillars, generous glass area and large rear wheel openings producing an athletic, agile and modern look that differentiated it immediately from competitors. The athleticism was not mere allusion; the 600’s advanced technical specification endowed it with a sporting character previously unknown in large luxury cars.
A dramatic and unexpected move by Mercedes, the new 600 represented a rank a number of steps above its previous flagship sedan, the 300SEL “Heckflosse” (Fintail). The standard short-wheelbase 600 was fully 56 cm (22 inches) longer than the long-wheelbase version of the 300 and its V8 engine, at 6.3 litres, was over double the capacity of the 300SEL’s 3.0 litre six.
A technical tour de force, the 600 bristled with sophisticated engineering. There was little really new per se; it was more a matter of assembling all the best features into a single automobile for the first time. The fuel-injected, overhead-cam 6.3 litre engine was the most advanced 8-cylinder engine in the world upon its launch. The only one to approach it was the limited-production Maserati 5.0 litre 4-cam unit which powered the 5000GT. Power was delivered to the independently sprung rear wheels through a four-speed MB automatic gearbox and a limited-slip differential. Maximum speed according to company literature was listed as “approximately 205 kph (127 mph).”
The chassis featured self-levelling independent air-hydraulic suspension on all four wheels with anti-roll bars both front and rear. In addition to the self-levelling feature, the driver could adjust both the ride height (through a range of 50 mm/2″) and the stiffness of the damping (soft, medium, or firm) from the cockpit. Its 9.00H-15 tires, specially developed for the 600, were the widest ever fitted to a production car. If occasion demanded, this was a luxury sedan that could be hustled along a twisty road without shedding its dignity.
A separate hydraulic system was used to energize, by push button control, the front and rear power seats, power windows, sunroof, power boot lid (up and down) and power-assisted door closing (one didn’t slam the doors of a 600, just eased them to within a few millimetres of closing, the hydraulics performed the final closing and latching). The system operated at an amazing 175 bar (2,500 psi) and each vehicle contained a network of nearly 300 meters of hydraulic tubing. As a result, when moving the seats, or raising a window, the pedestrian whirr of an electric motor was never heard, only the sound of silence.
If a supplier couldn’t come up with components needed for an automobile of this magnitude, Mercedes simply doubled up. Thus each front disc brake had two calipers, and the engine had not one, but two alternators, with a combined output of 980 watts.
Should one suffer the indignity of a flat tire, there was no need for the driver or chauffeur to strain their back lifting the spare tire from its compartment, it was mounted on a bracket that was counterbalanced with a compensating spring.
There were no visible joints in the chromed window frames of the doors. They were made of brass, mitred, brazed, ground, polished and chrome plated. The rear doors were equipped with inner glass wind deflectors set at an angle so that no buffeting would disturb rear passengers if they lowered a window. If it was privacy they desired, curtains were provided that could be drawn across the rear window and rear quarter panes.
Available in short wheelbase 4-door, or long wheelbase Pullman in either 4 or 6-door configurations as well as landaulet and armoured versions, the 600 covered the top end of the market like no other. It had a stately majesty that was hard to match. The official brochure stated its case succinctly: In its exterior styling it avoids unnecessary ornamentation and passing fashions in order to achieve a timeless elegance. Today’s luxury cars often look forced and contrived in comparison.
The passenger compartment was just as understated, eschewing the brocaded boudoir look of American luxury cars of the day, and avoiding the over-styling that afflicts many contemporary interiors.
The 600 was the only top echelon luxury car ever built that did not draw undue attention to itself. It presented the standard Mercedes frontal appearance and if anything, was less ostentatious than the 300SEL. Only its sheer size could betray the lofty price of admission. A 600 revealed its owner as a person of means only through a quiet whisper, not the trumpet blare that would accompany the arrival of a Rolls Royce, the far less expensive Maserati Quattroporte, or even a Cadillac.
To this day, there is no more appropriate car with which to arrive in the company of two or three accomplices, elegantly yet subtly, for dinner at El Bulli, a ski holiday at the Kulm in St. Moritz (raising the suspension a notch and exploiting the traction afforded by the limited slip differential) or a night of high stakes Baccarat Banque in Monte-Carlo.
Grosse Mercedes Grand Mercedes W100 M100