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Introduced to the motoring world in 1963, the Mercedes-Benz 600 is undoubtedly one of Daimler-Benz’s greatest postwar achievements. Here were luxury and performance inspired by that of the great 770 Grosser Mercedes and the 540K. Even Daimler-Benz called it the “Grand Mercedes.”
Like its revered predecessors, the 600 was built for an exclusive clientele of royal and wealthy owners, and then only in limited numbers. The 600 had the longest production run in history for a single Mercedes-Benz model, an 18-year lifespan from August 1963 (as a 1964 model), up until June 1981. Only 2,677 cars were produced over that period with production at it’s highest in 1965, when 345 Limousines and 63 Pullmans were built. The last 600 built, a short-wheelbase sedan, went straight into the Mercedes-Benz museum collection.
The 600 was the most lavishly appointed production automobile ever manufactured by Mercedes-Benz, and among the most expensive. To put the value of these cars in perspective, the 600 Pullman Limousine’s price in 1963 was DM63,500, roughly $18,000 at the time. The last such car sold cost DM165,500, around $82,000. The standard 600 Limousine (if the term standard can even be applied) went from DM56,500 in 1964 to DM144,100 by 1981. The very last cars produced, a series of 15 600 limousines and five 600 Pullmans, had an average price in America of over $100,000! If one could still buy a new 600, the price would be considerably higher. Even the most expensive S-Class Mercedes of 2004 pales in comparison to the “Grand Mercedes,” a car that simply could not be affordably duplicated until DaimlerChrysler ventured into uncharted territory with the introduction of the Maybach in 2003.
Throughout its history, the 600 has been the voiture of choice for pontiffs and politicians, heads of state, captains of industry, and in royal fleets throughout the world. Among prominent passengers were King Hussein, Mao Tse-tung, Queen Elizabeth II, the late Shah of Iran, Marshal Tito, Prince Rainier, and the president of Romania. A number of European governments used 600s as official state cars, and even the Soviets chose the 600 for many of their embassies. The most recognized user was Pope Paul VI, who commissioned a special Landaulet in 1966. After 20 years of use by the Vatican, the car was donated to the Mercedes-Benz museum.
With one notable exception, the 600 series was built in four basic forms: the short-wheelbase Limousine, the longer-wheelbase Pullman Limousine (in four and six-door versions) and the similar but convertible-top Landaulet. This latter was the most rare and the most imposing. With its rear quarter roof lowered, the Landaulet was a parade car without equal. The standard landaulet version had four doors, rear seats in vis-à-vis configuration and a soft-top that reached to the front edge of the rear doors. A mere 59 examples were built, 10 of which had a longer top. Nearly as rare, and certainly as impressive, were the massive six-door Pullman Limousines, 428 of which were produced. The short-wheelbase, four-door Limousine was made in the greatest number: 2,190. Even more exclusive than the Landaulets, and like these not included on any price list, were the sedans and Pullman sedans in a special protection version with bulletproof glass and armor plating. The least produced was the two-door, a massive coupe with unparalleled performance. Mercedes-Benz built only two.
Regardless of body style, a mechanically fuel-injected, overhead cam V8 with a massive swept volume of 6,330cc, or 386 cubic-inches, powered all 600 models. The 90-degree v-form engine, designated M100, had a compression ratio of 9.0:1, bore and stroke of 103mm x 95mm and a peak output of 250 DIN (300 SAE) horsepower at 4,000 rpm. Peak DIN torque was an ample 369 lb-ft at 2,800 rpm and the SAE measurement was 434 lb-ft at 3,000 rpm. Long regarded for its supercharged straight eights, this was the German automaker’s first production V8 and it was used for the 600 line exclusively until 1968, when the 300SEL 6.3 was introduced.
Both the long (153.5-inch) and short (126-inch) wheelbase chassis gave the 600s massive proportions. The overall length for the short model was 18-feet, 2-inches, and the Pullmans stretched 20.5-feet from bumper to bumper. With relatively light curb weights of 5,340 to 5,731 pounds for the Limousine and 5,820 to 5,950 pounds for the Pullman, the 6.3-liter powerplant and its accompanying 4-speed automatic transmission could propel the cars to speeds well over 120mph, so they were not only luxurious, but fast. The rear axle ratio was 3.23:1 and European versions accelerated from zero to 60 in anywhere from 9.7 to about 12 seconds (depending on the body type and passenger load) and covered the standing start quarter-mile (in case one should need to make a hasty departure) in 17 seconds flat with a trap speed of 80 mph. Tests recorded top speeds of 129mph for the Limousine, and 124mph for the Pullman, again for European versions. Considering their mass, shape and frontal area, such speed was quite an accomplishment.
Suspension was similar to the later 300SEL 6.3, using compressor-fed air units. At the rear was the normal (for Mercedes-Benz) low-pivot swing axle. Brakes were all discs, with twin calipers at each front wheel. Fuel capacity was 29.6 gallons in all versions, and consumption averaged about 10 mpg. Tires measured 9.00 x 15 on 6Y2 x 15 wheels.
Rudolf Uhlenhaut, director of passenger car development for Daimler-Benz and the father of the legendary 300 SL, once said that the cost of building the 600 was of secondary importance. Virtually every part used in the cars was designed and built especially for that model. According to Uhlenhaut, the 600’s design demanded “Sufficient room for tall people; the best possible suspension; low body roll while cornering; a wide range of adjustability for all seats; well functioning ventilation, heating and air conditioning; silent operation of the whole car, and power assistance for all manual operations.” To help provide power for the many auxiliary systems, the engine drove two alternators, one on the left, and the other on the right. A total of five v-belts drove the two alternators, the air-conditioning compressor, the hydraulic pump, the cooling fan and the air compressor.
In terms of performance, the criteria were no less demanding. The 600 would require good roadholding, precise power-assisted steering, reliable brakes; tires suited to continued high-speed driving, adequate acceleration, and strong body construction and interior safety measures. The 600 was unlike any other car built. Its four-wheel independent and height-adjustable suspension provided an uncompromisingly smooth ride for passengers under virtually all road conditions. Settings for the hydraulic shock absorbers could be varied from soft to firm via a three-position lever on the steering column and should road conditions demand extra ground clearance, the car could be raised two inches! A pneumatic air bag system kept the car level no matter what the load.
Bringing the 600 to a stop was a sophisticated dual-circuit hydraulic power disc brake system consisting of separate front and rear units operated by compressed air. The parking brake was automatically released when the gear lever was moved from Neutral. And a compressed air horn warned off anyone who dared cross the mighty vessel’s bow.
Coachwork was built at the renowned Sindelfingen werk, which had produced bodies for the 540K. Each was handcrafted much in the same philosophy as the 770 Grosser Mercedes and 540K models of the 1930s. Interior dimensions were larger than those of any other contemporary limousine. Riders were cosseted by hand-sewn leather upholstery, luxurious wool carpeting and hand finished, grain-matched wood veneers for the dash, rear compartment and door trim. Early 600s had hydraulically assisted door-closing mechanisms (similar to today’s S-Class models), but this complicated feature was eventually dropped in the 1960s.
The cars were equipped with a vast array of special convenience features, such as central vacuum locking for doors and trunk, even a refrigerated bar. Hydraulics opened and closed the trunk lid, the power windows, the limousine divider window, the sunroof, the fuel filler door and the Landaulet’s top. The 600’s heating and ventilation system included a climate control, which could be set individually for front and back compartments. The usual radio had a remote control unit in the rear allowing the passenger to set the stations and volume. An intercom was also installed, and the front and rear seats were hydraulically operated. Thirteen interior lights kept things well illuminated and to discreetly shield diffident occupants from the stares of outsiders, all 600s had rear and side window drapes. Among the car’s most noted innovations were its remote-adjustable exterior rear-view mirrors, common today but a first in 1963.
Like the new Maybach, options for the 600 were limited only by practicality and the imagination and pocketbook of the buyer. Indeed, where the 600s were concerned, Daimler-Benz spared no expense. These were the finest cars that money could buy, or build.
The debut of the 600 model at the Frankfurt International Motor Show in September 1963 was a sensation. And now, 40 years later, the “Grand Mercedes” is being honored by an exhibition staged by Mercedes-Benz Classic at the Mercedes-Benz museum in Stuttgart.
With its innovative, comfort-oriented characteristics, and with its impressive visual appearance, the 600 attained the status of the ultimate representational vehicle for the world’s elite and rapidly became a significant status symbol among famous and prominent personalities. Over the course of this vehicle’s manufacturing period beginning just over 40 years ago, the most diverse and unusual customer requests were fulfilled regarding paint, interior appointments and special features, so that no two specimens are likely to be absolutely identical.
The exhibition “Mercedes-Benz 600: Embodiment of Excellence” recounts the history of the “Grand Mercedes” in various forms. At the center of attention are the people and personalities who were chauffeured in this car, or who sat at the wheel themselves: for example chauffeur Wolfgang Wöstendieck (who on commission from the German federal government drove more than 116 top-echelon visitors), Pope John Paul II, Queen Elizabeth, and John Lennon. The “Flying Doctor” Peter Schellhammer, who visited royal customers throughout the world in his capacity as vehicle care and maintenance expert, can also be encountered in this exhibition.
This rich history is brought to life by three vehicles from the Mercedes-Benz Museum collection, starting with the oldest sedan from 1963, via the elegant open-topped black landaulet, right up to the armored special-protection Pullman sedan—a vehicle that Daimler-Benz AG made available to the federal government for many years on the occasion of state and government visits, complete with chauffeur.
The exhibit, and every 600 on the road or in private collections today, represents one of the true high watermarks in the history of the automobile.
(Portions of this article were excerpted from the author’s book, Mercedes-Benz Silver Star Century, and the July 1987 issue of The Star, official publication of the Mercedes-Benz Club of America. To learn more about the great 600 series, we recommend the book, 600 The Grand Mercedes, by Michael Wiedmaier and Wulf H. Knetsch, published in a limited edition of 2,677 copies.)
By Dennis Adler
© Car Collector Magazine, LLC.
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Originally appeared in the March 2004 Issue
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