Today’s post evolved out of last Tuesday’s post about Maybach – the man and the car – and e-mails between myself, “B-Squared”, “Ships Log” and “PacDoc56.”
A splendid 1970 Mercedes-Benz 600, one of only 2,677 Große Mercedes built between 1963 and 1981. An amazing six of these magnificent cars went to Amarillo, Texas which at the time had a population of only 125,000.
The “tao of Safeway” logo designed by Walter Landor.
The Große Mercedes, Amarillo and Gina Lollobrigida
When I was working in a store for the supermarket chain Safeway in Amarillo, TX in the early 1970s, I marveled – and still marvel – at the fact that there were six Große Mercedes in Amarillo, a town of only 125,000 at the time. These six magnificent Mercedes were owned by several Old Money oil and ranch families. They all shopped the Safeway where I worked – or more correctly – their black maids shopped that store.
One exception was Mrs. Bivens. She was from one of the Old Money ranch families. It is hardly an exaggeration to write that the Bivens family owned 1/3 of the vast Texas Panhandle. Rather than sending her maid to the store, Mrs. Bivens insisted on doing her own shopping, but she was driven to the store in her Große Mercedes by her black driver, James. It was quite a ritual for her to shop. She always wore her fur coat – even on days the Texas sun was blazing. With James pushing the shopping cart, Mrs. Bivens would point at what she wanted on the shelf and James would dutifully get it and put it in the cart. She always looked a lot like this:
One day I was hanging ad signs in the canned vegetable section. Mrs. Bivens and James came into the aisle. I looked up and greeted them. She looked at me over her half-lens glasses and in her stuffy style asked, “Young man, where might I find the peeled Italian Toe-mah-toes?” My mischievous streak took over and I replied in my best imitation of W.C. Fields’ voice, “Well, my little chickadee, the last peeled Italian Toe-mah-toe I’ve seen was in a Gina Lollobrigida movie.” Gina Lollobrigida was a hot item at the box office in those days and had recently scandalized the movie industry and audiences alike by peeling off her top and shorts and taking a nude swim in a film. Thus the “peeled Italian tomato” analogy.
Gina Lollobrigida – this Italian Tomato scandalized the movie industry when she peeled for a swim in a movie back in those long-lost days when we were more modest.
Mrs. Bivens was astounded by my cheekiness – and James was nearly doubled over, fighting hard to keep from laughing out loud. She stormed off and reported me to the Store Manager, Clyde Eicke, who tracked me down intending to chew my @$$, but he was laughing so hard tears were rolling down his cheeks …
There is another German connection to my days in Amarillo. Rather than the thirty six year career I had at Safeway – a path that brought me from the stores in Amarillo to California and Safeway’s corporate office, I had intended to become an English teacher. While working for Safeway in Amarillo, I attended West Texas A&M University in Canyon, a few miles south. I did my Student Teaching assignment at Amarillo High School. One of the classes I taught was a Senior Honors Student class. A girl named Kira Harris was in that class. She was the great-granddaughter of Kaiser Wilhelm II. Her mother had married a GI from Amarillo, Clyde Harris and the couple settled in Amarillo after the war. Kira summered at the Hohenzollern family castle in Germany:
The Mercedes-Benz 600
A right-hand drive version of the Große Mercedes
The Mercedes-Benz 600 series was introduced in 1963 with actual production beginning in 1964. Intended for use by heads of State, CEOs, film stars and other dignitaries, the Große Mercedes was built to be driven by chauffeurs. Thus most of them were built with divider windows. The last of the series was built in 1981. Mercedes didn’t offer a truly comparable car until it re-introduced the Maybach (pronounced “MY-bock”) in 2002.
Only 2,677 600s were built – but it was never intended to be a volume car. The 600 was built in short and long wheelbase versions. The long wheelbase version was offered with either four or six doors. There was also a special Landaulet version of which 59 were constructed. The short wheelbase version accounts for 2,190 units. The long wheelbase version tallied 428 cars. There were three coupe versions built – two by Mercedes and one was constructed from a short wheelbase version by a private company. One of the two coupes built by Mercedes was a gift to their legendary chief engineer, Rudolf Uhlenhaut, upon his retirement. Uhlenhaut, along with Fritz Nallinger and Karl Wilfert, had designed the 600. Uhlenhaut was also the “father” of another famous Mercedes, the 300 SL. Frenchman Paul Bracq was heavily involved in the styling of the 600, known internally at Daimler-Benz as the W100.
Bracq also designed the wonderful 230-250-280 SL “Pagoda” coupe series and the W108/109/114/115 Mercedes sedans of that era. The Bivens and Wagner families were well-stocked with these cars, too. It is no exaggeration to say that these two families were the principal customers for the local Mercedes-Benz dealer, Amarillo Imports.
Above: Paul Bracq-designed 280 SL “Pagoda” coupe. Below: Bracq was also responsible for the W108/109 sedans, seen here in the 300 SEL 6.3 format. The 6.3 liter V-8 in this car is the same as used in the Große Mercedes 600.
Among the amenities of the 600 was a hydraulic system that operated the windows, door locks, doors and even the trunk lid. The cars also had an adjustable air suspension system.
At the time of the 600’s introduction in 1963, the largest engine Daimler-Benz built for its Mercedes cars was the 3 liter inline overhead camshaft six. While it was a very fine six, it was not up to the task of powering the 600. That job was given to a specially-built 6.3 liter V-8, the first V-8 for Mercedes. The V-8 was an overhead camshaft engine fitted with Bosch mechanical fuel injection and a dry sump. Despite its bulk and weight, only the Porsche 911 was faster than a Große Mercedes.
The 600’s V-8 engine and air suspension were fitted to the 300 SEL 6.3 model in 1968, providing the lighter (and more affordable) car with potent propulsion, making it a luxury hot rod. Upon the introduction of the “W116” chassis in 1972, a larger version of the V-8 was installed in the limited-production Mercedes-Benz 450 SEL 6.9.
The Mercedes 600 attracted its target buyers. It also attracted many buyers Mercedes probably would have preferred not to have. Desirable owners included Coco Chanel, Hugh Hefner, Elizabeth Taylor, John Lennon, Aristotle Onassis, Jack Nicholson, Japan’s Emperor Hirohito, Elvis Presley, and Rowan Atkinson. Not so desirable owners included Communist leaders Nicolae Ceauşescu, Josip Broz-Tito, Mao Zedong, Fidel Castro, Pol Pot, Enver Hoxha, Leonid Brezhnev, and Kim Il-Sung. African “revolutionaries” Idi Amin Dada and Jomo Kenyatta ordered 600s. Former Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos had four 600s including a Landaulet, a 1981 bulletproof version and a six-door version. Many leaders and “revolutionaries” opted for the Mercedes-Benz as opposed to Rolls-Royce due to the latter marque’s close association with the British Empire. There is no small amount of irony here as Mercedes, with its German roots, was associated with dictators Kaiser Wilhelm II and Adolph Hitler. That aside, the Große Mercedes remains one of the grandest vehicles ever produced.
A long wheelbase “Pullman” Mercedes 600. That’s a M-B 300 “Adenauer” to its left.