Classic & Sports Car, April 1999

Immediately after Mercedes-Benz unveiled its elephantine Maybach limousine at the October '97 Tokyo Motor Show, the company's top brass was forced to don flak jackets and tin helmets to counter the abuse being hurled at it. How could the firm behind the diddy A-class and eco-friendly SMART produce such a monstrous symbol of conspicuous consumption?
Backtrack to the 1963 Frankfurt International Motor Show and it was a very different story. The marque's newly launched, super-indulgent 600 was lauded as the world's finest luxury car, fêted as peerless by all who drove it. In an age when flaunting your wealth wasn't a crime, the 600 was the automotive equivalent of Monaco. The big Merc was a grand motor car in every sense. Every component, part or panel was designed from scratch, cost apparently of negligible importance. The Stuttgart firm's primary intention was for it to act as a publicity-raking blunt instrument with which to hammer its rivals. The car was to set new standards of safety, comfort, performance and road holding. It succeeded with aplomb.

Powered by an all-alloy 6.3-litre (386cu in) V8 and riding on air suspension, the 600 was a revelation. A vacuum system locked all four doors, boot lid and filler cap, drawing the doors closed so there was never any need to slam them (later cars used hydraulics). Everything was power assisted, the 130mph supersaloon a display of teutonic muscle-flexing that had its rival running for cover. As porcine aviators circled its Crewe factory, Rolls-Royce denounced the Merc's technical trickery, stating it was doomed to certain failure, while valiantly espousing the merits of its Silver Cloud's separate chassis construction, drum brakes and live rear axle on semi-elliptics.
Half of Who's Who? bought 600s and one only has to observe old newsreels of some tin pot Third World monarch sweeping disdainfully past his subjects or rock legend disappearing from a nightclub in a blaze of flashbulbs to spot one. The Merc's extravagant brochure spoke prophetically of "Many of the decisions affecting peoples' lives in years to come will be made in the back of 600s." And now it wasn't just marketing. Owners included pontiffs (Pope Paul VI), dictators (Idi Amin, Marshal Tito) and cultural icons (John Lennon). Built at Benz's Sindelfingen works, its 18-year lifespan was the longest for any single Mercedes model. From August 1963 to June '81, a paltry 2677 cars were produced of which 59 were the assassins' favourite, landaulettes with convertible rear quarter roofs, and 428 massive six-door Pullman limousines. Seeing one today, it's difficult to take in the 600's sheer scale. It looks like any other '60s Merc, only bigger. Much, much bigger. Even the standard 'short wheelbase' version is close to 20ft long. Wide, too, at 6ft 5ins. No wonder they called it Der Grosser Mercedes.

This 1967 example, from Surrey dealer Key Garage, is monstrous, its slab-sided, square-rigged body seemingly hewn from solid stone. In fact it looks faintly sinister, a refugee from some Cold War thriller, whose austere exterior is relieved only by large chunks of chrome. So it's with an air of trepidation that one ventures inside. Clamber up into the driver's flat, wide and surprisingly bouncy armchair, depress a little control on the side and hydraulic rams push you forwards, up, down, backwards and sideways. The same hydraulic circuit also operates the windows and bootlid.

Ahead, the big, ugly steering wheel fronts a beautifully polished dark walnut plank littered with a bewildering array of dials, gauges, knobs and levers. Some of these serve no discernible purpose but look impressive nonetheless. Not surprisingly, the 600's no inch-pincher; rear-ferried passengers can wear stilts and still be fully comfortable while it's not exactly a tight fit up front. You can stretch out your arms and still be in no danger of touching anyone.

Everywhere you look there are novel details. Between the front seats on the back of which sit air-conditioning controls for the rear cabin - there's a refrigerated box, home to four glass tumblers and a flask. Curtains around the rear windows shield rear occupants from prying eyes. Oh the glamour of it all.

As it fires, the V8 doesn't emit the expected throaty burble, more a muted, luxuriant murmur. Under load, it never sounds strained. Sitting in traffic it's barely audible, causing one to check the rev counter to see if it's still running. Producing 250bhp at 4000rpm, and a stump-pulling 370lb ft of torque, this silky smooth unit endows the 600 with a disarming turn of speed. Weighing nigh-on three tons, you expect the car not so much to accelerate, more to gain momentum, but it's actually quick, reaching 60mph in comfortably under 10 secs with no real sense of urgency. There's no frantic rise in revs, no jerky changes from the four-speed epicyclic auto 'box and no nose-to-the-stars attitude. Contemporary reports talk of 130mph which, considering the car's enormous frontal area, is mightily impressive.

According to Autocar (circa 1967), you can: 'toss a 600 through bends like a sports car'. Journalists were obviously a lot braver in those days. Or just omitted to mention that, once tossed, the car's flailing tail could take out a small cottage. This is no sporting chariot, although it's remarkably agile' considering its size, and feels smaller the more time you spend behind the wheel. The power-assisted steering is light yet direct with plenty of feel, which makes accurately positioning the Merc that much easier. Body roll is negligible and there's none of the expected plough-on understeer.

Discs with separate hydraulic circuits are used all round and afford incredible stopping power, the front wishbone pivots angled to provide an anti-dive effect under braking. Over undulating surfaces the 600 is sublime, the self-levelling suspension soaking up the bumps. You still hear the occasional thump from the tyres as they traverse a pothole but no resonance ever reaches the cockpit -- heaven forbid Mr. Captain of Industry should spill his gin and tonic.

That the 600 received so many votes comes as no surprise. It's a masterpiece of engineering, a quantum leap over its opposition, and redefines the word opulence. Utterly magnificent, even now there's nothing quite like it.