Today, Mercedes-Benz isn’t quite as far up in the ultra-luxury stratosphere it used to be. A well-optioned S-Class runs well into the six-figure range, and the company’s Maybach-badged S600 is one of the finest cars money can buy, but it just doesn’t have that rarefied cachet that it once did. Try as it might — and again, it is an astonishing car — the $190,000-plus range-topper came out with three strikes against it. The first is the Rolls-Royce Ghost Series II. The second is the Bentley Flying Spur. The final is the car’s namesake, an automotive masterpiece that was unlike anything the world has ever seen before, and is unlikely to ever see again.
Grand. Not “Executive,” not “Long Wheel Base,” or “Platinum,” or “Black Series” any other empty-sounding modern platitude tacked onto the decklid of a modern luxury car. The car was simply grand. It was the Grosser in Mercedes-Benz 600 Grosser, a stand-alone model that was perfectly summed up by that elegant, old-fashioned word; one that can convey everything from a centuries-old estate to a multi-million dollar yacht in the Mediterranean with just the right amount of hyperbole and understatement. And the 600 was of that world, more so than any other car built after World War II. It was an understated, upright car that looked both timeless and modern, and defined wealth and power in the final decades of the 20th century.
Like Mercedes itself, the 600 has a complicated history. It was the first car to earn the Grosser title since the 1930-’43 770 Grosser, the car infamously favored by Adolf Hitler. And like its predecessor, the 600 attracted the attention of some of the most brutal tyrants the world has ever known. Pol Pot, Mao Zedong, the Shah of Iran, Idi Amin, Saddam Hussein, Ferdinand Marcos, Leonid Brezhnev, and Kim Il-sung all loved their Grossers. But it wasn’t all autocrats and dictators — John Lennon, George Harrison, Pope Paul VI, Queen Elizabeth II, Elizabeth Taylor, Elvis Presley, Aristotle Onassis, Jack Nicholson, and Coco Chanel favored them too. Its level of exclusivity proved intoxicating to hero and villain alike, and as a result, the car reigned supreme (and relatively unchanged) for an astonishing 17 years.
But the Grosser was no hollow status symbol — in fact, it was nothing short of an engineering marvel. It was developed without any consideration to cost, and as a result, it was the most expensive car of its day. Starting at $20,000 in 1965 (or roughly $152,000 today), each car was built to the customer’s exact specifications, and as a result, few, if any are exactly alike. To put the car perspective, a contemporary Road and Track review said:
If, instead of buying a Mercedes 600, you invested the same amount of money in other cars you could get a Lincoln Continental, a Buick Riviera, two Pontiac GTOs and still have enough change left over for two and a half or three Volkswagens. The Mercedes 600 is not an ordinary car.
And that’s putting it mildly. Introduced in 1963 as a ’64 model, the 600 rode on its own platform, the W100. Available in a driver-oriented 126-inch wheelbase model and a 153.5 inch limousine model, the Grosser stood apart from the already fading Cadillac Fleetwood 75 and the baroque Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud with its gorgeous Bruno Sacco-Paul Bracq penned design looked throughly modern at a time when America was still getting over tailfins.
While rival Rolls-Royce withheld technical figures while assuring customers that performance was “more than adequate,” Mercedes designed the Grosser to be an adept autobahn cruiser. Equipped with a fuel-injected, 250 horsepower 6.3 liter V8, the nearly three-ton car was engineered to cruise all day at 100 miles per hour, and reach a top speed of over 130. This kind of power resulted in some of the greatest acts of automotive hooliganism in history. In 1965 for example, Sterling Moss nearly broke the Saloon Class record at England’s Brands Hatch racetrack — with six people on board. Raising the stakes even higher, actor William Holden, of Sunset Boulevard and Network fame, rallied his.
But aside from Grosser’s luxury and speed was its piece de resistance: its hydraulic suspension system. While cars from Citröen to Rolls-Royce used a hydro-pneumatic system to keep the ride comfortable on any terrain, the Grosser used hydraulics for everything. On top of the suspension, the seats, sunroof, windows, trunk, air vents, were all connected by hundreds of feet of hydraulic tubing, allowing highly-pressurized mineral oil to operate it all without a sound. After all, Mercedes thought, why inconvenience important clients with the uncivilized sound of an electric motor? The result is almost otherworldly; it’s one of the most complex cars ever built, but its features move with a speed and precision that even today’s luxury cars can’t reproduce.
Grosser production came to an end in 1981, after 2,677 cars had been built. Of those, just 59 were the famous Laundolet limousine convertible models, have become so valuable that a non-running basket case sold at auction last year for nearly $600,000. And basket case Grossers aren’t something to be taken lightly; it’s estimated that a rough and running 600 could take $50,000 worth of work to get sorted, completely neglected models could easily cost another six figures to get back up on the road. But it’s worth it — as famous current owners like Jay Leno and Jeremy Clarkson are quick to point out, the 600 isn’t just the best luxury car of its era, it could be the greatest luxury car of all-time.