At one point in time, Mercedes-Benz built, arguably, the finest luxury automobiles in the world. In its postwar recovery, the automaker shifted focus towards more practical (and more affordable) family sedans, followed by cars of a more sporting nature. By the early 1960s, however, Rudolf Uhlenhaut felt the time had come for Mercedes-Benz to reestablish itself as a builder of ultra-premium models, ones where, in his words, “costs were of secondary importance.” The result was the Mercedes-Benz 600 series, and on Saturday, May 7, a 1969 Mercedes-Benz 600 limousine, one of 279 such models built that year, will cross the block at Auctions America’s Auburn Spring sale.
For employees of Mercedes-Benz tasked with the project, designing the 600 series was both a blessing and a curse. Since the model had no predecessor in the Mercedes-Benz lineup, engineers could start with a blank sheet of paper, reimagining everything a premium luxury automobile could be. The down side to this was that engineers HAD to start with a blank sheet of paper, as doing anything less would not have satisfied the expectations of Uhlenhaut and others in senior management.
The body was designed by Paul Bracq, the man responsible for the styling of the Pagoda roof SL models (and later, the BMW 2002 Turbo). Instead of a traditional body-on-frame design, the 600 series used unit-body construction, and as Sam Smith explained in the July 2011 issue of Car and Driver, the body was stiff enough that jacking up a front wheel also raised the rear wheel off the ground. Considering the short wheelbase limousine variant had a 126-inch wheelbase, that fact is impressive indeed.
Designing an all-new car meant designing an all-new engine, and the 600 received an overhead camshaft 6.3-liter V-8 that used mechanical fuel injection instead of carburetion. Output was rated at 300 horsepower (SAE) and 434 pound-feet of torque, and to ensure that customers experienced no trouble with the M100 engine, each hand-assembled unit was run in for over four hours on a test bench. A conventional transmission wouldn’t do, either, so Mercedes-Benz engineers developed a four-speed automatic that allowed drivers to shift manually if desired, maintaining a selected gear.
All 600 models rode on a pneumatic suspension that could be adjusted for comfort on the fly. For rough roads, ride height could be raised by as much as two inches, and the driver could further fine-tune ride quality by adjusting the car’s hydraulic dampers (via a lever on the steering wheel). Disc brakes were used in all four corners, with separate hydraulic systems used for the front and rear circuits. Power assist was via compressed air instead of vacuum, ensuring effortless and repeatable stops from the car’s published 120-MPH top speed (for the five-passenger limousine variant; seven-passenger Pullman models had a slightly lower top speed).
As impressive as the rest of the car was, however, its biggest break from convention was the hydraulic system that operated the windows, power seats, sunroof, doors, trunk, suspension damping and ventilation system. While lesser vehicles used electric motors to regulate many of these functions, the Mercedes-Benz engineers believed that if cost was no object, hydraulic systems, operating at a nominal pressure of 3,200 psi, would be smoother, quieter and longer-lasting. Generally speaking this was the case, but servicing such a system is best left to professionals, and replacement parts (aside from conventional hydraulic fittings) won’t be available at local auto parts stores.
The Mercedes-Benz 600 debuted in limousine and Pullman forms at the 1963 Frankfurt Auto Show, with a special-order landaulet version arriving in 1965. Though offered in standard configurations, customers were free to specify custom features, and it’s been said that few 600 models are alike. Even in off-the-shelf form, the cars boasted solid wood inlays (no veneer here), stainless steel trim and separate HVAC systems for driver and passenger. The 600s remained in production from 1963 until 1981, and owing to their stratospheric price ($23,007 for the five-passenger limousine in 1969), just 2,677 units were ever assembled.
The list of celebrity owners is a lengthy one. Hugh Hefner had one, and so did the Pope. John Lennon and George Harrison both owned 600s, but so did Nicolae Ceausescu, Pol Pot and Idi Amin. The Mercedes-Benz 600 was apparently popular in North Korea, as Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il and Jim Jong-un were photographed, at different times, enjoying a 600 landaulet, and Saddam Hussein reportedly owned a 600 landaulet that now belongs to the Petersen Museum. Even Ernst Stavro Blofeld, James Bond’s archenemy in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and Diamonds are Forever, rode in a Mercedes-Benz 600, but the truth is that the vast majority of owners weren’t heroes, villains or celebrities.
The exact history of the 1969 Mercedes-Benz 600 limousine heading to auction this Saturday isn’t specified, but it appears to be in good overall condition with fewer than 59,000 miles showing on the odometer. As a five-passenger model, this lacks the divider commonly found on Pullman variants, making it somewhat less formal (though no less of an automotive presence). In line with recent sales, Auctions America is predicting a selling price between $50,000 and $75,000.
For more information on the Auburn Spring sale, visit AuctionsAmerica.com.