There is a great deal of magic in the “Grand Mercedes”. I still remember my very first encounter: it was a few years ago at the home of Dutch Mercedes-Benz enthusiast Nico Ockhuisen, whose collection of 130 stars near Amsterdam was housed in a hall (but now in his private automobile museum) on the grounds of his marina. Full of respect and astonishment, I circled Nico’s W 100: short wheelbase, built in 1971, dark maroon paint with cognac leather seats. The car had just 8,000 miles on the clock. A gentleman on wheels, a luxurious icon of automotive engineering stood there in front of me in the April sunshine. A self-assured, sovereign car with history and more than a few stories to tell. The first owner was a New York media mogul. Many of the first owners of the models in this series were business leaders, politicians, kings and world stars. I admired its elegantly sublime lines, settled into the rear seat, looked around me, stroked the leather and burl wood, closed the door and then closed my eyes. Silence and a sense of security settled in. It was as if, all of a sudden, time had stood still. As if I had not only sat down in a car, but entered a magical place. I was ... enchanted! Then I got behind the wheel and thought for a moment: “This is as good as it gets!” And I still think that. I had never experienced this intensity of feeling in any other car. And I have sat in many dream cars. This one was – no, is – a phenomenon for me. The king of the road.
“I find the vehicles of this series to be the perfect blend of power and elegance,” says Paul Bracq, the legendary designer of the 600 (the 89-year-old Frenchman was responsible for the design of the W 100 together with Friedrich Geiger and also created the “Pagoda” and the “Stroke Eight” designs). “Their driving characteristics are fantastic. It was always a pleasure to drive the 600. They are cars that have simply transcended all the vogues of the time and still, six decades later, remain definitive examples of long-lasting beauty.” A scant total of 2,190 saloons, 428 Pullman limousines and 59 Landaulets were built by probably the world’s best designers, engineers and technicians in a specially designated department in Sindelfingen between 1963 and 1981. When it was all said and done, 2,677 units left the factory. Every one of them a unique specimen. Everything on and in the cars is the culmination of pure passion, peerless perfection and handsome handiwork: around 50 working days went in to producing a saloon, the Pullman version was ready after 54 working days and the Landaulet took 91 days. Individual requests, no matter how exceptional, from customers on every major continent, were incorporated as far as possible. This is a point of honour, because the 600s were probably the most beautiful, most exclusive luxury class vehicles in the world at the time. Today they have long since become world stars themselves! You know what? Climb aboard and join us for a ride ...
An avenue of sycamores several hundred metres long takes us straight to the class supreme cars. “Landaulet, Pullman and saloon, we have them all here on our estate,” Clemens Hergeth, 64, had said when he invited us to join him and his family – wife Hana, 58, daughter Leticia, 18, son Carl, 23 – and his “favourite classics”.
We are in the leafy suburbs of Aachen, a city of around 250,000 inhabitants far in the west of Germany. Paddocks and meadows surrounded by woodland are to both left and right of the private avenue that leads across the entrepreneur’s extensive estate to the family home. There is also a small lake with two swans. This creates an almost picture-perfect setting for the luxury cars that we are about to lay eyes on for the first time. And then, there they are, casually lined up on the cobblestones in front of the stables: three short-wheelbase saloons, a Pullman limousine and, as a kind of crowning glory, a white Landaulet with six doors and a short hood.
Tea break: Clemens, Hana and Leticia happily take their “Landaulet tea”.
Luxury limousine: Son Carl chauffeurs the family dog Amy around the estate in the Landaulet.
“There were only three Landaulets built in this version. I know the other two owners too,” says Clemens. This particular Landaulet would probably no longer exist without him, he goes on to explain: “I came across the car because a French friend called me in 2007 and said he had received a Mercedes convertible with six doors from Africa. An acquaintance of his had got it from a truck driver who was about to dispose of it. It cost him a 20 dollar tip. It was clear to me that it was not a convertible that my French friend had bought, but a Landaulet. And it became my mission to save this car, to take its restoration in hand.”
So Clemens went to France, looked at “the completely destroyed Landaulet” and knew for certain: “It was going to be a huge challenge to restore it.” But he also knew that the car was worth getting back on its feet, “because it’s on record that the Pope sat in it when he visited some countries in Africa in the early 1980s.”
The restoration took more than ten years. Clemens did much of the work himself. He did this work with great pleasure. The six-door car has been on the road again for just under five years and is resplendent in all its beauty, both inside and out, including the many extras that the first African buyer had ordered: board bar, glass divider, tape recorder, Becker stereo radio with amplifier, TV, cassette holder in the glove compartment. No sooner had the white Landaulet been fully restored and also brought into almost perfect technical condition than Clemens and his son Carl chauffeured Formula 1 multi-champion Lewis Hamilton around the Hockenheimring as part of the supporting program of the 2019 German Grand Prix.
Enjoy a long, uninterrupted look at the Landaulet in motion between minutes 8:15 and 9:15, along with a short interview with Lewis Hamilton from inside the Landaulet between 10:45 and 11:20. “Mercedes-Benz had invited me to the drivers’ parade on the Ring. The lap with Hamilton in front of thousands of spectators was a real highlight in our lives so far, and was huge fun for Carl and me,” says Clemens. His eyes still light up when he remembers that special day. Yes, all that work with the Landaulet had paid off for him.
Now we go for a spin together. Hana, Leticia, Carl and hunting dog Amy also settled down on the red-brown leather seats in the representative vehicle, built in 1973. Back to the main road along the sycamore alley and then a short spin through the hilly Eifel landscape towards Monschau. Father and son take turns at the wheel. The top is opened on the way because the sun is coming out. Leticia and Carl say that their father took them to car shows, rallies and classic events at a very early age. “We also love the big limousines, we have some emotional experiences wrapped up with them,” says Leticia, who has just turned 18. “I’ve even driven some myself on our property.”
How did you get your passion for the 600, Clemens? The entrepreneur smiles almost mischievously before answering: “I’m only four years older than the series. I never got to see the rare cars driving around on the roads as a little boy here in Münsterland, where I grew up, but only on television at state receptions, at royal and papal visits, sometimes where the rich and beautiful met up. They made a strong impression on me. My father was a factory owner and only ever drove Mercedes – the predecessors of the S-Class, from the 128 series through the 111, 108 and 109 series to the 116 and 126 series. Secretly, of course, he also fancied the 600, but it was just a bit too big, too luxurious for Münsterland, he said – much to my dismay. I had all the model cars of the series in my bedroom though, of course. So, today I allow myself the luxury and live out my childhood and youthful dreams to the full.”
Identical twins: The saloon in the front had been ordered by a Canadian publisher; the same-coloured saloon in the rear in the same year, 1972, by a major Greek shipowner. Clemens and his wife, Hana, both appreciate its dynamic handling.
Thirty years ago, he bought his first “Grand Mercedes” in the USA for USD 15,000. And he started buying up whatever spare parts he could find anywhere in the world. He really became an avid collector and hunter. We are now driving one of his two Beige Grey metallic limousines to his spare parts store in a nearby barn.
Crankshafts, rear axles, loud tone horns, brake boosters, injection pumps, headlights, tail lights, luggage kits: Clemens, who is very well connected in the 600 enthusiast scene, owns a treasure trove of original spare parts that is certainly unique in private hands. “If someone somewhere is looking for something, the path often leads automatically to me,” he says. “I’ve made some great contacts as a result.” We drive back to the estate. What is the story of his Beige Grey twins?
“Both were built in 1972 and belonged to dazzling personalities. One was a Greek shipowner magnate, the other a major Canadian publisher. Of course, both cars have individual optional extras: the Greek one has a telephone, TV, antenna on the left rear mudguard, on-board bar, air conditioning, sunroof. And the Canadian one is unrestored, which I also think is very nice.” And now, there’s only one thing left to do: sit in the back of the Canadian once again, stretch out your legs, lay your head back, soak up the scent of the leather and revel in the moment!
Clemens takes the luxurious cars back to their large garages. He smiles very proudly and contentedly and has another charming idea: In a few weeks we will go on another road trip together. We’d love to, there’s almost nothing better.
Star-studded line-up: The four Hergeths are on the road in the Eifel with the top down.
Felix Thiede from Hamburg traded in an R 129 and W 124 for the 600 19 years ago and invested another EUR 5,000. Since then, he has driven 50,000 kilometres in the saloon.
Just manoeuvring the car into the garage and then out again would normally be two extremely risky undertakings. At least for someone who is not used to moving vehicles of such imposing dimensions. But this is everyday life for Felix Thiede, 51, a self-employed businessman from Hamburg. He does it with playful ease – and always with a smile on his face. “The 600 and I have grown together really well over the years and get along great,” says the North German. Today he is taking his 1971-built 600 – Blue metallic, grey velour interior and macassar wood – out of the garage. Classic magazine is visiting today, and he also wants to have a coffee at the venerable Atlantic Hotel on Hamburg’s Outer Alster and meet his girlfriend Karen, 47, a yoga teacher, and her son Oskar, 11, there.
Felix Thiede his girlfriend Karen and her son Oskar.
Small garage, big car: Felix goofing off.
They’re going to cruise a bit through the city and the surrounding area. The drive from his home to the five-star luxury hotel takes about half an hour. It could be done much faster, “but you don’t necessarily always take the shortest route with the 600, but rather the most beautiful one,” Felix reveals with a smile. It’s impressive to experience how the many hydraulic systems of the luxury saloon start up, then smoothly interlock and make driving an experience. And then there’s the big engine, with its rich, authoritative sound.
Its combination of special features makes this Hamburger’s saloon unique: curtains in the rear side windows, the radio has its place in front of the bar in the centre console, there are folding tables on the front seat backrests, the original set of luggage in the very large boot, an electric shaver and even an immersion heater to brew a coffee or tea on the road. Has he ever made coffee in the car? “Of course,” Felix replies. As if this were the most normal thing in the world. And what about the razor, does it work? Felix nods and strokes his chin as if to prove it.
Even in a port city like Hamburg with almost two million inhabitants, it’s rare to see a 600 showing up in traffic on a completely normal weekday. This is clearly evidenced in the reactions of many passers-by in the city centre. Some whip out their mobile phones to snap a quick photo. Others wave over with a smile, some in amazement or curiosity. Maybe there’s a celebrity sitting in that XXL luxury saloon? People respond almost universally positively to the classic car, Felix explains shortly before arriving at the Hotel Atlantic, which is famous far beyond Hamburg’s borders. “Welcome,” says the liveried valet parking attendant as he steps up to the car gleaming in the sun, and holds open the door. “That’s a beautiful car you’ve got there.”
Inside, Felix tells us how his passion for the “Grand Mercedes” began: “It was 1996, and I already had a small collection of Mercedes-Benz classics at that time. I flew to the USA and met three people there who drove 600s and were also members of the M 100 Group recognised by Mercedes-Benz Classic, the 600 Club. When I saw the cars, and even more so when I rode in the state cars, the spark seemed to ignite in me. I visited my American friends – and their 600s – every now and then in the following years. And my resolve matured: I just wanted to drive one. I wanted to have a dream car like that.”
Imposing: Felix has owned his 600 for 19 years. Here he is driving it over a large bridge over the Elbe in Hamburg.
He had been “watching” his blue W 100 for several months before acquiring it, because he found the colour “phenomenal”. And suddenly it came up for sale at the Techno Classica in Essen in 2004. Felix couldn’t raise that much money back then, however, “but I finally got my dream car in exchange for two of my classics – an R 129 and a W 124.” His luxury saloon had around 120,000 kilometres on the clock at the time, and since then he has driven over 50,000 kilometres in it himself. “The vehicle is absolutely timeless. Some countries still have it in their official car fleet today. I find that really fascinating. And it’s proof positive that Mercedes-Benz created something very special 60 years ago, in one of the high phases of technological masterpieces,” says Felix, who is also the founder and acting club president of the German offshoot of the M 100 Group – currently numbering around 70 members.
In the meantime, girlfriend Karen and her son Oskar have arrived. Oskar intuitively sits down in the front seat next to Felix while Karen makes herself comfortable in the back. Together, we travel through the streets of Hamburg’s old warehouse district, on through the new HafenCity, then across the Elbe bridges to the Hanseatic city’s immediate environs. On the right is the the third largest container port in Europe where large freighters from all over the world are loaded or unloaded; on the left is the motorway heading south. In the early evening, Felix reverses his XXL saloon into the narrow garage with unerring certainty. “Made to measure,” he says with satisfaction.
Exciting: The North German likes to go on trips to the Hamburg countryside or to club meetings with his girlfriend Karen and her son Oskar.
The true luxury of the “Grand Mercedes” is revealed on the inside. Special requests and custom-made items were the rule rather than the exception, and it was clear to me that I had to give special photographic attention to the interior – uniquely staged. None of classic still life here. The many light nuances reflect the multifaceted nature of the interior. To capture this, we based our visual language on the style of the very high-quality catalogues and brochures produced in the 1960s and 1970s. Technically, this meant that we needed to work in a studio in complete darkness.
We aimed focused tungsten light through glass prisms to make the rainbow colours travel across the surfaces. We worked with aperture 16 on the lens for a high depth of field, which made for long exposure times of around two minutes. Any slight movement would have ruined the shot, so we operated the SLR from the computer with the mirror up, not moving and even breathing shallowly. We were now able to achieve the detail and sharpness we wanted for the interior portraits with a resolution of 100 megapixels.