Intimidation game The Mercedes-Benz 770K lives in the shadow of its political associations, yet it’s a magnificent piece of engineering. Words Richard Heseltine. Photography Manuel Portugal.
DRIVING THE MIGHTY ‘GROSSER’ MERCEDES GROSSER, POINT BLANK
Richard Heseltine gets the magnificent Mercedes-Benz 770K in his sights
The car’s custodian flashes a smile of solidarity, gives you a double thumbs-up and walks away. It is at this juncture that your internal monologue takes a turn for the external. It isn’t as though anyone can hear your potty mouth, mind, because the glass in this car is almost 1½in (40mm) thick, and that’s before you factor in the reinforced coachwork designed to withstand, well… bullets, bomb blasts, that sort of thing. You might as well be hermetically sealed. It’s swelteringly hot in here, that’s for sure.
We are alone save the birdsong and the distant drone of a leaf-blower. Consulting the handwritten notes – in Portuguese – it becomes apparent that there are seven steps to starting the beast, the first of which is to locate the factory-fitted master switch secreted beneath the dashboard. Then there are the controls sited on the steering wheel: Gemisch means mixture, Zündung is ignition and Schnellgang is overdrive.
‘This car came perilously close to being reconfigured as an ambulance, but sense prevailed – for starters, it burned through 60 litres of fuel every 100km’
Scroll forward through five minutes of broiled befuddlement and 7.7 litres of straight-eight fires for the first time in a long time. Nothing about the romantically-named Mercedes-Benz Type 770 Model W150 Grosser (770K for short) is in the realm of the ordinary, not least its sound. Expecting this vast machine to be near silent, as befits an über-limousine, it is nothing of the sort. It is surprisingly vocal, but eventually settles down to a gruff burble when idling at 1200rpm.
Sitting on what may well once have been an armchair – one that has been (over)stuffed with goose feathers – you feel ever so slightly perched, with a commanding view across a bonnet that stretches into a different time zone. Everything about this car intimidates. That was rather the point of the exercise.
There’s so much to process, not least the fact that it weighs close on five tons thanks to all the armour plating. Even the glass in the cabin divider is bullet-resistant, just in case such a projectile somehow breached the exterior defences en route. You can never be too sure, safety first and all that. These things tended to be equipped with hidden compartments, too; the sort of place where you might store a Luger or three, should you need to return fire in a hurry.
‘The Benz seems resistant to retardation, so much so that you cannot help but laugh with relief when at last, reluctantly, it shudders to a halt’
The 770K is vast as only a ‘Super Mercedes’ can be. For starters, it’s 20ft (6000mm) long and 6ft 9in (2070mm) wide. It might be packing around 230bhp – some sources insist it is closer to 284 – but somehow you doubt it is capable of reaching 130mph, as quoted in the Los Angeles Times way back when, or 103mph as cited by Motor Sport in period. At least one report from the time claimed it was too heavy for its tyres to cope with speeds greater than 50mph. That rather focuses your attention, not least because the rubber here dates back to 1938. The same is probably true of the air contained therein. This is a museum piece, with all that entails.
Depress the surprisingly light(ish) clutch, move the spindly gearlever right and forward without a hint of snatching, and the Mercedes ambles off the line. Legendary American journalist Ken Purdy wrote of driving a 770K in True, The Man’s Magazine: ‘The sensation is simply that of a moving house.’ That was in 1949 when cars were, for the most part, considerably smaller than in the here and now, even the land yachts from Detroit, but you are constantly aware of the Grosser’s immensity. That, and its heft. The steering is impossibly heavy at low speeds; it is almost a two-man job. Rolling cumbrously onto the highway, you tower over other road users to the point where the Mercedes parts traffic like a snowplough. You’re nothing if not conspicuous, not least because you look like a reject from The Ant Hill Mob.
Apply that bit more throttle on the straight and you swear you can hear each firing stroke. Once the supercharger – or rather, the kompressor – starts whining, you’re certainly aware of forward progress. It sounds racy, unquestionably of thoroughbred stock, but the strident bellow doesn’t quite tally with your surroundings. The Grosser looks so sober, almost funereal, and the same is true from inside. Mindful that ‘original’ in this particular instance means precisely that, and with the knowledge clunking around your cranium that it has been insured for an eight-figure sum, you don’t exactly stretch the 770K. You wouldn’t dare.
The thing is, the steering’s weight soon dissipates, while changing gear in the dogleg ’box is a doddle: the lever simply glides between planes (there are five forward ratios with a direct fourth gear and an overdrive fifth). It isn’t the sort of car that changes direction quickly, though. You would be amazed were it otherwise, but it is not as unwieldy as you might imagine, so long as you plan ahead. There is, however, the small matter of stopping the brute – which proves something of a lottery. Even at quite low speeds, the hydraulic drums are woefully inadequate. Purdy wrote in period: ‘[It] is a case of standing on everything and then just sitting there waiting for something to happen… It takes a lot of stopping.’ He was clearly a master of understatement. You don’t approach a car made 81 years ago expecting it to stop on a dime, to borrow an Americanism, but it seems supremely resistant to retardation. So much so, you cannot help but laugh with relief when at last, reluctantly, it shudders to a halt.
It is hard to believe that this was once a production car, even if each Grosser was constructed by hand at Mercedes’ sprawling Sindelfingen plant. You could, in theory at least, have ordered one direct from the factory, although you would have been vetted rigorously first. In addition to being well-connected, having easy access to great wealth was a prerequisite. While the 770K never appeared in any official price list, the precise figure being very much on request, Robert Klara claimed in his masterwork The Devil’s Mercedes that it started at around 44,000 Reichsmarks. This, he asserted, was: ‘Enough money at the time to purchase five Packards, seven Cadillacs, or 16 Fords.’ Some Grossers were gifted by the most famous – and most notorious – 770K admirer, Adolf Hitler. This wasn’t just a car, it was a statement of intent. It was built to inspire awe.
The 770K was rooted in the W07-series Grosser, but with a new chassis packing a 12ft 9in (3880mm) wheelbase, independent front suspension, and significant developments to the engine and blower. Longer, loftier and broader of beam, it was announced at the February 1938 International Automobile & Motorcycle Exhibition in Berlin. Below skylights and swastikas, the W150 dominated the Daimler-Benz exhibit, with a rolling chassis also on display to let visitors coo at its engineering. Not that the British media was particularly impressed, with Motor Sport dismissing it as being: ‘A luxury car for the use of state potentates.’ Within a few days of the show closing, Hitler received the first 770K Grosser as a birthday present.
Mercedes’ new range-topper was offered in six body styles, Hitler famously preferring the soft-top Offener Tourenwagen, which was big enough to accommodate eight passengers (or ‘four Hermann Görings’, as The Chicago Tribune quipped in period). Assuming you knew people in authority and had the wherewithal, you could even have had a car in full Führer spec with a right-front seat that tilted up to reveal a platform for standing on.
In standard form, the Grosser boasted a raft of features that were less conspicuous, if no less out there. A full complement of tools sat in velvet-lined trays within a compartment concealed behind the bulkhead. Other nooks and crannies masked a chauffeur’s valise, complete with clothes brushes and a shaving set. Oh, and then there was the first-aid kit equipped with everything from powders for headaches to treatments for poison-gas inhalation.
This spoke volumes about customer expectations. Think of 770K owners from the period and it reads like a laundry list of vainglorious scumbags and madmen; the sort of ne’er-do-wells who came down on the wrong side of history. Grossers were given to allies of the Nazi regime such as Ion Antonescu, Benito Mussolini, Francisco Franco, Josef Terboven and Vidkun Quisling. The car pictured here, however, was not among those conferred on a national leader, even if some texts insist it was a gift from Hitler to Portuguese autocrat António Salazar. There isn’t even trace evidence to support this supposition. There is, though, every reason to believe that its first (notional) owner didn’t like the car – at all.
In July 1937, a bomb exploded near Salazar’s limousine as he emerged on to the pavement a few paces from the chapel where he was due to attend mass. He survived unscathed, although his driver was rendered deaf by the blast. The mangled Buick was replaced with a Chrysler Imperial but the spooked PVDE (Polícia de Vigilância e de Defesa do Estado) subsequently placed an order for a brace of Pullman-bodied 770Ks, complete with fortification that stretched to the underfloor in case of attack by landmine. One was earmarked for Salazar, the other for the president, Óscar Carmona.
It’s just that the state police hadn’t bothered to consult Salazar first. He was not best pleased when the cars landed in Lisbon in April 1938, not least because of their egregious cost. He might have been a dictator but he wasn’t one for ostentation, preferring instead to present himself as a frugal man of the people. Accordingly, he continued for many years to use the Chrysler that today sits alongside this 770K within the superb Museu do Caramulo. Salazar was keen to play down the suggestion that the Grossers had been supplied by Hitler: he walked a tightrope when dealing with the Allied and Axis powers during WW2, so riding around in a Benz large enough to block out the sun wasn’t on the agenda. He only went in the car once in an official capacity, and that was during General Franco’s state visit in 1949.
It is a miracle that the Grosser saw out the 1950s, let alone that it survives to the present day. Following an auction of government equipment, the car was acquired by the Beato e Olivais fire brigade in Lisbon. It came perilously close to being reconfigured as an ambulance, but sense prevailed – for starters, it burned through 60 litres of fuel every 100km. By 1956 the Mercedes was languishing in a scrapyard, from which it was rescued by arch-enthusiast João de Lacerda. According to his grandson, Salvador Patrício Gouveia, he gazumped an American collector who two hours earlier had made a sizeable offer for the Benz. It hasn’t been restored and has the patina to prove it. The sister Grosser resides in a private collection in northern Portugal, the survival rate for the 88 chassis made to 1943 being less than 10%.
The 770K Grosser is unlike any other car. It proclaims invincibility but is freighted with negative connotations. The example purportedly used by Hitler became a media sensation in the USA during the immediate post-war years as it criss-crossed the nation making public appearances. According to many hyperbolic newspaper reports from the period, survivors of the Holocaust bared numbers tattooed on their forearms as an act of defiance. Other onlookers merely cursed and spat. That isn’t the case here, and never was, but this most colossal of Mercedes-Benzes doesn’t exactly have a jolly and biddable demeanour. Right or wrong, that cloud will always follow it.
Thanks to Adelino Dinis, Salvador Patrício Gouveia and Tiago de Lacerda (www.museu-caramulo.net)