Tito’s presidential limo Ultra-rare Mercedes 600. Driving Tito’s presidential car, a Mercedes-Benz 600 Pullman Landaulet W100. Mercedes-Benz 600 Tito’s super-rare Pullman Landaulet. Maximum size for the greatest impact. There’s no point being a dictator if you pass unnoticed, says Martin Buckley as he samples the Mercedes 600 Laundalet delivered new to Marshal Tito. Photography James Mann.
‘IN THE LAUNCH FILM, UHLENHAUT CAN BE SEEN OPPOSITE-LOCKING A 600 PULLMAN THROUGH CONES’
M[/dropcap]arshall Tito, the benign and (mostly) fondly remembered communist dictator of Yugoslavia, was quite the car enthusiast. He maintained a large collection of foreign exotics (looked after by the military in a 20-man workshop) and it was even customary for him to be gifted a new vehicle each year on his birthday, courtesy of the state. He loved his Cadillacs and Rolls-Royces (he had a Fleetwood limousine and a Phantom VI), but it was the Mercedes 600, in all its forms, that he favoured above anything else.
Mercedes-Benz 600 Pullman Landaulet W100.015 road test
In fact he had half a dozen of them, including an armoured six-door Pullman that tended to be used on foreign trips. Once, on a flight to Cuba, the car’s bulletproof glass shattered and the Benz had to be returned to the factory. For domestic events, however, the 1971 sixdoor ‘Presidential’ Landaulet that you see here was Tito’s car of choice. With the roof lowered he could wave to his comrades on official parades – seemingly confident that nobody was going to try assassinating him – and, with the top up, cover large distances in comfort.
Even in exalted Mercedes 600 circles, this vehicle is something special. Chassis number 1854 is one of only nine six-door ‘long roof’ Landaulets with the soft-top extending as far as the driver’s compartment. It left Stuttgart on 17 May 1971 bound for Amsterdam, where it had been ordered through the local Mercedes dealer AGAM, and is showing just 27,000km today.
Clockwise, from left: in spite of its considerable bulk, the 600 is no slouch; vast rear compartment includes jump seats for interpreters; microphone enables chauffeur to communicate with the passengers; vanity set concealed in armrest.
The factory data card indicates that ‘1854’ was specified with amber headlights, foglamps and high beams, rear headrests (but no seatbelts), mounts for custom numberplates (and trim strips) on the hardtop and a ‘seat adaptor’ between the front chairs. Other special requests included aircon, a fire extinguisher, whitewall tyres and a vanity set in the rear armrest comprising shaver and cosmetics. There was a speaker, handset and microphone to allow communication between the chauffeur and passengers, while the inevitable Becker Grand Prix – that most sainted of car radios – could be controlled from the back seat. There were also two spare batteries plus an extra-large 100-litre fuel tank.
The driver’s compartment is handsome albeit predictably cramped due to the division, but in other respects the Landaulet is a simple pleasure to drive. It is also really quite a fast car. Mechanically identical to the ‘normal’ 600 limousine, it could still level out at 124mph, with acceleration not spectacularly adrift of the shorter, lighter model. This one feels capable of all that and more. Its M100 fuel-injected V8 is fairly remote but not entirely silent or silky. Squeeze the throttle and it sets off briskly in second gear; punch it past the kickdown switch and it selects bottom automatically, taking off in a very non-presidential fashion – conjuring images of Mercedes’ 1963 launch film in which Rudolf Uhlenhaut can be seen casually opposite-locking a Pullman through cones on the factory test circuit. The Benz has an excellent lock and feels so ‘handy’ (relatively) that you soon forget you have 15ft of car trailing along behind you.
The gearchanges seem smoother than in most other M100-engined cars that I have driven and, wearing the imaginary chauffeur’s cap, you can conduct the Landaulet with sufficient delicacy that those in the rear are not aware of the shifts, just seamless progress. With the air suspension you expect, and get, a fabulously cosseting ride. The 600 just floats lightly over everything, but never in a sloppy, boat-like way.
Mercedes’ 6329cc V8 develops 250bhp plus a massive 369lb ft of torque at just 2800rpm – enough to propel the 2 1/2-ton car from 0-60mph in 12 secs.
Somewhat more surprising on a 20ft-long car is the lack of body shake. Look at it side-on with all six doors open and your brain tells you that the 600 should bend in the middle. In fact, the manufacturer had aimed for high torsional stiffness and as little vibration as possible in all variants, so when these open versions suffered from shake in tests they were fitted with damper weights under the body, individually tuned to each car.
The mottled tan leather used throughout looks so perfect that it could have been laid down last week, but has a curiously utilitarian aura. Everything works, including the two-tone horns – comprising a standard ‘toot’ and that famously deep, nautical hooter for the autobahn.
This particular example missed out on the ‘soft close’ hydraulic door catches of earlier 600s, which is probably no bad thing because even Mercedes considered them to be more trouble than they were worth in service. The bootlid is powered, though – just press in the barrel of the lock and the ensemble silently opens and closes like a prop from a horror film.
The landau top – latching on Pagoda-style catches that have to be manually operated – is a masterpiece that is so beautifully lined it feels like a solid roof when closed. It unfurls and retracts itself on the same silent hydraulic system that operates the windows and all the other ‘comfort’ items. Being so long it needs a bit of help at the end of each cycle, and looks distinctly pram-like when folded behind the seats. It doesn’t do much for rearwards vision, either.
Presumably the idea was to preserve space in the boot, but most of that is already taken up with the spare wheel and those extra batteries. Given that Tito usually travelled in a motorcade, the lack of luggage capacity was probably not an issue. Interestingly the rear window is translucent blue plastic rather than glass.
Clockwise, from top: bulky hood takes up considerable space when lowered, but is neatly integrated when raised; three-pointed star adorns the wing-mounted flagpole; cabin finished in leather and zebrano, with one of two drinks cabinets between the jump seats.
Naturally, rear passengers have plenty of legroom, but only if the jump seats are folded away. Sitting on the main bench you initially feel that the bottom cushion is too short to fully support the thighs. But then you remember that, like all 600s, a switch hydraulically reclines the seat. You would have to be some kind of physical anomaly not to find a comfortable position.
The radio controls are in the right-hand door pillar, and one of the two drinks cabinets is chilled. Delicate switches manipulate the hydraulic pressure to silently and swiftly close the windows, although there is a ‘blank’ on the chrome panel that almost seems to suggest you have bought a poverty model. In fact, it relates to the fact that the windows in the middle doors on this car are fixed. We tend to think of the 600 in Pullman and Landaulet form as the classic African dictator’s wheels, but the model had plenty of influential friends in other parts of Eastern Europe, too.
The paranoid and megalomaniacal Nicolae Ceaus¸escu of Romania had at least two 600s and took delivery of a Pullman Presidential six-door Landaulet in 1970, using it until the early ’80s. With sirens blaring and flanked by motorcycle outriders through the streets of Bucharest, his wife sometimes employed the 600s to send their beloved dogs to one of their country retreats.
Other Eastern bloc users included the repressive Todor Zhivkov of Bulgaria, who had a 1970 six-door Landaulet – the only 600 sold new in that country. When the Bulgarian secret police auctioned off 20 Gaz Chaika saloons in 2008, it apparently refused to let go of the Benz because it was regarded as a ‘national treasure’.
As for good old Tito, he loved his 600s so much that as late as 1979 he was in discussion with Mercedes to buy another Landaulet with hydraulically operated running boards that would help the increasingly less mobile dictator to get in and out. He didn’t live to complete the transaction: Josip Broz Tito died on 4 May 1980 aged 88, having ruled as First President of Yugoslavia since 1943.
In later years, the model fell out of favour in Yugoslavia. Slobodan Miloševic´ is thought to have used the armoured 600 only twice. An ex-Tito Pullman and the Landaulet came up for auction in 1992, but ‘1854’ seems to have been one of the first 600s to be disposed of.
It appeared for sale in Norway in ’89, and in 2003 went to a lady in Munich. In 2012 the car was acquired by collector Graham Dacre and, after being sorted by marque specialist Kienle, was imported into the UK in 2013. It won the Fit for a King class at Salon Privé in 2014, but since then Dacre has come to the conclusion that such an historic vehicle deserves to be owned by someone who can devote more time taking it to events.
Chauffeur’s compartment is beautifully executed but the driving position is slightly compromised by the division behind the seats robbing space.
The 600 is as epic in the metal as you would expect, and in a condition commensurate with the £2.5m price tag – although for that you don’t get the ‘600’ registration. I’d assumed that was just for show but it is, in fact, a genuine number. You do get the flags on the front wings, a chauffeur’s cap and 395,000 Yugoslavian dinar bearing the image of Tito himself, though. You also get perhaps the best ‘representational’ vehicle ever made, a limousine conceived and built for diplomats, cultural figures and world leaders that in many ways is still the ‘natural’ international car of state.
In the less exalted world of owner-driver luxury models, it is perhaps easy to see how the ‘normal’ 600 looked like too much of a good thing. Its capabilities, size and performance were hugely beyond the expectations and requirements of most buyers looking for something they could pilot themselves or occasionally be driven in. Conversely, the epic scale of the Pullman and Landaulet seemed more in tune with Mercedes’ ambitions for the car. In this it was an automobile that reached its target audience more successfully than the standard limousine.
‘YOU WOULD HAVE TO BE SOME KIND OF PHYSICAL ANOMALY NOT TO FIND A COMFORTABLE POSITION HERE’