The dictator’s ride

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iconic-cars120161115Since Ferdinand Marcos is in the news again, we might as well talk about his favorite ride: the Mercedes-Benz 600

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Quick: What do Fidel Castro, Hugh Hefner, Ferdinand Marcos, Pablo Escobar and Jeremy Clarkson have in common? They’re all Mercedes 600 owners. But beyond that, they have very little in common: One’s a socialist icon, another a rich hedonist, the third a rabid fascist, the fourth a celebrated drug dealer and the last a former president. Not in that order, mind you.

Still, in recognition of the fact that three of these people have been in the news of late, let’s take a look at the one car that was so iconically associated with power and influence that all of these men have, at one time or another, owned a sample.

Designed by Paul Bracq, the man who also penned the iconic “Pagoda” SL sports car, the 600 was such an enduring, timeless design that it was produced straight from 1964 until 1981, at which point it was retired without being replaced. Simply, no other car could replace it.

In long-wheelbase Pullman form, with an astounding 3,890mm wheelbase, it was an imposing car, especially in six-door guise, which was why fascists and dictators around the world flocked to it. It was an impressive display of wealth, power and influence.

Apart from that, it was a technological tour de force. A 3,200psi hydraulic pump powered everything on the car. The air suspension. The power-adjustable seats. The sunroof. The automatic doors. The automatic trunk. Even the windows. If you ever felt like offing a political rival, you could just stick their head through the window and flip the toggle. The system was powerful enough to break necks.

But beyond the power, the hydraulic system was eerily silent. No whirring electric motors to irritate the sensitive ears of the dictator’s wife. And with armor-plating available on request, nothing else would bother her, either. Indeed, some dictators used their 600 to escape riots as their totalitarian governments fell apart. Even without armor-plating, the steel of the chassis was so strong and thick that rust did not eat through it.

This chassis made it an incredibly heavy car. The “short” wheelbase version weighed about 2.6 tons. The long-wheelbase version weighed another three dead bodies more. And yet, thanks to the fuel-injected V8, performance was acceptably brisk. The 6.3-liter M100, in fact, would go on to power Mercedes’s first generation of modern super sedans. And with the dry sump system and hydraulic lifters, it could go up to 20,000km between oil changes. Quite a feat in the ’60s. Decades later, AMG continues to use the 6.3-liter badge to honor the legendary motor.

Thus equipped, the 600 was not a cheap car. With a price tag of $20,000 at launch, you would have to have paid the equivalent of P15 million to ride around in as much comfort as the First Family back in the day—perhaps more, since every 600 was custom-built for its owner. And if your car developed a hydraulic issue and stopped running, it could cost a small fortune to fix it.

While just 2,677 units were ever built, many are still running today. They may cost an arm and a leg to maintain, but luxury does have its price. If you’re uncomfortable sharing a seat with the ghost of a dead (and corrupt) dictator, however, take comfort in the fact that John Lennon, George Harrison and even Rowan Atkinson all also owned one.

And if Mister Bean has had one, it can’t be all that bad. Right?

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