Just by watching our doc, Winning, you can get a real sense of Paul Newman’s sense of style and love of competition. That spirit lives on as his beloved Daytona watch goes up for auction later this year. The sale may result in the item being classified as the world’s most expensive Rolex watch.
On October 26th, the iconic piece will head to the Phillips’ New York Watch Auction: WINNING ICONS — Legendary Watches of the 20th Century.
Paul’s in classy company: other legendary watches on the block include those owned by Jackie Onassis, Bob Hope and even Al Capone.
This Newman Daytona was owned by Paul himself, but is actually part of an entire line of high-quality Daytona watches. It’s currently appraised at $1 million, but may generate enough excitement to demand an auction price as high as $5 million.
Celebrity-owned watches are always an exciting part of any world-class auction. However, this watch has special significance: it was never sold publicly before, and the piece Newman owned earned the mythic nickname, the Paul Newman Daytona.
Newman’s wife, Joanne Woodward, gave him this Daytona as a gift when he began auto racing in 1972. Her inscription on the back: “Drive Carefully Me.”
In helping us understand the aesthetic meaning and beauty of the watch, the online magazine dedicated to high-quality watches, Hodinkee, says:
The Paul Newman is so desirable for so many reasons, one of which is the undeniable fact that the thing is just downright gorgeous. The playfulness of the dial is so beautiful, so very un-Rolex. On the wrist, a Paul Newman is hard to match. And, because it’s so well known, they are about as liquid as any watch in the world, even at the astronomical prices that we see now.
The post also goes on to say that there is no technical difference between a Paul Newman Daytona and a basic Daytona beyond the type of dial it features. As well, there are more fake Paul Newman dials in circulation than there are real ones, so care must be taken — and expert advice sought — when purchasing.
Here’s how to tell the real thing:
Original name: Rolex Cosmograph Daytona Oyster
Reference numbers: 6239, 6241, 6262, 6263, 6264, or 6265. (6239 is the one that Newman owned.)
Color combos: there are only four of them. A “panda” dial with black background and white chronograph totalizer subdials; an inverse panda with white background and black chronograph totalizers; an inverse panda with cream-colored background and black chronograph totalizers; anthracite-colored background with white chronograph totalizers.
“Exotic” dial: a red scale which circles the perimeter of the dial.
Proceeds from the sale will go to the Nell Newman Foundation (Nell is Newman’s daughter). The foundation awards grants in ten core program areas: environment, education, arts & culture, spiritual, scientific, human services, emergency relief, animal welfare, and international affairs.
Click here to check out Winning: The Racing Life of Paul Newman. You’ll then truly understand what puts Paul Newman in the driver’s seat.
By 1960, the Big Three American automakers — GM, Ford and Chrysler — were on top of the world, responsible for nearly 100% of car sales in the United States and almost half of all sales abroad. Gasoline averaged 31 cents per gallon, and a typical car price hovered around $2800. The American product was unanimously big, strong, and flashy, with gleaming (but needless) chrome and ever-growing tail fins. The advertising and marketing was loud, patronizing, and in some aspects, false. That didn’t stop sales from going supernova in this feel-good postwar society that prized materialism and conspicuous consumption.
Of course, the times were a-changin’. As shown in the Chassy documentary, The Bug, Germany’s little miracle, the Volkswagen Beetle (nicknamed The Bug), was so odd and so much of a square peg that it was practically ignored in America at first. However, housewives needing second cars and the coming-of-age Baby Boomers began to catch up with it, understand it, project its own individuality onto it. Heads were turning toward economy, durability and uniqueness. Smaller foreign cars were just beginning to crack the market. The Bug took time to gain traction, but once it did, it gave the Big Three a run for its money.
Aside from the growing popularity of the Beetle, the American Motors Corporation’s Rambler also beat the Big Three to the economy-car punch, with an evolved version of its quirkly Rambler American. It was originally a two-door sedan with a very select customer base, but a four-door was introduced in 1959 and became an immediate bestseller in the new American suburbs. Ramblers were powered by a 170 cubic-inch flathead six or a 259 cubic-inch V8. Not too shabby.
To the American auto industry, the VW Beetle was initially a curious blip, but the raging success of the Rambler was a frightening wakeup call. When the Big Three hopped on the smaller-car bandwagon in 1960, that was the beginning of the end for Rambler. It would only live until 1969.
By the 1970s, the quality and economy of Japanese imports like the Toyota, the Datsan and the Honda would even threaten the existence of the Bug. Yet the road to intense competition began with the Big Three in 1960, with these offerings:
The Chevrolet Corvair
In 1960, Motor Trend magazine called Corvair the “Car of the Year,” but little did it know that it would soon become notorious. Its most noticeable feature was its aluminum, air-cooled rear engine (an obvious immitation of the Volkswagen VW). The problem: rear weight and swing axles (and a lack of a roll bar). This made the Corvair very tricky at handling, especially on sharp turns. Ralph Nader wrote all about it in his 1965 book, Unsafe At Any Speed, which detailed the many dangers the American car industry ignored in its products. The book caused a sensation, and helped lead to government legislation of the industry and enforced safety standards.
The Ford Falcon
Despite barely having a personality to its name, the Falcon was a hit from the start, selling almost half a million units in its introduction year of 1960. It was powered by an inline 6-cylinder engine, delivering up to 25 miles per gallon. The two-door coupe was its biggest seller, but it was also available as a four-door sedan, a station wagon an even as a Ranchero pickup.
The Mercury Comet
The Comet was a bastardization of Ford models like the Edsel, which had died a sad death in 1960. The Comet survived the Edsel as a standalone (it was sold only through Mercury dealers, in order to shake off the demon). From then on, the Comet aped the Ford Falcon (it was sometimes thought of as “the rounder Falcon”). The car continued to suffer an identity crisis as the decade rolled on — the Comets became wider, longer, less compact-looking. The hazily defined line ended in 1969, but was rebirthed in the ’70s as a Mercury version of the Ford Maverick.
The Plymouth Valiant
The innovative idea of design styling wizard Virgil Exner is what gave the Valiant its above-average flair — it didn’t look small, but it did look sporty, and it purposely lacked excessive tailfins. It simply appeared to be modern. It offered more legroom than the Corvair or the Falcon. As a result, it cost slightly more, but America lined up for it. Chrysler-Plymouth took the Valiant seriously: it was its first new six-cylinder offering since the war, powered by a slant-six engine. It had been developed and tested for years (with the help of early computers). In the end, the Valiant was more about the brain than the body: as Valiants aged, they rusted like crazy.
Click here to discover the Volkswagen Beetle’s David vs. Goliath story, and how it aimed its slingshot at the Big Three.
In the mood for a good rerun? How about a good rematch? The 2017 Ford GT is everything that was amazing about its ’60s ancestor, with the added benefit of fifty years of technology. And it’s back in circulation, turning heads and ready to race.
As seen in the Chassy film, The 24 Hour War, the original GT40 was born of revenge. Ford Motors tried teaming with its racing hero, Ferrari, to create a supercar that would give Ford entree into the glam world of European racing. Ferrari thought twice, and ultimately didn’t go the distance. Ford said, “All righty, then,” proceeding to kick Ferrari’s ass. Vengeance was Ford’s — it created one of the most incredible supercars of its day — the GT40.
P.S.: The car stunned the world by winning the 1966 24-Hours of Le Mans, ending Ferrari’s dominance of the race. The GT40 went on to own the Sixties, with wins in 1967, 1968 and 1969.
In a well-calculated and extremely intelligent move, Ford created an all-new GT in 2016 to coincide with the 50th anniversary of its first win. The car was to serve as a rolling showcase of the company’s 21st century innovations.
A reason to live: a promise by Ford to deliver more than 12 new performance vehicles by 2020.
If this were a movie, you would accuse it of being exaggerated: Ford and Ferrari rematch at Le Mans 2016. And Ford wins. Ferrari, how you doin’?
Ford’s website describes the 2017 model in part like this: “its teardrop-shape body is the result of extensive work in the wind tunnel.” We can dig it. Here are some more features:
Price: $445,000 (cheap!)
Quantity to be built: 1,000 (the website says the application process is closed — sorry).
Engine: EcoBoost twin-turbocharged, direct-injected 3.5-liter V-6. 550 lb-ft. of torque at 5,900 rpm. Most of the GT’s peak torque arrives from 3,500 rpm.
Horsepower: 647 at 6,250 rpm
Top speed: 216 mph
Body: Carbon fiber. Aluminum structures minimize the weight of the high-strength subframes.
Does it live up to its proud heritage? Let’s take it to the streets:
Wired. Basem Wasef writes: Where most modern supercars prepare for the track by stiffening up their suspension settings, the GT goes all out, transforming into a hunkered-down cruise missile, ready for launch. Welcome to the machine.
Jalopnik. Patrick George writes: The new GT feels more like a purpose-built racer (which, by the way, it is) than many other high-end supercars, with their plus interiors and luxurious trappings. Not here. The GT is low, wide, mean, built like an airplane and loud as hell. And it’s more at home on the track than the road.
Car and Driver. Aaron Robinson writes: This is a car built on sentimentality. Sure, there were other reasons for the GT, such as creating a technology test bed and taking Ford’s brand onto the international racing circuit to be enhanced by its reflected glitz. But ultimately, a family with serious resources just thought a class win at Le Mans on the 50th anniversary of Ferrari’s famous drubbing would be cool. And with a lot of sweat, a few tears, and a dash of luck, their people made it possible. All of that is embedded in this car. The experience is singular.
MotorTrend: Angus MacKenzie writes: It’s light on its feet yet preternaturally calm, a prima ballerina in carbon fiber and aluminum. Squeeze on the gas, feel the precise moment the rear tires reach the limit of adhesion, and slow-hand opposite lock to maintain a gentle drift on the exit of the last left-hander. The agility! The precision! The calm, concise, constant dialogue with the chassis through your fingers and toes and the seat of your pants: This is a supercar like no other. This is a Ford like no other.
Autoweek. Mark Vaughn writes: It is loud and harsh, but in a glorious way only a race engine can be. It sounds like a much bigger displacement than it is. It’s only 3.5 liters packed into a V6. That’s small, but it has all the power you’ll want. Nail the throttle and off it roars, bang up through the gears or down through them and hear it brappity-brappity-brapp all the way through the box. Such a cool sound. Such a great car. Hoo lawd!
TechCrunch: Greg Kumparak writes: This car drives the way every teenager who grew up with a poster of the GT40 plastered above their bed dreamed it might. You think, GT does. I tried pushing this car to its limits, and didn’t even get close. In a game of chicken between Greg and the GT, the GT won.
The 2017 GT will be competing at Le Mans in June. We’ll keep you posted.
Click here to devour the first GT40s and The 24-Hour War.
Summer 1962 (think American Graffiti): At last, Chrysler is ready to test drive its turbine-powered vehicles for a car-obsessed public, or as the brochure put it, the “man-on-the-street.” The Chrysler Turbine Car synched up perfectly with the Jet Age and the the zeitgeist of the time, captured by Sinatra singing “Fly Me To The Moon.” Paraphrasing Robert Kennedy, Chrysler didn’t ask “why” but “why not?”
Don’t everybody jump at once, though. There were only 50-75 prototypes planned, stingily loaned to a lucky, targeted, intentional demographic. Publicity was on Chrysler’s mind: who would drive the car — and where exactly would the car be driven — that would pop the most eyeballs and flap the most gums?
Chrysler wasn’t being generous; it wanted the cars back after the feedback, once they learned how they handled in regular, mainstream traffic. And one of the most important questions: would the public warm up to a turbine car?
Since the auto industry’s beginnings, engineers were looking for simplicity in design and function. Eventually, they looked up to the skies: the gas turbine engine of jet aircraft runs at a constant speed (as opposed to the piston engines of average cars). Nice, but the operating conditions, size and cost in adapting them for common automobile use was a huge problem.
There was no question that the auto industry believed that the turbo engine was the future; the piston engine was as evolved as it was ever going to get, and that story was essentially over. The turbine race was on, but Chrysler was particularly obsessed with being first.
Unlike the average piston-engine, a turbine has very few parts, is light and compact, and allows the car to run more smoothly, without vibration (due to its rotary motion). The secret to its operating success is how it works with excess air, burning up all the fuel and leaving no noxious fumes, such as nasty carbon monoxide.
Add water or antifreeze? Nope. The temperature is controlled by air flowing through the engine. Tune-ups? Nah. Fewer parts means less friction and wear — no cams, valve shafts or distrubutor. A warming-up period when first starting the car? Negatory. The fuel burns steadily, and you’re instantly off to the races. Stalling during the ’70s oil crisis? Yeah, no. The car is “multi-fuel,” running on any combustible liquid that works with air to create energy. Our chance to say “Suck it, OPEC” was never to be.
By 1954, Chrysler announced that it solved two major problems associated with gas turbines — high fuel consumption and “scorching hot exhaust gas.” (Think of the fire shooting out of the Batmobile’s exhaust pipe). The timing should have been perfect, but the Fifties were not going to be the age of the auto turbine. The limited supply of such strategic materials as colbalt, tungsten, nickel and chromium kept the cars experimental only.
However, proving-ground testing proved promising. Chrysler’s clean little secret: a heat exchanger (regenerator) that allowed the heat generated by the car to work with fresh air, converting it into useful energy. This process would help power the wheels, while cooling down the exhaust to temperatures even lower than average cars.
Hell, other automakers — including GM, Ford and FIAT — were producing turbine cars, but nobody had what Chrysler had: this new regeneration capability. Chrysler may have marketed “The Forward Look,” but it was here where they were surging ahead of the pack.
The test model: The Plymouth Belvedere sport coupe, and it was the first time that the regenerator could be produced small enough to fit into an average American vehicle. The gas tubine engine at last equaled that of conventional engines, and the exhaust was cooler than that discharged by the average car.
The real rush, though, was in the performance, which roared past average cars with equal horsepower. It was rated at 120-shaft horsepower, but the company claimed that, because of its superior torque characteristics, it delivered the same performance at the rear wheels as a 160-horsepower piston engine with transmission. And stalling was practically impossible: an increase in torque requirement only causes the power turbine to slow down without affecting the gas generator.
Unlike piston-driven cars, the gas turbine delivers its greatest torque during breakaway from a stationary position (think of peeling out).
By the early ’60s, the prototypes were introduced, including a baby version: a Dodge Turbo Dart. The Chrysler-designed bodies were built by Ghia of Italy, which was well known for creating amazing bodies in small batches. The idea was for the cars to be loaned out and driven for three months, and then Chrysler would gather the feedback and plot its next move.
In the end, the focus group had mixed feelings: some said the car was sluggish, the steering was sloppy, the throttle didn’t respond well, and the fuel economy at low speeds wasn’t very economical. Nothing that a few turns of the screwdriver couldn’t fix.
What killed the dream? What else? Politics. The mid-to-late-60s was not a friend to the supercar. Insurance regulations, safety and emission laws, Ralph Nader, the Clean Air Act, and increased foreign competition (and tariffs) left Chrysler scratching its head over the future of the turbine car.
As well, the auto industry was very much married to the piston engine, and sales were monster and nothing to mess with. Try to change a successful industry? Ask Preston Thomas Tucker about that.
A few more turbine generations were produced without fanfare; by the late ’70s, the project quietly folded. The car was cool, but it ultimately didn’t turn heads away from the pistons.
Of those produced (the educated guess is 55), 46 were intentionally destroyed. Only nine are known to have survived, adopted by historical museums and private collectors, including one owned by Jay Leno (Adam, whassup? You in the market for one of these babies?).
Click here to devour our racing and auto docs, with more to come!
Congratulations to our 24-Hour War talking head and beloved racing legend A.J. Foyt. On April 6, he was honored with the prestigious Spirit of Ford award at the Road Racing Drivers’ Club dinner in Long Beach, California.
The award, sponsored by the Ford Motor Company, recognizes the most influential and skillful racing champions in the sport’s history.
Also on hand at the ceremony was another 24-Hour War featured speaker: NASCAR driver Dan Gurney. Dan helped commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Le Mans landmark win, which was detailed in our documentary. He and A.J. teamed up to score the only victory at Le Mans by an All-American team with all-American drivers.
That’s A.J. on the right and Dan on the left, back in the day.
A.J.’s historic 24-Hour War acheivement is only one milestone along an impressive track. He’s won the the Indianapolis 500 four times, 67 wins and seven championships in the Indy Car series and seven-time winner in the NASCAR Premier Series, including the 1972 Daytona 500.
A.J. was presented with the award by Edsel B. Ford II, the great-grandson of founder Henry Ford. Ford told Fox Sports, “A.J. was one of my heroes in racing when I first followed the sport. When looking back at his magnificent career, the question isn’t what did A.J. drive, but more what didn’t he drive and win in? His passion for driving and his commitment to the sport since his retirement have made him more than worthy for all the halls of fames he is part of.”
As A.J. and Dan discuss in the doc, the Ford versus Ferrari rivalry at Le Mans is one of the most famous battles in racing history. To take on Ferrari, Ford engineered a revolutionary racecar called the GT40. The battle takes place at the most famous race in the world, The 24 Hours of Le Mans. Ferrari had reigned supreme there for decades. In the 1960s, only two teams ever won Le Mans, Ford and Ferrari — cementing dynasties that would last for generations.
We’re intensely proud of A.J. for receiving this notable honor.
Get a closer look at one of the many achievements that led to A.J.’s Spirit of Ford Award by screening The 24-Hour War.
Speed Racer’s name matches his occupation, which goes it one better than any dentist named Dr. Stanley Smiley. The puzzlement, of course, is that he wears a “G” on his never-changed shirt and an “M” on his crash helmet, which we’ll owe to cultural confusion and lazy translation.
He’s as competent, loyal and true as a Boy Scout, and is so obsessed with car racing that you never see him doing anything else, not even eating or bowling or digging some new phonograph records.
In most cases, he doesn’t even sleep, despite the endless protests of his friends and family, who beg him to rest before a Big Race. But there’s good ol’ unflappable Speed, burning the midnight oil, turning a socket wrench underneath the car, his anime eyes wide with concentration. Either Speed is just simply supercharged and super pumped about tomorrow, or Speed’s on speed.
Living in a quasi-dream of a netherworld that is not quite Japan and not quite America, Speed is, quite literally, driven. It doesn’t seem to be the thrill of the race that motivates him, even though there are still thrills a-plenty that hold up surprisingly well (check out the DVD). You’ll be amazed at how powerfully these compelling stories still grip your heart and get your blood — uh — racing, even though you are no longer seven-years old.
Simply, Speed seems to be intensely focused, deeply stoic and fiercely determined, which is how we like our non-silly cartoon heroes. It’s his weighty one-dimensionalness that keeps us glued to his adventures. We learn from him that winning isn’t everything, or even the only thing – it’s how you get there and how many opportunities you are awarded to help others (aww!).
Of course, Speed has an exciting (though deadly) career, and perhaps if he were employed in the auto department of a Walmart or working Bay #3 of a Pep Boys, he wouldn’t be as enthused and more apt to snooze.
Even though his family is slightly dysfunctional, they are tremendously, almost alarmingly, supportive. There’s his crusty-but-lovable pop (Pops), who arrogantly and illogically leaves his cushy job with a large engineering firm in order to perfect his marvelous wonder car, the Mach 5.
Pops is a total fascist to his family, but they tolerate him because he’s got the engineering goods in his whacked-out head – the Mach 5 is their ticket to ride. Unlike, say, the 1989 Ford Escort, the Mach 5 comes standard with rotary swords for cutting trees (great for forest driving!), grip tires, an underwater oxygen chamber, special illumination, a periscope, and that all-important homing robot for sending for help when you are being held at gunpoint or kidnapped. No Sirius, though.
Pops almost “blows a gasket” when he first learns his son is racing in this precious super machine. However, Speed Racer and the Mach 5 take to each other like STP to an engine; once Pops sees the income the boy could net from winning tournaments, he quickly changes his warped mind. And this is years before NASCAR.
Moms Racer is the real curio. Her real name is most likely something like Carburatoretta. She’s a looker, a glamour-puss sashaying around in a tight pantsuit and a tiny apron with hearts sewn into them. Though the family is immersed in daily danger, she doesn’t seem to care about anything except serving oven-baked cookies. Call it her protection mechanism; most likely, this obsessive act is just her little way to suppress the horror of her own reality: her oldest son had run away from home and had never come back, her middle son (only 18) risks his life daily in a death machine, and her youngest is under age ten and under absolutely no adult supervision; he eats candy until his teeth rot and tends to stowaway on evildoer’s vehicles. P.S. — his most intimate friend is a clothed chimp.
There’s Trixie, of course, Speed’s look-alike girlfriend, who is rather accomplished for a pre-feminist gal pal. She can fly a plane and a maneuver a helicopter; she can also give a wicked karate chop when confronted with evil. However, she remains perky and upbeat throughout — her trademark is to giggle and wink, never letting us forget that, through it all, she’s still a female girl. Mysteriously, her blouse sports the letter “M,” like a scarlet letter. We’re left to wonder why.
Racer X (who is originally referred to as “The Masked Racer,” but the narrator drops that after one episode), is really Rex Racer (Speed’s older, somewhat-normal-named brother). Years before, Rex left home in a hissy fit after a wicked argument with Pops. Of course, this seems to be a rather lengthy period to hold a grudge against your entire family, but consider the source. Also, it deepens and sentimentalizes the plot lines, as Rex, under the mask and estranged, keeps a watchful eye out for his younger brother.
Ironically, Rex had moved on to become the world’s best racing car driver (imagine that “Most Likely To” in your high school yearbook!). He is known to have bad luck follow him in every race he enters (namely, other racers die!). However, he consistently stumps the media by wearing a mask and, even though it’s obvious to anyone with an intuition, he gives no information as to who he is and where he comes from (put this into context: there was no Internet and no Matt Drudge at this time).
Every time Racer X enters a scene, we are clued in – the narrator will remind us, “Unknown to Speed, this is his older brother, Rex, who ran away from home years ago.” We wonder if this announcement starts to wear on Rex every time he makes his entrance, yet it doesn’t seem to bruise his ego that he is always referred to in the context of his younger brother. Nevertheless, it must be a drag at parties.
The real star of the show, of course, is the theme song. You know it — you love it, but you probably didn’t realize that it was written in one afternoon and recorded in practically one take. The original Japanese version (the show was called Mach Go Go Go!) was an un-zippy, over-long, marching-band style tune, and it didn’t make the scene. The American team westernized it, and viola: one of the greatest theme songs in the history of our civilization. The jazzy closing credits, featuring a mind-blowing illustrative history of the automobile, with actual models driven by the show’s characters, is download-worthy. We’re still waiting for those damned flying cars, though.
The voiceover talent works overtime, and the overlapping of characters’ voices is both painfully obvious and pleasurably corny. Former child model and struggling actor Peter Fernandez found his niche dubbing Japanese entertainment for American audiences (Astro Boy, Marine Boy, Ultra Man, and several Godzilla flicks). Not only was he in charge of the entire U.S. translation/production of Speed Racer (trickier than it sounds), he was the voice of both Speed and Racer X. Corinne Orr was the voice of Trixie, Mom Racer and Spritel (Speed’s younger brother). You may also know her as the voice of Snuggle, the fabric softener bear. Voiceover vet Jack Grimes played Speed’s friend Sparky and Spritel’s simian friend Chim Chim.
Despite (or perhaps because of) the voiceover talent, the series will turn you as Japanese as it gets. Characters gasp in unison, or exclaim a long, drawn out expression of “ahhh’s,” “awww’s” and “oooooh’s!” Evildoers get punched, karate chopped and knocked out, but they never die. They say unlikely things such as “Unhand me!” and “Now’s our chance!” and “If you don’t make this jump, you’ll fall a thousand feet into the river. Good luck.” And all evildoers have New York accents – just like in real life.
Speed isn’t exactly the “demon on wheels” that the awesome song makes him out to be, but we’ll agree to look the other way. You’ll also wonder how the cast can wander around the Alps in the middle of a winter storm without a stitch of warm clothing. As well, Speed’s insistence on wearing an ascot is distracting, but there is a lot you can forgive here. The original animators were in love with American culture; you can see how it was absorbed and handed back to us so lovingly and with such care. It’s exactly as bad as you remember it, yet somehow better than bad.
Go, watch this DVD. Adventure’s waiting just ahead.
The Mercedes Benz 770K limousine would be considered a sweet ride if not for its evil, sinister history. In 1938, the company produced it exclusively for the top brass of the Nazi party, including Adolph Hitler himself. Yep, a monster riding a monster: the car was twenty-feet long, bulletproof, upholstered in glove leather and supercharged. When it roared by, jaws dropped, heads turned, necks craned, and you better step the hell out of its way, peasant.
By war’s end, most of these cars didn’t make it, but two of them survive and drive a fascinating, unlikely tale of mystery. Through strange-but-true plot twists that seem only believable in movies, the cars wind up in the United States. At first, they’re a sideshow attraction — war trophies on display. Yet these wheels inspire all the feels: greed, disgust, outrage, morbid curiosity, and even envy. As time goes on, the super-limos take on the sins of their fathers and inherit a shitload of misunderstandings, misinformation and misleading rumors.
Robert Klara’s book, The Devil’s Mercedes: The Bizarre and Disturbing Adventures of Hitler’s Limousine in America, traces the 40-year winding road that takes the 770Ks on their strange postwar journey. The story involves the U.S. Army, opportunistic millionaires, ravenous crowds, and even the sleuthing of an old-school Canadian librarian who helps reveal the cars’ origins in a way that Google never could.
Here, Robert gives us a test drive and the lowdown.
RON: This is an incredible story, and yet it’s the first time I’m ever hearing about it. Why is that?
ROBERT: A lot of what I write about in this book is shadow history. It’s not the sort of thing you are liable to find in museum collections or the vertical clipping files of libraries.
These cars – I’m speaking of the two I’ve focused on principally – were largely sideshow attractions. They traded hands among some pretty eccentric characters. It wasn’t really a mainstream topic. It wasn’t flowing though the recognized cultural mainstream.
If these cars had wound up in major American museums, I think it would be a different story. They only started to garner attention in the early 1980s.
What I’m doing here is a fringe topic, to put it mildly. And there are probably lots of other stories like this out there. But they exist on the periphery of a monumental topic, and that might be why you haven’t heard about it.
RON: The cars themselves are both magnificent and sinister. Give us a description of the way you personally see them.
ROBERT: I have seen both of these cars in person, and, of course, I have seen hundreds of pictures of them. I’m not new to classic cars. I’ve loved them since I was a teenager. And yet there is something about the 770K that just stands apart in a way that is difficult to process.
In terms of engineering and styling, it is a beautiful and breathtaking piece of machinery. The sweep of its lines, its appointments, its detail, its sheer strength, is magisterial. And at the same time, there is a cast to the car; there is a sinister element to the styling of it.
When you know what it is, it’s very easy to read evil into what you are looking at.
It was no accident that the National Socialists used the 770K as part of their propaganda, as part of their stagecraft. This automobile is the sort of thing that prompts you to step aside at its approach.
Even when it debuted, there was a critic who noted that the car reeked of a certain “Teutonic arrogance.” It certainly is an arrogant automobile. It has a swagger to it, not unlike the way a bully walks. That is a palpable feeling when you are in the presence of these cars.
RON: The common belief is that Hitler owned these cars, but that’s not exactly right. What’s the real story?
ROBERT: These cars were designed – not solely for Hitler – but for heads of state. Frequently, these were dictators. At the very least, they were extremely wealthy men. They were designed to impart the power and the authority of the men who could afford them.
There is an essential problem with the idea of “Hitler’s car.” The senior henchmen of the Nazis had a motorpool system. They shared their cars. While a small number of the 770Ks were armored with Hitler in mind, these cars were frequently used by many members of the Nazi elite.
Hitler was not the owner; it was a car that he used frequently. The central mystery of this book is: how do you substantiate that? How do you prove that? And I discovered, while doing research, that it’s an extremely difficult thing to do.
The complicating problem is that the cars were virtually identical. Even if you find a photograph of Hitler riding in a Grosser 770, you really don’t know what car that is, especially from a distance.[These cars’] origin stories were often hearsay to start with, because the cars were discovered in Bavaria, abandoned. Who is to say who used them, who owned them? So you have rumors lying on top of the problem that positive identification was extremely difficult.
Two-thirds of this book is about what happens when hearsay passes as fact. As these stories roll along, they become more and more embroidered. Soon, you have this hyped artifact that’s believed to be all kinds of things. There is just no proof of any of it. And resolving those mysteries is at the heart line of this book.
RON: Tell us a bit about the visceral reaction the car sparked as it toured America.
ROBERT: It evoked a range of responses, as you would expect. Some people were fascinated by it. Some people were drawn to it in a way that wasn’t very healthy. A good many people were repulsed by it, which is certainly understandable. Some people wanted to do violence to it.
If there was one response I didn’t detect in all the research I did, it was ambivalence toward it. It seemed to evoke a very strong response.
What surprised me: in the postwar period, I thought there would be more people coming forward about the way the car was being used. I thought they would be angry about its presence. It took me a while to understand that in the postwar period, the car was pretty much a war trophy. It was a symbol of a military and ideological victory. We Americans were flush with our victory, and this car was proof that we vanquished the worst totalitarian regime in the 20th century.
As time went on, the feelings about the car changed. More people came forward to express their disagreement with the car’s exhibition — and some, simply with its existence.
The increase in the awareness of the Holocaust took longer than a lot of people realize. Obviously, some Americans knew about it – some while it was still happening, and then after the war when the horrible pictures started coming out. It took time for the Holocaust to be understood as a human rights tragedy, and predominantly, the tragedy of the Jewish people.
As more Americans got a grip on the enormity and meaning of that event, the symbolism that this car embodied changed. It was no longer just a war trophy. It was a symbol of Hitler.
Click here to devour your copy of The Devil’s Mercedes.
Find out more about Robert here.
The Volkswagen Beetle – also affectionately known as the Bug – has had more lives than a cat. These animal references are appropriate: the car’s design is actually based on nature. Its original intention was meant to emulate the beauty and efficiency of streamlining and seamless movement, as practiced in the animal kingdom.
That it’s based on nature does not mean the car is perfect; in fact, it’s quite the opposite. It’s noisy. It rattles. The heater doesn’t satisfy. Yet the flaws and the quirks are what have endeared millions of fiercely loyal owners – and now hobbyists and preservationists. In other cars, flaws are intolerable; in the Volkswagen, it’s simply part of its unconventional personality.
The Bug: The Life and Times of The People’s Car documents the odd story and many lives of the most recognizable car on the planet. From its sinister beginnings in Nazi Germany to its cultural high point as a hippiemobile in the late 1960s, the tale would not be believed if it were fiction.
The Beetle’s ironic story may have been told more than that of any other car, but the chronicle is often a victim of its own awesome mythology. The Bug documentary aims to put the many-layered account on the straight and narrow, and capture the essence of what has made the tale – and the car itself – forge a separate path.
Most importantly, the story is ultimately not about the car – it’s about the people who love it. A subculture has emerged around the Volkswagen Bug, encompassing generations of owners, each one with their own impassioned connection to it.
One of this cast of millions, seen here in the film, is actor Ewan McGregor. He recounts his own first Bug as a teen in Scotland (tunes on the tape deck courtesy of Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark), and his VW obsession that followed.
Below is our rough timeline of the VW Bug. Although there seems to be a beginning, middle and end to its history, the film shows that the story guns well past the car’s expiration date.
The Volkswagen Beetle Timeline
1930s: Adolph Hitler, who never drove a car nor owned a driver’s license, plans a “people’s car” for Germans of the Third Reich. Hitler’s hero is Henry Ford; he wants to produce a car much like the Model T. He builds a factory in Wolfsburg.
The idea for the people’s car had been around even before the Nazis took power; its concept has evolved through various incarnations. The final result is called the “Strength Through Joy” car. Most Germans do not own automobiles or even garages, but the Autobahn superhighway is planned specifically to make Germans mobile.
1938: The New York Times refers to the Volkswagen as a “Baby Hitler.”
1945: Wolfsburg , Germany – and the VW factory – fall to the British when World War II ends. The Brits decide to keep the factory going, and for the car to stay alive – perhaps to introduce jobs and some semblance of stability.
1946: 10,000 VWs are produced, under poor working and living conditions in postwar West Germany. Most of the world still do not trust Germans, and wouldn’t consider buying a German product of any kind.
The factory remains damaged from the war’s air raids (gaping holes in walls and roofs), and the winter is brutal. Starvation and supply shortages persist; the factory also suffers from high turnover and low morale.
1947: The first VW export is sent to the Netherlands.
1949: The British give the Wolfsburg plant back to Germany. Ford considers partnering with VW, then rejects the idea, not seeing any real reason to do so. The first VW import comes to America.
Unlike other German car companies, VW is debt-free. VW is ready to become a proud, strong symbol of the new republic of West Germany.
Early 1950s: Because of its association with the Third Reich, VWs are hated so intensely in England that early imports are vandalized. Nevertheless, the car begins to be imported throughout Europe.
1950: The first VWs in America have a 25 horsepower engine, equal to that of a lawnmower. They’re seen as homely and bizarre. America is at the height of big-car fever, complete with tailfins and chrome. Conformity is the norm. Small, odd economy cars are barely a consideration.
1953: Only 2100 VWs are sold in America.
1955: A quirky, scrappy, offbeat VW dealership network develops in America. A foreign-car distributor in Queens, NY plans to take sales to the next level.
In Wolfsburg, West Germany, the millionth VW Beetle is produced, sparking a three-day celebration. The car becomes an international star, on par with any product from Detroit. One-third of the VWs produced are sold outside of Germany.
55,000 VWs are sold in America. VW contemplates opening a factory in the United States, but settles for a small office, VW America, in Englewood, NJ.
1957: The first imported auto show is held in LA. Most Americans don’t even know that the Japanese and the Germans make cars. The Toyota Bluebird is seen as a laughingstock.
1958: Average sticker price for a VW: $1545. The plan is to sell a thousand in America, but 50% more are sold.
Later 1950s: The VW increasingly becomes normalized and slowly lets go of its association with The Third Reich. A new generation – the Baby Boomers – are coming of age, and have no memory of the Nazis. The VW becomes simply a product unto itself, without the baggage.
Quirky college students, surfers and educated suburbanites discover its appeal. It becomes a huge seller as a second family car, for housewives and teens.
1960: VW goes public, part of the West German economic “miracle.” The Beetle becomes the biggest-selling car in Europe. It’s simple and durable; its dependability and stability are welcome and appreciated by a continent that had been nearly destroyed by war and chaos. Buying the car becomes a sign of entering the middle class.
An anti-roll bar is added to the VW; something that the Chevrolet Corvair, VW’s first serious American competition, should have considered. An anti-roll bar is necessary for cars like the VW, with engines in the back. The inequity of the car’s weight brings extra pressure on the back tires and a tendency for the car to oversteer.
The lack of an anti-roll bar contributes to a number of deaths and injuries of Corvair drivers and passengers, including the comedian Ernie Kovacs. The demise of the Corvair will be sealed thanks to the gory details included in Ralph Nader’s book, Unsafe At Any Speed.
An upstart New York advertising agency, Doyle Dane Bernbach (DDB) creates a groundbreaking campaign for the VW, called “Think Small.”
The idea: yep, the VW is smaller than American makes, but it’s a simple, honest, dependable car – a real car for real people. The “Think Small” campaign – like the car — makes no outrageous claims, unlike other Detroit manufacturers. The content and tone of the ads are low-key, unpretentious and humorous.
The print and TV promotion cause a sensation, creating a new advertising genre and igniting sales of the VW. The additional irony: most of the DDB crew is Jewish, marketing a car that was created and championed by the Nazis. Much of the campaign’s content is derived of quirky, self-deprecating Jewish humor.
The creative team at DDB longed to break away from the traditional advertising of the day, which was loud, abrasive, corny, clichéd, condescending, and overstated. The team sought advertising content that could bring more truth and a deeper meaning to what it was selling. The revolutionary goal was to treat the prospective customer with more respect.
We take this for granted today, but at the time, it was a stunning concept. DDB was as scrappy and unconventional as the VW, and both were revolutionizing their respective businesses.
Early 1960s: Detroit suddenly gets nervous about VW’s growing success. Ford introduces the Falcon as its version of an inexpensive, no-frills car. It sells well but has no personality. Plymouth markets the Valiant, which is also a hit. However, Americans don’t yet pay much attention to gas mileage or safety features.
1964: In Germany, $25 bonds are given to any baby born in a Beetle. They’re called Beetle babies. By 1969, 125 babies are born in Beetles.
Later 1960s: The VW becomes the unofficial car of the hippie movement, and becomes closely associated with the counterculture. The well-understood irony, of course: a product of an evil empire now becomes a huggable, lovable symbol of freedom, self-expression, and flower power.
1969: Walt Disney’s The Love Bug, about a VW with human qualities, is a huge hit at the box office.
1972: VW beats the historic Model T sales record. This is the peak year for the VW Beetle.
1974: The VW’s appeal begins to recede. The global oil crisis and competition from Japan makes the car suddenly seem outdated and stale. Japanese imports, like the Honda Civic, are prettier, sturdier, and offer better handling and gas mileage. The Japanese imports are the right cars at the right time. The Bug’s sales begin to fall.
1978: The last Beetle is produced in America. Manufacturing shifts to Mexico and Brazil, where operating costs are lower.
1998: The VW Beetle is reintroduced, but the thrill is gone. There is a slight resemblance, but it’s too sleek, too powerful, too…not the original VW. The reborn car is a mild success, but not embraced by the world in the same way. Lightning does not strike twice.
1999: Advertising Age names the VW “Think Small” campaign of the early Sixties to be the best advertising campaign of the previous hundred years, beating, among others, Coke, Nike, McDonald’s and Marlboro.
2003: The last official VW Beetle rolls off the assembly line in Puebla, Mexico. This omega Bug, nicknamed El Rey (The King) is delivered to the VW museum in Wolfsburg, Germany.
Click here to find out more and to screen The Bug: The Life and Times of The People’s Car.