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.