Jack Nicholson’s Mercedes-Benz 600 Grosser Stands In
Story and photos by Forest Casey, courtesy of Petersen Automotive Museum
Robert E. Petersen’s hot rod Bentley Turbo R was too new. The four-seat Ferrari Mondial Cabriolet was, too. The Petrolicious Rally requirements were straightforward: The car had to be pre-1975. Four members of the Petersen team were interest in attending so we had to pick a four-seater. The toughest part of the rally was going to be choosing the car.
Though Petrolicious had hosted rallies before, it was always for private entries. The rally scheduled on November 15—from the base of Malibu through Ventura County and back to Paramount Ranch—was to be their first rally open to the public. The rally’s map came in a paper envelope stamped with the Petrolicious logo and a large, hand-lettered version of the Culver City vintage car connoisseur publication’s motto: “Drive Tastefully.”
Though the Mustang II fit all the criteria, it would surely be the only member of its kind attending the Rally (and, indeed, the most difficult ‘Stang to source when the Petersen celebrated the Mustang’s fiftieth anniversary this past June), the car’s status as an also-ran in a five-decade run of legendary American cars could be taken as an insult amidst a rally of petrolisti. We wanted to take this seriously.
The night before the rally, a member of the team thought to use John Frankenheimer’s Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud Mk.III. Whenever we take a car out of the Petersen’s vault, it basically becomes a mobile museum—The Petersen on wheels—so it has to provide some means of education. The Frankenheimer Rolls was the very car to deliver Robert F. Kennedy to the Ambassador Hotel on the night of his assassination in June of 1968. So, certainly a candidate with historical importance. But this was a proper 160-mile rally we were undertaking; the Rolls’ comfort-tuned suspension would have rolled in the canyon roads above Malibu and wallowed its way through to Ojai.
The car we had chosen—our prime candidate—was in the shop. It was a 1972 Mercedes-Benz 600 Grosser, which translates from German as: “large.” It’s a mountain of a machine, built to seat four 300-lb. men in comfort and still storm across Germany via the autobahn. This car carries historical provenance, too: This was Jack Nicholson’s 600.
It is superlative, a beacon of quality from the automobile’s darkest days, a car for people with money, real money—old money—a car for oligarchs and oil tycoons, for despots and kings. The King of rock and roll, Elvis himself, owned a 600. Whenever automotive journalists discuss the Grosser, its distinguished list of owners is never far behind. For what it’s worth, the list includes: Pol Pot, Pablo Escobar, “Baby Doc” Duvalier, Robert Mugabe, Kim Jong-Il, Saddam Hussein, and, perhaps worst of all, Jezza (Jeremy Clarkson).
Peaceful royalty rode in 600s, also: Coco Chanel and Karen Carpenter, Pope Paul VI and Queen Elizabeth II. Before his death, John Lennon sold his to George Harrison, meaning Harrison had a pair of 600s. Add to these, the aforementioned King of Hollywood: Jack Nicholson.
No actor in Hollywood’s history has been nominated for more Academy Awards than Jack Nicholson. However, since 1971, Nicholson has not appeared on television, claiming that the talk show circuit only leads to overexposure. Jack bought this 600 after filming 1987’s The Witches of Eastwick. This car was bought by the studio and used thoroughly during the shoot: At one point, Nicholson’s character (he’s credited as “Daryl Van Horne,” though he really plays the Devil incarnate) crashes out of the 600’s back window. During the film’s climactic chase scene, this car crashes headfirst into a concrete wall—though that could easily just be “movie magic.” Reportedly, Jack Nicholson took such a liking to the 600 that after filming on Witches wrapped, he bought (and assumedly restored and repainted) the picture car from Warner Bros. Once done with the car, he donated it to the Petersen Automotive Museum.
All the on-set abuse might explain the 600’s current status. On a drive up Laurel Canyon to test the car’s road-worthiness one week before the rally, the big Mercedes developed an alarming rattle on bumpy left-hand turns. Worse, the car’s mighty dual exhausts had sprung a leak. Or two. Instead of a refined exhaust note, we heard the quiet “Lum-lum-lumm-lumm” of an idling powerboat. Would this be the best way to represent The Petersen? Would the Benz even be able to finish the rally?
The Petersen’s mechanics started working on the car the minute we returned to the museum. Looking underneath the 600’s chassis, you could see the forty-year-old rubber hangers and bushings were well worn. Exhaust sealant filled a pinhole near the beginning of the exhaust pipe and hopefully smoothed out some shoddy welds towards the end of it too. Good enough for a one-day rally, at least.
The night before the rally, the 600 was still up on the lift. We left the sealant to work its magic on the exhaust and planned to meet at 6:15 the following morning. If the Benz didn’t start, we could always take the Mustang II…
It did. Thanks, Jack!
For the full story on the 600 Grosser and the rally, check out carstories.com.