This Ultra-Lux Mercedes-Benz 600 Is Still The Ultimate In Opulent Transportation
Photography by Robb Pritchard
With 82 vehicles to his name, José Mira is one of Portugal’s best-known classic car collectors. No matter the number, we all have our preferences, and two stand out for him in particular. His absolute favorite is his 1955 300 SL Gullwing, but the one he most prefers to drive in is the 1967 600.
In the courtyard of his mansion, next to a big pool and huge, ornate fountain—you’re getting the sense of things now—the 600 is surrounded by opulence, and as such, it is parked in its natural habitat. With a ride quality that still puts all but the most expensive of modern cars to shame (and even that, is subjective), the high-status, high-security 600s were popular with the Who’s Who of despotic world leaders, whose bumper-mounted flags were synonymous with human rights abuses. Infamous owners included Idi Amin, all the Kim Jongs, Nicolae Ceaușescu, Pol Pot, and the Pope.
But the car’s elegance and comfort also meant it was popular with the type of people for whom money was no object to their desire to own a motoring icon; John Lennon, Elvis Presley, Rowan Atkinson, and Jeremy Clarkson to name a few of that crowd. But José’s 600 is a very special example of a very special car. In 1967 this was actually the most expensive road-legal automobile in the world, and the person who can claim the accolade of owning what could be the world’s most unique 600 would have gone to this car’s first owner, an eccentric Armenian oil magnate by the name of Nubar Gulbenkian.
To better describe his wealth and levels of said eccentricity, it would be helpful to compare him to a modern day celebrity perhaps, but with the monocle, outrageous mustache, a penchant for making hideous modifications to London taxicabs, a daily fresh orchid for his buttonhole, and a known playboy lifestyle, only a Victorian version of Dan Bilzerian comes to mind. But the best way to know about a person so rich and so obsessed with tiny details is to look at the car he had made for him.
The boxy body and front end that graced a quarter of a million 200-series sedans through the 1960s and ‘70s might not have aged as well some of the marque’s more artfully-bodied machines, but the 600s weren’t meant to just be flash. With an advanced and intricate hydraulic system for the suspension and even to operate the doors and windows and all manner of other functionality, it took levels of sophistication to previously unheard of new heights of consumer automotive engineering.
With a price tag that would have bought three contemporary Lincoln Continentals, they were the Maybachs of their day, and then some. A perfect car for the richest set of the world, however those means of purchase were acquired.
But Nubar didn’t want just a run of the mill 600. In London he had a Rolls Royce Silver Wraith with a full perspex roof that was well known on the city streets, and he wanted something similar for one of his summer houses near Cannes, natch.
Glass roofs weren’t a modification that Mercedes undertook though, so they said no… but someone in their marketing team actually boasted that they’d turned down the great Mr. Gulbenkian, which didn’t impress him too much. So under a false name, Nubar ordered a standard W100 (the 600) through a French MB dealer and then sent it to the workshop of French coachbuilder Henri Chapron in Paris.
Well known for making open-topped Citroën DSes, he also took on bespoke commissions and this car must be one of his most distinctive creations. Taking a close look at the 35mm-thick single sheet of glass in the roof, it’s not completely flat, but rather it tapers to the edges and makes it a slightly concave shape. It has to be that thick as it needed to take up the structural integrity of the car. A few cracks are spreading out from the rear nearside corner as shown, but José’s son Miguel explains that unfortunately it will be near-impossible to repair without replacing the entire pane. “Cost is one thing,” Miguel shrugs. “But finding someone who can make glass like that today would be the hardest part.”
The roof-length window wasn’t just so Nubar could look up at the leafy trees over the French roads; he was famous for being a playboy and wanted to be able to lie down with his chosen lady friend to stare up at the stars. To facilitate this, the back seats were made to fold down to make a double bed—what a way to spend a first date!
But the personalized quirkiness of the car doesn’t stop there. A resident of the Ritz hotel, he was an upstanding member of the British upper class and was very proud of his beard and went to great lengths to keep it perfectly maintained and impeccably groomed. The exquisite facial foliage is long gone now seeing as Nubar passed away in 1972, but the leather pouches in the doors that delicate little handheld mirrors slip into and special deflector frames of glass were designed with the sole purpose of regulating the flow of fresh air to create the minimal turbulence.
Delicate little holders for a couple of pipes which are still mounted there are sculpted into the backs of the front seats, one on each side so no matter where he sat he’d never have to lean over to reach one. And the little glass cubbyhole was so he could see how much wine was still left in the bottle. Between the seats is a little mini bar, again a very unusual addition for car in 1967.
But if this doesn’t give a picture of just how into his car Nubar was, the extra fuel gauge and speedometer set into the back of the front seats might. It seems utterly bizarre that a man who made such a fortune in the oil industry, so much that he would be a multi-billionaire in today’s money, made sure that the chauffeur was driving as efficiently as possible… In a car that weighs 2600kg and does 12mpg, it seems like an exercise in futility… but this is a man who sued his father for $10 million over a chicken sandwich, as the story goes. The car cost 82,000DM, but the work carried out to make it his own was a massive 100,000DM, which in today’s money would be somewhere north of a million USD.
“Normal” 600s are known for their lavish interior trimmings of expensive hardwoods, and perhaps showing a disdain for nature that wouldn’t be so unusual for someone high up in the petroleum industry today. However in here there is not a single hint of tree inside. The interior is upholstered entirely of leather, which is another customization that makes this car unique. Of course, it wouldn’t have been comfortable to be chauffeured around under the glass roof in the glaring midday sun, so a there is a delicate system of twin leather-lined blinds that fold back from either end to meet in the middle.
José has a penchant for cars that have never been rolled into a restorer’s workshop, and the 600 is just how Nubar left it. And in keeping with his noted eccentricity, there is a rather odd reason reason for that. The grounds of his house in Cannes were looked after by a Portuguese gardener, and on what seems to be a just a whim, Nubar decided to leave the car to him. That seems surprising enough in itself, but whereas many lower-class workers, upon receiving such a windfall, would have just sold it and lived off the proceeds for many years to come, he instead imported it back to Portugal… and just left it in storage. For 30 years. Miguel is at a loss to explain this, but when it was finally time to sell it, all the car needed was a thorough clean and minimal service.
After shooting it in Miguel’s garden, it was time for a test drive of sorts, down to the centre of Lisbon to enjoy the scene of the classic car display on the Avenida da Liberdade, the main street of Lisbon. The old-fashioned starter motor sounded like something off an ancient Land Rover, but the huge the 6.3L V8 coughed into life and began consuming petrol at an alarming rate. 600s were only bought in period by the richest of the rich, and because of their high running costs and insane maintenance bills should anything in the hydraulic system need repairing they are still only cars for the classic collecting elite or the moneyed enthusiast.
Once the heavy doors are clamped shut, the low grumble of the engine is all but completely muffled in the back. Then, pulling the gear lever on the steering column, Miguel sets us off. It’s an odd wading feeling, like being on a big boat on a calm sea, and while looking down and fiddling with my camera settings I was almost instantly car sick. Fumbling to open the window didn’t help, as the extra pane was designed to make the of minimum air disturbances, so not much fresh air coming my way.
On the main road though, I can really appreciate the ride quality and several times have to remind myself that this is a 50-year-old car. In the 1960s it was in a completely different league to anything else on the road, and in many ways still is. Up front the near-silent V8 makes 300bhp, but only 250 of that reaches the wheels, as a huge 50bhp is used to power the hydraulic system, which runs at a staggering 2176 psi (150 bar) to assist with opening and closing the doors, as well as the boot lid, windows, and if you have a 600 that “only” has a sun roof, that too.