The limousine of evil

Following World War II, more than one of Hitler’s Mercedes cars wound up in the US.

Adolf Hitler waves to crowds in his six-seater Mercedes car in this undated World War II file photo (photo credit: REUTERS)
Adolf Hitler waves to crowds in his six-seater Mercedes car in this undated World War II file photo
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Non-fiction books with copious footnotes can make for ponderous reading. Not this one. I was hooked on The Devil’s Mercedes: The Bizarre and Disturbing Adventures of Hitler’s Limousine in America from the first paragraph, thanks to the captivating subject matter and the clear, conversational prose in which it is conveyed.
The words “bizarre” and “disturbing” in the subtitle only begin to hint at the sheer weirdness of this true account of the Mercedes- Benz Grosser 770K Model 150 Offener Tourenwagens that symbolized the terrifying power of the Nazis who rode in them.
These open touring cars, first minted in 1938, were 20 feet long, seven feet wide and weighed nearly five tons, with armor plating and hidden compartments for Luger pistols. The supercharged, gas-guzzling 230-horsepower engine could propel the 770K to upwards of 100 miles per hour. Glove-leather seats stuffed with goose down cushily accommodated up to eight occupants.
Among other special features, the opulent cars were built with a hinged front passenger’s seat that flipped up to reveal a six-inch platform bolted to the floor. This platform permitted a passenger named Adolf Hitler to ride standing up while appearing taller than his actual five-foot-eight- inch height.
Hitler not only relished being driven around in 770K cars, but also ordered them as gifts for strategic political allies. Between 25 and 30 of the 44 Grosser Model 150s built by Mercedes for the Reich leadership survived World War II.
Robert Klara’s book traces the trajectories of two of these “rolling relics of fascism” brought to the United States soon after the war, one as the trophy of an ordinary GI and the other as collateral in a business deal.
Objects of fascination to some and repulsion to others, the German limousines were paraded around the US to raise money for charity, to help pay off Uncle Sam’s war debts, to attract attention and to educate the public.
They were auctioned for exorbitant sums, stashed in storage for long periods of time, ruined and restored.
However, Klara reveals that the mythology surrounding each of these sinister vehicles was “a mixture of fact, embellishment, and supposition.”
The Mercedes touted as Hitler’s personal automobile had chauffeured the evil dictator only twice, while the one purported to have belonged to Hermann Goering turned out to be Hitler’s.
It would take 40 years, a cast of carnies and collectors, the US Army, and the sleuthing of a misanthropic German-Canadian librarian to unravel the twisted tales.
Meanwhile, not surprisingly, the menacing motor vehicles elicited a wide range of responses. For example, after a radio announcer in California joked that the limo thought to be Hitler’s should be sent to the brand-new state of Israel to be refashioned as an ambulance, “within 15 minutes the station had 100 calls with offers of money to ship the car over.”
Among the countless Americans who came to gawk at one of the touring cars was a young Robert Klara, at a 1970s New York State fair. His mother reluctantly gave him the 50 cents required to enter the trailer in which the Mercedes was displayed. He reached into the partially opened window of the car to touch the bulletproof glass, and then quickly left the trailer as he realized “he was entirely alone with the most fearsome car he’d ever seen.”
In the 1980s, the limo that had been Hitler’s started to attract neo-Nazis to the room in which it had come to be exhibited at the Canadian War Museum. The car had “a treacherous dual personality,” Klara writes, capable of “informing and even benefiting the public” but also capable of acting as “a magnet for those who heard the sounds of jackboots in their heads.”
After much deliberation and public input, the museum directors decided to keep the “dazzling and wretched machine” rather than sell it, fearing that it could end up in the hands of an extremist group.
The Devil’s Mercedes had delivered renown and admission receipts to the museum, but it had also conjured a dark cloud whose presence over the institution would be permanent,” writes Klara.
In the epilogue of this riveting book, Klara shares his trepidation at “presenting a figure like Hitler through the lens of an automobile: With all the horrors and human tragedy for which the man was responsible, would it seem flippant to devote an entire book to the vehicle that happened to cart him around?” he wondered.
Ultimately he opted to go ahead with the project, because, as a storyteller, he felt the intertwining sagas of the two cars “raised compelling questions about this country’s relationship to its greatest war, and also because, well, these stories are strange, unsettling, and fascinating.”
Readers will come away convinced that Klara made the right choice.