Towson author's paean to the glory of Mercedes

WAY BACK WHEN

Back Story

December 16, 2006|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,Sun reporter

Who hasn't had a Walter Mitty daydream of roaring over the open road in a Mercedes-Benz with the top down, a beautiful companion at your side, and the speedometer standing slightly off the century mark?

These elegant driving machines that have been synonymous for over 100 years with luxury, affluence and power politics are the subject of Apex of Glory: Benz, Daimler & Mercedes-Benz 1885-1955, a recently published book written by Blaine Taylor of Towson.

The book, which tips the scales at a little over 4 pounds and includes 450 photographs of the fabled cars, will send the most dyed-in-the-wool Mercedes fan over the top.

Of the vehicle's birth, Taylor writes, "The car ... had been invented jointly but separately by German entrepreneurs Carl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler in 1885, and their firms remained fierce rivals until their unexpected merger in 1926."

Since 1998, when the company Daimler-Benz AG merged with Chrysler Corp. to become DaimlerChrysler, it has been the world's fifth- largest automobile manufacturer.

"The most popular car in Albania is the Mercedes-Benz. ... They outnumber all other brands by as much as two-to-one," reported The New York Times in 2002. An Albanian cabdriver added a certain elan to the subject when he told the newspaper's reporter, "They're also a bit of a status symbol. Who wants to drive anything else if you can have a Mercedes?"

And why not?

"They exude prestige. They're top of the line. It's good, solid workmanship. You buy it for life," Taylor said yesterday. He is a former assistant editor of Baltimore Magazine and former managing editor of The Maryland State Medical Journal who earned a bachelor's degree in history from what is now Towson University in 1972. "The wealthy always buy Mercedes."

Taylor, 60, who neither owns nor drives a car and acknowledges that he has sat in a Mercedes only once in his life, first saw the car's famous three-pointed star logo when he was a teenager living in Waverly.

"Believe it or not, there were a few people living in Waverly in those years who owned and drove Mercedes automobiles," Taylor said.

He was further drawn to the subject by feature articles on Adolf Hitler's cars -- the Nazi dictator had a fleet of 200 Mercedes-Benz parade cars and limousines -- that were published during the 1950s in men's magazines and on televised World War II documentaries showing Hitler standing in his car reviewing troops or entering a vanquished land.

"I was fascinated," he said.

Not only was Hitler a steady customer, so was the German royal family. Kaiser Wilhelm II fled into exile in Holland along with his Mercedes touring car. In 1931, the Kaiser ordered a cabriolet F 770K Grosser Mercedes, an eight-cylinder giant that weighed 3 tons and was over 20 feet long.

Even ex-kaisers need to travel in luxury, and Wilhelm had the symbol of the House of Hohenzollern emblem mounted on the vehicle's radiator where the Mercedes' three-pointed star normally would be placed.

From 1926 to 1945, there was no better Mercedes-Benz customer than Hitler and cronies who shared their boss' penchant for the luxury cars. And the company wasn't about to miss an opportunity to capitalize on the relationship.

It wasn't uncommon to see large portraits of Hitler hanging on the walls of dealerships, and a popular slogan used by the company during the 1930s said, "The Mercedes Star on Hitler's Car Blazes."

Hitler preferred Mercedes 770K Grossers -- "monsters," Taylor reports, that had seven seats, extra side windows, and a top speed of 100 mph. The Mercedes G-4 was an open touring car.

"They were very heavy, heavy cars and, needless to say, gas-guzzlers. They were painted a dark blue and not black," Taylor said. "Hitler purchased top-of-the-line models because he used them in PR gigs to impress the electorate with the invulnerability of his Germany."

"Francisco Franco had a Mercedes, as did Egypt's King Farouk. Most all of the 1930 industrialists and movie stars, such as Clark Gable, Carole Lombard, Marlene Dietrich and Gary Cooper, drove them," he said.

Did Hitler drive?

"The first thing I did on leaving the prison at Landsberg on the 20th December 1924, was to buy my supercharged Mercedes. Although I've never driven myself, I've always been passionately keen on cars," Hitler said in 1942, reports Taylor in Apex of Glory.

Hitler, fearing that the "conditional liberty" granted him by the Weimar government would be withdrawn if he were behind the wheel in an accident, left the driving to others -- mainly to a staff of chauffeurs.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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