It could have been a Rolls-Royce.
It could have also been a Mustang II…
PART ONE: THE CAR
Robert E. Petersen's Hot Rod Bentley Turbo R was too new. The four-seat Ferrari Mondial Cabriolet was, too. The requirements of the Petrolicious Rally were straightforward: The car had to be pre-1975. Four members of the Petersen team showed interest in attending—we had to pick a four-seater—the toughest part was going to be choosing which car.
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For those of you unfamiliar, Petrolicious is a relatively-new publication which focuses mostly on vintage cars—that was the reason for the pre-1975 edict. Though they've held 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, though it would surely be the only member of its kind attending the Petrolicious Rally (and, indeed, the most difficult 'Stang to source when the Petersen celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Mustang 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 seat four 300-lb. men in comfort and still barnstorm across the autobahn. This car carries historical provenance, too: This was Jack Nicholson's 600.
It is superlative, a beacon of quality from the dark ages of the malaise era, 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 it, they're always sure to list the people who've owned a 600: Pol Pot, Pablo Escobar, "Papa Doc" Duvalier, Robert Mugabe, Kim Jong-Il, Sadaam Hussein, 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. Jack bought this 600 after filming 1987's The Witches of Eastwick. This car was bought by the studio and used throughly 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 Nicholosn 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 current status of the museum's 600. On a drive up Lauren 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 mechanic team started working on the car the minute we returned to the museum. Looking underneath the 600's chassis, you could see the 40-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…
PART TWO: THE RALLY
The next morning, the car started without complaint. While far from being silent, the Mercedes' exhaust was sufficiently subtle for our purposes. The car slipped out of the Vault and onto side streets to the freeway. We were bound for the coast, doing a comfortable 80 miles per hour due west. The rally's starting grid was outside L.A. city limits, in the parking lot of the Malibu Country Mart shopping center.
Petrolicious' primo capo, Afshin Behina was there to hand out maps and greet the participants. And what a field—participating cars included a genuine Porsche 906, a mix of real and replica Porsche 356s, a squadron of Alfas, a Ferrari 250 California Spyder and a lively-looking "Gulf"-liveried Lotus Esprit. My personal favorite was a double-bubble Abarth with an olive oil can in the trunk.
After a muffin or two and a quick appraisal of one another's vintage machinery, it was time to depart. The line of cars exiting the parking lot would have forced even the most aloof Malibu local to stop and stare. We were aboard one of only two Mercedes-Benz cars entered in the rally, the other being a black 1970s-era SL, so it felt good to see the brand's the three-pointed star logo behind a pack of Italian roadsters. Our 600 lined up in front of a giant 1970's Dodge conversion van with alien space stations airbrushed on its sides. So—an eclectic bunch.
Surprisingly for a '70s vehicle, the 600 features a sort of "touring" mode—depress a lever to the left of the steering wheel and the car stiffens, the engine-driven hydraulic suspension system increasing the pressure in each of the shock absorbers to 3,000 pounds per square inch. The hydraulic fluid was based on (natural) mineral oil, as synthetic oil wasn't regularly used in automobiles until the mid-1970s. Predictably, this system is extraordinarily complex, with miles of hydraulic tubing running through the car, controlling everything from the windows to the trunk, which closes automatically with a simple pull of a lever. The Grosser's front suspension is independent (naturally) and features ball joints holding the front wheels at a time when even the mighty Mercedes W108 luxury sedans of the era were riding on kingpins, which made regular maintenance both a chore and a necessity. By contrast, the 600's hydraulic system can run for years if it's properly maintained.
So, it was a bit of a relief to learn that our 600's air suspension hasn't lost much in the 40+ years since it was first installed. In the mountain roads above Malibu, the Grosser flung itself around corners with an ability that contrasts completely with its curb weight. Nearly three tons of German glass, metal and leather hurtling through tight-radius turns—what's the shortest line between two points on a curve? The Grosser.
All the while, the air suspension absorbed the cracks and bumps which pockmark the roads of Ventura County. To say the 600 cornered completely flat would be an exaggeration—our backseat passengers made use of the rear cabin's cowhide-wrapped handles—but it would certainly be sufficient for "Sir" to read his Wall St. Journal in the backseat on the way to work without interruption, even if "Sir" was being pursued by would-be assassins.
Up the mountain roads, our 600 was, for a time, chased by that custom Dodge van. But, because of general laws of physics and displacement, it was soon overtaken by the Porsche 906. It was then that another function of the 600 revealed itself. The car's extended greenhouse, the glassed-in area above the doors, was made for dignitaries 6 ft. and taller, which granted excellent visibility, and when mated with that smooth air suspension, turned the Grosser into a fine camera car. Photographing the other cars of the rally through all that vintage glass made for some very Petrolicious-esque images.
That's not to say the 600 didn't hold its own on the rally. We talked later to the owners of a Fiat Spyder and a Delorean DMC-12, who both expressed how difficult it was to keep up with the big Benz. So, the 600: Not a lightweight in any sense of the word.
By the time we found the rally's destination (with a quick stopover to refuel), the 600 had proven itself as both comfortable touring car and competent race car. The point of the Petrolicious rally was not to race, however, but just to participate. There was no prize for first place, just the reward of parking in a peaceful place along with some choice machinery—three generations of Porsche sports cars, 1980s-era supercars showing off their wedge styling—all in the idillic (and semi-bizarre) environment of Paramount Ranch.
Though it might sound obvious to say, Paramount Ranch was once owned by Paramount Pictures. This is the site where classic westerns like Gunsmoke and Gunfight at the OK Corral were filmed. A large portion of the "wild west" backdrop is still standing, so it felt altogether fitting and proper that we took a Hollywood vehicle on the rally. It couldn't have been a Rolls, it shouldn't have been the Mustang II—the only car capable of shuttling four adults on a run through the hills of Malibu was the car we chose, Jack Nicholson's 600.
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