On July 25, 1956, the Swedish passenger liner Stockholm collided with Italian luxury liner Andrea Doria about 45 miles southeast of Nantucket, Massachusetts. The causes of the accident—which resulted in the sinking of the Andrea Doria—have been debated ever since, making it one of the maritime world’s great controversies. Eight years earlier, the Stockholm enabled an entirely different kind of controversy by transporting (from Sweden to New York) what would one day be referred to as “the most famous used car in the world.” Specifically, the Stockholm carried a Mercedes-Benz Grosser 770K Model 150 Offener Tourenwagen—a dark blue, armored, hearse-like limo with a supercharged 230-horsepower engine and 52-gallon gas tank that had ostensibly been utilized by Adolf Hitler. It was sent special delivery to Christopher Janus, managing director of Chicago’s Eximport Associates, who had acquired the car in a trade.
Decades later it would become clear that this particular limo had relatively little connection to Hitler; in fact, Hitler had gifted it to Carl Gustaf Mannerheim (sometimes referred to as “the George Washington of Finland”), and the führer rode in the car on only two occasions. But Janus didn’t hesitate to play fast and loose with the facts and sent the car—which was advertised as having belonged to Hitler—on tours of America, making headlines and drawing crowds wherever it went. The so-called Mannerheim limo would go on to sell for $153,000 at auction in 1973, and has since been restored, so an individual with access to the car could—even today—stand in its front seat, much as Hitler might have done more than seven decades ago as he rolled through Nazi parades and rallies.
In the book “The Devil’s Mercedes” (Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press), author Robert Klara recounts the “bizarre and disturbing” travels of this rare automobile, as well as that of a different 770K, one which was initially believed to have been utilized by Hermann Göring, but in fact turned out to be Hitler’s ride. That Mercedes is currently on display at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, in spite of the fact that it has no connection to Canadian military history.
In the following Failure Interview, Klara discusses the history of both limos, the far-reaching pitfalls of owing one of them, and how the public’s perception of the cars has changed over time. Much like the story of The Nazi Titanic and Bundesführer Fritz Kuhn’s Nuremberg-style rally at New York’s Madison Square Garden in 1939, the existence of these Nazi limousines has largely been forgotten, even as their histories have become increasingly compelling over time.
What inspired you to write about this topic?
I didn’t set out to write about a car; I wanted to do a story about a cursed object. I don’t believe in curses but I am very interested in things with a notorious past that are attractive or repulsive for that reason. The best example I can think of is the Hope Diamond. That idea was taken, but then I thought, “What if there was a car that was cursed?” I started looking for cursed cars and the best one I found was the one in which Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated. But I couldn’t go to Austria for a few months to do the research.
Then one day it hit me: “What did Adolf Hitler drive?” I figured if any of those cars survived there was no way they were not encumbered with the weight of that history. When I found out that two of the cars—if not more—had come to the United States after World War II, I said, “There is no way this isn’t a story.” And it was.
At the beginning of the book, you describe how Christopher Janus acquired what he believed to be Adolf Hitler’s limousine.
Janus hadn’t set out to own anything like that. He started out in business after World War II, setting himself up as an import-export agent. He had shipped a very, very expensive lot of auto parts to Sweden with the understanding that he would be paid in American dollars. As it turns out, his customer in Sweden didn’t have American dollars and Janus didn’t want Swedish kronor as payment because European currencies were unstable after the war. He was scared that he was going to lose his shirt on the deal, and in a moment of desperation, he decided he might be able to barter.
The guy on the other end of the phone said: “I have a car I can trade you.” Janus was thinking that there was no way any car would be worth the amount—$35,000—that he was into the deal for, but then the guy said, “It’s not just a car, it is Hitler’s.”
Janus saw the car not only as a way to get his investment back, but a way to have a little bit of an adventure. It occurred to him immediately to put the car on public display. I credit him for embracing a really unusual opportunity.
Tell me a little about Janus’ Mercedes—and the other 770K Model 150s like it.
I don’t think anything quite like them has been built since. Even in an era of enormous automobiles, these were exceptionally long cars with exceptionally powerful engines. The 770K Model 150 was enormous—over twenty feet long and over seven feet wide—and because of the armor plating the car weighed somewhere in the neighborhood of ten-thousand pounds. The windows were an inch-and-a-half thick and the car could take machine gun fire. It was said—though nobody ever tested this—that it could be driven over a land mine.
The bewitching thing about the 770K was that it essentially functioned as a tank, yet it was an incredibly stylish automobile—and very self-important looking as well. It took a step beyond the traditional styling of the late 1930s. It had these dramatically sweeping fenders and very dramatic lines but there was something sinister about the styling. Even if you didn’t know that these cars were favored by Hitler you would probably still feel an edge of intimidation.
In fact, when Mercedes debuted the first Type 770 automobiles at the Paris Motor Show in 1930, one reviewer scoffed at what he called the “Teutonic arrogance” of the styling. The cars were meant to be impressive but they wound up being intimidating looking. I have been around a lot of old cars but there is something different about these; maybe it’s the color, the shape, and knowing the history that shades perception, but they are diabolical looking machines.
How did the American public react to the car when Janus took it on tour in the late 1940s?
I would have thought that people would be repulsed by it because of its association with Hitler. There was a little bit of that, but mostly people were drawn to it and I think that was because it was largely seen as a war trophy. It was a symbol of the Allied victory over the Nazis, and to see the car was essentially a patriotic act. Part of that was that many early appearances of the car were tied together with fund raising and the proceeds going to benefit a wide variety of causes. One of the cars was even used by the U.S. military in a recruiting drive. So its symbolism was bound up with patriotism in those early years.
What were some of the pitfalls of owning a 770K?
There were several. One was the mechanical part of it. The car did a terrific job of protecting its occupants, assuming you were afraid of being shot at. But it was wildly impractical. The gas mileage was atrocious [4-7 mpg] and there was no power steering, so if you can imagine pulling on the wheel to turn a five-ton car, that couldn’t have been much fun.
The other problem is that at the time, Mercedes was largely an unknown make in the U.S. and it was easy to run into trouble simply because you didn’t know how to maintain the car. Janus put new tires on his car when it came to the U.S. and they weren’t the correct size so he had tires blowing out on him. There were also other quirks that nobody quite worked out, including a heater that wouldn’t shut off; the heater was located under the front passenger seat, which is where Hitler would usually sit. Read into that what you will.
Another liability was in managing the weight of the symbolism of what you owned. It was bound up with all of the baggage that Hitler implies. Though many were fascinated to see the car, there were as many people—especially as the years went on—who weren’t seeing a car, they were seeing Hitler. The car became a kind of metaphorical stand-in for Hitler and as such there were people who wanted to destroy it. There were also a lot of wing-nuts who wanted to touch the car and interact with it. Anyone who possesses an object of this notoriety needs to gird himself for a level of public interest that most of us would not be comfortable with.
Did Janus really use the limo as a family car?
After World War II the auto factories in Detroit—which had been making tanks and airplane engines—had to retool for civilian production. That process took a few years, so if you wanted a new car in 1945-46 there was a long waiting list. Janus was well off and could afford a new car but he was on a waiting list. He joked that he couldn’t get a car from Detroit, but was able to get Hitler’s car with just a phone call. As impractical as it was, it was a drivable car, and when it was not on a public tour he drove it around Chicago. That led to further problems, because everywhere this car went it drew a crowd. It was impossible not to be a public figure if you owned a 770K.
The other car, which is referred to in the book as “The Göring Special,” ended up at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa. How did it become, as you put it, “the secret shame” of the museum?
[Laughs]. That was a bit of a problem, and to some degree, it still is. The problem is when the Canadian War Museum got a building of its own in the late 1960s the curators got very excited and began to amass artifacts to put on display. This gentleman came along who said he had a Mercedes that was owned by Hermann Göring. He gave them the car and they were thrilled to accept it, but in the heat of the moment nobody seemed to have asked the question: Do you have any proof that Göring owned the car? In fact, nobody did. So the museum put it on display before they had established the car’s provenance.
The moment it went on display it became popular, and before they knew it the museum had an artifact that was the most popular item in the museum but it had a murky past that they couldn’t substantiate, which is a big problem for a cultural/academic institution. If you put something on display, the public takes you at your word that it is what you say it is.
Then Ludwig Kosche, the museum’s librarian—who I hope I give sufficient credit to, because he was responsible for the Herculean feat of identifying that car—discovered that it was, in fact, Hitler’s car. Still, the museum had a secondary problem—which nobody seems to have raised in the late 1960s—which is that the Canadian War Museum is devoted to collecting and displaying pieces of Canadian military history. But there was no connection; the patron of this car was an American—Sergeant Joseph Azara [from Cleveland, who had captured the car during a firefight with four Wehrmacht soldiers in Laufen, Germany]. There was no link to Canadian history and there was one curator who said: We shouldn’t own it. He caught all kinds of hell for that.
So the museum is very happy that it has something that drives the public’s attention, but it’s an awkward thing because it doesn’t relate to Canadian military history and yet an attempt to get rid of it was met with public backlash. So first it was an embarrassment because they couldn’t prove who it belonged to, and then it became a different kind of problem because it had no connection to Canadians fighting in World War II.
You’ve seen both of the cars in-person; can you describe the effect they have on people?
The Canadian car is the bona fide Hitler limousine; it has been demonstrated that he used that car for something like two years. I spent a week in Ottawa and spent many hours standing in front of that car and the range of responses is fascinating to watch. Most visitors don’t appear to know exactly what they are looking at until they read the placard. Some people kind of hurry away from it, because it’s an enormously powerful symbol and it’s completely understandable how someone wouldn’t want to be near this thing. Other people stand there and are completely uncomfortable with it. It’s also interesting to watch parents trying to explain the car to young children, because they start asking questions like: “Who is Adolf Hitler and why did he want to kill so many people?” Obviously, these are not easy things to explain to a child.
Then you have this separate issue, which is that adolescent boys generally think it’s the coolest thing ever. This causes some distress for academics, because putting the car on display ought to help demonstrate the evil of the Hitler regime. That end is not being achieved if you have boys taking selfies with it.
As far as my reaction, the car at the Canadian War Museum is behind a barrier and it’s very fragile and they didn’t let me anywhere near it. I had direct contact with the Mannerheim car, which is in southern California. I was able to get inside and touch it and I still struggle with how to describe the feelings that come over you.
The car in southern California might not have been Hitler’s personal car, but he did order and inspect it and did ride in the back seat. I went into the back seat and sat where Hitler was sitting. A shudder runs through you because you realize you are not studying history, you are actually interacting with it. Most of us don’t get the chance to do that. Our connection with the past is usually achieved at a certain degree of remove. It was an emotional experience for me and I’m still trying to sort through the feelings I had. The cars are an object of engineering beauty, but you are also staring into the dark heart of Nazi propaganda.
It seems as if the reaction to the cars has evolved over time. Would you agree with that?
Definitely. This is a thesis I advance in the book and hope I proved it to some degree. The immediate postwar years were a time when Americans were flush with feelings of victory. Of course, I’m generalizing. Obviously people felt a lot of different ways but initially it was a trophy to be gawked at. Over time, as Americans gained a deeper understanding of the magnitude of the Holocaust, people’s reactions began to complexify and you saw more instances of individuals wanting to damage or destroy the cars, or at least voice the opinion that the cars should not be displayed.
Today it’s almost like we are in a third phase. I hope that we have advanced to the point where we realize there is nothing to be gained by hiding evidence, however hard it may be to look at. I don’t hold with those who believe the cars should be destroyed or hidden away. I think it’s important that people see them. I hope that with seven decades since World War II we are now a better educated and informed society and that the passage of time has equipped people with the ability to see the cars in context and neither glorify them or hope to destroy them but instead regard them as the very difficult, weighty, yet instructive artifacts that they are.