Cross-Country in a 600

Reading in The Star about a caravan to StarFest 96 planted a seed. Why not drive to Portland, why not a 600, and why not take along your wife, who never has seen the West Coast? Four weeks before the trip, we decided to go.

What's Running?
The first obstacle for Ruth and me was to choose a car. Shall we take the 1966 600, black with red leather; a 1970, black with tan leather; a 1970, metallic blue with parchment leather; a 1972, tobacco brown with brown leather; a 1972, metallic gray with burgundy leather; a 1972, metallic red with tan leather; or a 1972 Pullman, metallic blue with parchment leather, once owned by Francis Ford Coppola? The 1972 model won. The beauty was formerly owned by Hans Holterbosch, the U.S. importer of Lowenbrau beer. Hans must have chosen the color after drinking 13 bottles of the brew. How else could he have ordered a metallic red 600 in 1972?

My preparation had included a full mechanical restoration. We squeezed a few more horsepower out of the motor by installing sport cams and rebuilding the fuel-injection pump. We had also rebuilt the front and rear suspension, installed a new driveshaft, and - to disturb the purists - polished the intake manifolds and valve covers.

Joining StarTrip
Our plans to join the StarTrip caravan in Washington, D.C., on Monday, July 15th, soon changed. Gary Zambone, a 600 owner in Columbus, Ohio, asked us to come out for Saturday's Len Immke Classic Car meet, featuring Mercedes-Benz, so we drove from Philadelphia to Columbus in 5 hours and 35 minutes. Saturday morning a quick decision had to be made, to enter show or street class. I chose street class since one of my earlier restorations, a 1969 SWB 600, black with tan leather, now owned by Les Waxner, was in the show class. We both won first in our classes with a smile.

Monday morning we left the hospitality of the Zambones, and Gary drove his 600 with us to Indianapolis. There, 500 Section had help ready if needed at a local repair shop, followed by a cozy buffet-style supper, a nice way to unwind after a long day of driving. The rest of the week's schedule was similar: rise at 5 A.M., start loading at 6. How nice to open the trunk of the 600! Just pull the latch under the trunk lock, and the opening is done by hydraulic power. When everything is stored, push the lock cylinder, and the trunk closes automatically.

On way to Kansas City, while I was filling the gas tank another customer asked if I were a retired policeman because of the "POLIZEI" license plate. A few years ago, Ruth and I drove in Germany with this plate on an old 300SEL 6.3 and got stopped 13 times by unbelieving policemen, but that is a story in itself. The 600 lets you adjust the shock absorbers while driving for a softer or harder ride. A small lever on the steering column allows hydraulic oil to enter the shock through the hollow shaft of the shock absorber; press the lever down, and the fluid is released for a softer ride.

Western Tradition
Arriving in Kansas City toward evening, we felt like a good cowboy who first takes care of his horse. Gas up1 check the oil, transmission fluid, and water levels, check tire pressure, smell the horseshoes (the brake shoes), clean the front of the car of bugs, clean the windshield, park the car in a safe spot, and give it a friendly pat on the trunk. Not before that are you allowed to go to eat. Kansas City Section set up a self-serve meal at the motel, where we met and exchanged car stories and laughed at new jokes. Later, for a sugar fix, Bonnie & Ernie Fancy joined us for a delicious ice cream desert. Since the next day would be a long haul to Denver, we all retired early.

POLIZEINext day, on the interstate through Kansas, it felt good to have our own classical music supply on disc. An Alpine disc player, an amplifier, and four coaxial speakers are integrated with the original Becker stereo system. Tune the radio to FM 88, push the button of the disc changer, and you hear the best of Bach, Corelli, Schütz, or Mozart. The gas tank nearing empty, we stopped for brunch. We were headed for the restaurant when to my surprise the local sheriff's cruiser pulled behind us with flashing lights. Had I noticed the stop sign that I had just driven through? The case of "POLIZEI" vs. POLICE was settled with a friendly reminder that in Kansas you must stop at stop signs.

In Denver I had to meet a man for whom I had restored a 300SEL 6.3 and set the main rack of the fuel-injection pump leaner so that it would pass emission inspection, so we missed Mile-High Section's entertainment and dinner at a great restaurant. The next day's driving through the Rockies, mapped in detail by Frank & Anne Barrett, was the most delightful part of the trip to Portland. In Denver I put the first quart of oil into the engine; the old oil still looked light and clean. We had averaged 14 miles per gallon in the flatlands, and through the Rockies we made about 13 per gallon, better than the quoted factory consumption.

Loveland Pass

The 600 climbed 12,000-ft Loveland Pass with no problem, but the thin air made a little less power in both the engine and the old man. This stretch clearly called for zero defect driving - no guard rails, no escape routes. We were amazed to see prefabricated half-houses, tankers, and other trucks being driven over the pass. Green Mountain Reservoir and recreation area, reminding us of Switzerland, was followed by a relaxing drive through Routt National Forest to Steamboat Springs.

In Salt Lake City the local group had arranged an Italian supper in a former church, and the food was delightful. During our next day's trip to Boise, we stopped at Twin Falls, Idaho, to take photos, and a few car enthusiasts couldn't resist asking about the car. When I opened the hood to show the engine, they responded, "Mister, you made our day."

Idaho Section hosted a tour of Boise, and Dan Kary had his 600SL's transmission adjusted at the dealer. The next day was the last leg to Portland. Dan & Michelle in the 600SL got an early start, only to have the alternator light come on, and soon they were driving on battery power. Shortly before Baker City, Oregon, all lights in the SL went out, and the car stopped. Since our old 600 has two alternators, I asked Dan if he wanted to borrow one. He graciously declined but thankfully accepted a good battery charge by a real old-timer 600.

We often took side trips. Before Baker City, the end of the famous Oregon Trail, a frontier museum let us compare the hard front seat of a covered wagon and the luxurious seat of the 600 with three-way hydraulic adjustment. The Columbia River and its attractions will be remembered; a photo with the red car and horsetail falls is a favorite.

StarFest & Beyond
The cleanup in Portland for the StarFest d'elegance, was the hardest. During the judging, Ernie Fancy couldn't hide a grin when he asked, "Karl, what is this?" More bugs that my wife had not cleaned up! (Always take your wife along to the show, so you have someone to blame when things are not right with your car.) The salmon bake at the awards dinner was so good, and a first prize made even a good meal taste better.

Tree and WaterfallWednesday we drove on toward the Oregon coast and south into the California redwood country. It had been 40 years since I as a student had driven a '56 Chevy through one of the giant trees. This time it was a red 600, and I wondered if the tree had seen one before.

As we headed eastward through Nevada, the air-conditioning of the 600 had no trouble handling the 104°F temperature. The so-called refrigerator box between the seats keeps a Coke cool. Early 600s have a single-speed fan motor; later models have a more powerful, double squirrel cage blower better suited for the extreme heat so rare in Europe. Into Yellowstone Park, we took a full day to drive through the park. What a sight to see the sun coming up on the Great Tetons then see the park itself! Old Faithful, two mountain passes, the Yellowstone Valley and its falls formed 159 miles of breathtaking scenery.

Heading Home
In Cody, Wyoming, we stopped at a Pizza Hut and met a couple from Germany, less than 20 miles from my hometown. The lady fixes my aunt's hair, and they knew friends of ours who service three 600 cars in Germany. They took a video to show back home. This was quite a coincidence! Here the car got a good washing after miles of dirt road driving. On a bright Sunday morning we drove into the Bighorn Mountains, with waterfalls and scenery that even a wide-angle Leica lens cannot capture. Without effort the car cruised over Grant Pass at 9,033 feet, then we descended into the Black Hills area, which reminded us a bit of the Black Forest in Germany.

Since every good American must see Mount Rushmore, we stopped there. What a change from the last time I had seen it, 40 years ago. Toward evening Badlands Park looked interesting, but it was no place to hide out. On our way to Minneapolis we took rural roads, and the sky and clouds were beautiful in contrast, showing the 600 to good advantage. There we met two Army buddies and their wives and celebrated our 36th wedding anniversary at the Lake Elmo Inn. One of the men had been best man at our wedding!

In Wausau, Wisconsin, we visited our daughter and her family and had a rest. The next stop was Chicago, where Manfred Pfeiffer operates a Mercedes-Benz repair shop and is the proud owner of an excellent red 600 limousine. After three weeks on the road we were hungry for spiritual vitamins and Christian fellowship at the Grove City Bible Conference in Pennsylvania. Four weeks and two days after we'd left, we arrived back in Woxall, happy and thankful to the Lord for a safe trip, all we had seen of His creation, and the people we enjoyed meeting. We'd had no problems whatsoever with the car.

Before we fell into bed that night, my wife said, "Isn't it good to he home again?" In the garage, with 8,316 miles on the odometer, the 600 must be dreaming of the next trip. Ruth wants to know when we are going again. But, Sweety, we just got back!

Karl Middelhauve's Mercedes Benz interests focus on the 300SEL 6.3 and 600 models. As described in our January/February 1992 issue he has made some unusual conversions: 300SE coupes and a convertible with 6.3 engines, an AMG conversion with a ZF five-speed manual transmission, and a 300SEL 6.3 station wagon. His latest project is a 600 coupe.

Reprinted from THE STAR, January/February 1997
Text and Photos by Karl Middelhauve