It’s a warm, dry afternoon in the mountains of Coto de Caza, a gated community located an hour’s drive south-east of Los Angeles, and Major General William Lyon is showing me a used car.
“It’s wonderful to drive,” he says. “As though it were new.”
A well-pampered Mercedes-Benz is parked in front of us: clean, low mileage, plenty of room in the back. Chromed and polished to a mirror shine, the car wears a shade of blue so dark it reads as black from a distance – and one needs to step back a distance to see the car anyway since it’s 20 feet long. The automobile in question is a 1941 Mercedes-Benz 770K Grosser W150 Offener Tourenwagen. It is among the rarest cars of the war era, and this particular one is rarer still.
IThis might be a good time to get one other detail out of the way: the car was originally built for Adolf Hitler. ts upholstery conceals compartments for Luger pistols. Hidden below the serpentine body panels are ¾-inch steel plates that, together with the 1½-inch-thick window glass, armor the limousine sufficiently to survive a grenade blast or a jaunt over a landmine. The car’s total weight comes to five tons.Hitler’s car
The trips to and from Finland’s Imola airstrip were the only two times that Hitler ever rode in Mannerheim’s Mercedes-Benz. Nevertheless, the limousine would be known as Hitler’s car during its second life in the United States after the war. Photograph: SA-KUVA
Aged 92, General Lyon is a man enjoying a well-earned and well-funded retirement. A pilot who flew in the second world war and Korea and later ran the air force reserve, he loved planes and automobiles since he was a young man. But not until he made his fortune as a developer could the general indulge his mechanical passions in the manner he does today. His fleet of second-world war aircraft can be seen at the Lyon Air Museum, a hangar out at the Orange County airport.
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General Lyon’s antique car collection, by contrast, is private.
Nestled in the orange groves of his 135-acre estate, the automobile museum is a 23,000 sq ft building where Cadillacs, Packards, and Duesenbergs rest their treads on a white marble floor for the enjoyment of the general alone, plus the occasional guest.
That I happen to be one of those guests is the reason why I have flown 3,000 miles from New York for the sole purpose of staring at an automobile that I will never drive or own, and in fact, is not for sale anyway.
For the last two years, I’ve been working on a book on the handful of Hitler’s limousines that not only made it through the second world war but also made it to the US.
Throughout the postwar era, Mercedes-Benz limousines scavenged from the ruins of Germany had this uncanny way of popping up in American war bond drives, county fairs, and carnival midways, where the cars were billed, almost invariably, as having belonged to Hitler.
On 4 June 1942, Hitler flew to Finland to pay Field Marshal Mannerheim a surprise visit. The gift Mercedes then took the Führer and the Finnish president, Risto Ryti (wearing fedora), to this railroad siding, where Mannerheim’s private train waited. Photograph: SA-Kuva
For a brief time, the big black machines caused a national sensation – in large part, I suspect, because they were the closest that many Americans could get to see and sneering at Hitler personally. At least one of these cars was a fraud, and few came with any evidence that linked them to Hitler.
But there were exceptions, and General Lyon’s car is one of them.
According to the musty order ledgers at Daimler-Benz in Stuttgart, this Mercedes was made a geschenkwagen – a presentation car. Hitler not only kept a fleet of Grosser 770K limousines (several of them armored) for his own use, he relished giving them as gifts to foreign heads of state.
One of the recipients was Finland’s Field Marshal Carl Gustaf Mannerheim. In 1941, as he watched belligerent Soviet armies massing across the Karelian isthmus, Mannerheim decided that the only way to save Finland from Stalin was to ally with Nazi Germany. As a thank-you gift, Hitler bought Mannerheim a Mercedes-Benz – this Mercedes-Benz.
Here is where the fact of Hitler’s “ownership” of the car becomes a matter of semantics. Photographs and other documents from the period, including the diary of Hitler’s own chauffeur, substantiate that Hitler inspected this car at his military headquarters in Poland and later rode in the car – twice – in June 1942, during a visit, he paid to Mannerheim near the Imola airstrip in southern Finland. Technically, this is to say that this car did not belong to Hitler as such; it only gave him a lift to and from the airport.