Excerpted from THE DEVIL’S MERCEDES: The Bizarre and Disturbing Adventures of Hitler’s Limousine in America by Robert Klara. Copyright ©2017 by the author and reprinted by permission of Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press.
The era of great American road trips—Kerouac’s, Kesey’s, Steinbeck’s—was still several years in the future, but between August 10 and 13, 1948, Christopher Janus and his cohorts would blaze a pioneering (if now-forgotten) trail. And if the six men riding in the Mercedes weren’t exactly larger-than-life figures, the Mercedes certainly was. As Mabley would reflect, “Since this car arrived in America it has provoked a mild sensation.”
The security escort had been all worked out, and the presence of Zenber was at least moderate insurance against the car’s breaking down. “It won’t break down,” Zenber insisted. “Anyway,” he added, “I’ve got a book called Betriebsanleitung fur Mercedes-Benz Personenwagen”—“Operating Instructions for Mercedes-Benz Passenger Cars.” The only trouble, Zenber admitted, was that he couldn’t read German.
At least Janus and Zenber had plotted the route. Motoring out of New York, they’d swing down through Elizabeth and Newark, New Jersey, hook west to Harrisburg, and then take the Pennsylvania Turnpike all the way to Pittsburgh. From there they’d follow the old National Road west through Ohio and Indiana, then on into Illinois. In this, the era before interstate highways, two-lane routes that meandered through the countryside were the only options for the long-distance motorist.
Such roads weren’t safe for the Mercedes to speed on, but the fact didn’t stop the men from speeding. Janus was eager to put the machine through its paces and, as the westward adventurers found themselves on suburban roads, here at last was the opportunity. The experience of gunning an armored Mercedes 770K — longer and heavier than any automobile made in America — was heady stuff. The renowned automotive writer Ken W. Purdy was not along for the Chicago trip but would get his chance at the wheel a few months later, and he recounted what it was like to drive the beast: “With hardly a sound from the starter, the big (468-inch) straight-eight overhead-valve engine fires and warms up quickly at 1,200 rpm,” Purdy wrote. “You shove the long gear lever forward and left for first, the clutch comes in like velvet, and you’re off.” Purdy was mesmerized. The shifter was long as a golf club, yet “smooth, oily, and dead silent.” Floating on its independent suspension, the Grosser’s mass rendered velocity imperceptible. “When it’s moving, rolling along in fifth, it hands out a ride quite beyond comparison with anything else on wheels,” Purdy wrote. “The sensation is simply that of a moving house.”
As Janus and his crew flew down the highway, the speedometer reached seventy-five. Zenber decided to give the supercharger a try. He mashed the accelerator to the floor.
In straight-eight Benzes of this vintage, the sound of the “blower” kicking in was so loud it was known to force other motorists off the road with its “ear-assaulting, scalp-lifting Mercedes scream,” the writer and humorist Ralph Stein recalled, “not unlike that of a lighthouse diaphone at close quarters.” Now a creature possessed, Janus’s limousine lunged down the asphalt, its speedometer needle tickling ninety-five as New York State whizzed by, slightly distorted in the bulletproof glass.
Letting the engine flex its muscles was thrilling. And truly stupid. No sooner had Janus pushed his car to its limit than the tires began blowing out.51 Janus had two spares nudged into the crooks of the fenders, but the car ate them like lozenges. The group had hoped to make Bedford, Pennsylvania, by dark, but there was simply no way. As Tuesday night fell, the famous Hitler limousine limped into a Harrisburg service station, where Janus had all four tires replaced again. His gang had made it all of 150 miles.
As things would turn out, stopping at gas stations would become necessary simply for the fluids. The big Mercedes burned a quart of oil every sixty-six miles and gulped a gallon of petrol every four to seven. Station attendants were happy enough to top the car off, but allowing the monster into the garage was another matter. “When we needed some minor service in a town in Pennsylvania,” Mabley later recalled, “they wouldn’t let us drive into the service department because the car was so heavy they feared it would go through the floor.”
Hunkered down inside the “monster,” as he called it, Mabley began to fire off dispatches for his newspaper. His datelines would allow Chicago Daily News readers to experience this peculiar adventure from the safety of their armchairs in Pulaski Park and Lake View. When he couldn’t find a dateline city, he simply filed from “Somewhere in Hitler’s Car.”
Leaving Harrisburg Wednesday morning, the Mercedes grumbled onto the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Completed eight years earlier, the highway threaded its way through the Allegheny Mountains via seven deep tunnels. Fortunately, the car was superbly equipped for driving in the dark. It had headlights, spotlights, fog lights, parking lights, and flashing red lights, too.
Motorists on the road could only stare slack-jawed at the Mercedes, a make not yet common in the United States, lit up like a parade float and about as big as one. “Sooner or later, everything turns up on the Turnpike,” marveled the Bedford Gazette, “—even Hitler’s private automobile.”
Word of the car’s approach moved faster than the car itself, and throngs of bystanders lined the highway and snapped photos as the group passed. “Whenever we stop for lunch we eat in solitude,” Mabley wrote, “because the restaurant’s empty when the auto drives up.”
Sometime on Wednesday, Zenber moved over to let Mabley have a turn at the wheel. “Driving Hitler’s armored auto is like driving a cross between a jet plane, your family bus, and Hook and Ladder 37,” the reporter wrote. The car’s twenty-foot length took getting used to, but the supercharger was great for hills, and Pennsylvania had lots of those. Soon Mabley sunk into the soft leather of the driver’s seat and relaxed. “Swings around corners like your old Ford,” he said.
Chancy as the road trip must have felt to these well-heeled townies, they were never far from aid. Thanks to Governor Green, the Mercedes stayed in watchful eyes of the cops, who motored along- side and guarded it during stopovers. Since Illinois police had no jurisdiction in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, or Indiana, the state’s Department of Public Safety sent letters out to the cities along the route requesting “escort and proper protection” for Janus and his Hitlermobile. “Because of the peculiar nature of the vehicle and the reactions it might arouse,” the letter stated, “it is necessary that law enforcement officials co-operate to escort it safely.”59 One state’s troopers would trail the car as far as the state line, then hand it over to the next group of police awaiting its arrival.
The Illinois State Fair’s publicity people were eagerly awaiting Janus’s appearance, but the man was in no hurry. Janus would stop when he could to let the curious get a closer look at the car while he talked to local reporters. “We achieved fantastic publicity,” he later remembered. “The Hitler car was on the way to becoming known all over the country.” While Janus had a decidedly Barnumesque side, it was his common touch that made for good copy. Far from being protective of his Mercedes, Janus allowed the young Schneider to take the wheel. The teenager helmed the colossal car through Cambridge City, Indiana, on the morning of August 12.
Mabley calculated that it had taken the group twenty-one hours of driving to get from Harrisburg to Indianapolis, meaning Hitler’s limousine was barely making 16 mph as an average cruising speed. But that was hardly the only annoyance. It took a cloudburst over Ohio for the men to discover that the car’s windshield wipers did not work. Hastily buttoning down the car’s mohair top, the men found the interior suddenly suffocating. “It is like riding in a hearse with the doors closed,” Mabley groused.
Soon they found the real source of the trouble: Hitler’s seat was—appropriately, enough—hotter than hell. “The best theory is that there is a heater going,” Mabley said, “but no one can find the button to shut it off.” The men began to discuss the possibility that Hitler’s ghost was still in the car.
Sometime Thursday afternoon, Janus pulled into the fairgrounds in Springfield, Illinois. His group had been on the road for two days. As promised, Governor Green was waiting, sporting a fedora and a double-breasted suit, his big-bellied associates joining the crowd of onlookers. Smiling for the press photographers, Janus took the eighteen-inch liberty torch from Schneider and presented it to Green.
The limousine stayed at the fair for its ten-day run. On closing day, a tiny item appeared on page 36 of the Illinois State Journal: “The radiator cap was stolen from Adolph* Hitler’s automobile now on exhibition at the Illinois state fair. Authorities blamed souvenir hunters for the theft. A $20 reward has been offered for its return.”
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