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Maybach: The folly of Stuttgart

By Chucky de Hammer

Throughout their history Mercedes-Benz has very rarely put as much as a toe wrong. You could point to the occasional dumpy effort (CLA), slow (nearly every W123), badly built (W210 although there are a good few more) or downright lethal (every single one with a swing axle rear end) example. But a Mercedes that was simply a stupid idea from start to finish? Bit more of a challenge.

But they did triumphantly manage it, and quite recently, with a car that wore a name few beyond Wayne Carini or Idi Amin would know or indeed care much about either. Welcome then, to the ultimate back-yard bodgeshop cut-n-shut Russian whore carrier; the straight-outta Stuttgart Maybach 57.

How Maybach ended up having its proud automotive history being shat on is a familiar tale of boardroom vanity, pride and hubris. Back in the mid-Nineties some chaps from Rolls-Royce flew over to Mercedes to have a chat about using engines supplied by Stuttgart. It turned out the boys from Baden-W├╝rttemberg rather liked this idea, so Crewe despatched a team quick-sharp to Germany to do some exploratory work. When they came back the board of R-R was told that working with M-B was indeed An Excellent Wheeze – so Rolls-Royce promptly shitcanned the whole shebang and toddled off to work with B** instead. Like you do.

This meant Mercedes, after spending loads of time courting the Brits to the point of enjoying plenty of pre-marital nookie, were sitting on some half-baked proposals lying about the place and, like a jilted bride in full-scale revenge mode, it got them thinking about parking their Panzers on Crewe’s immaculate lawns. Cue the 97 Maybach concept car at the 1997 Tokyo Motor Show.

‘Styled’ by Olivier Boulay the 97 Maybach successfully managed to look both hideously bloated and utterly nondescript at the same time. From the perverse headlamps to the cummerbund that went along the flanks and wrapped round its arse this was the winning card in All-Time Minging Top Trumps. The interior, a diarrhoea fest of beige, fared no better, with a lattice glass roof scattering light round a dreary, euro-corporate waiting room. At this point it was clear that Mercedes were hell-bent on capturing the ultra-luxury market – and had not a single clue how to go about it.

For a concept looking to take on the might of Henry Royce the Maybach was both confused and hackneyed. Which is hardly surprising when you look at how Mercedes had treated the brand. You see, before WW2 there were two brands in Germany which were for the seriously wealthy. You could have something like Maybach’s imposing and advanced DS8 or the delectable 670 from Horch. Both V12 powered, gorgeous, beautifully made and wonderfully exclusive You didn’t bother with Mercedes; they were for short politicians. Yet after 1940 neither badge would spank the Mercedes arse again. Maybach concentrated on commercial engines until it was bought by M-B in 1960 and then, like a Ghia badge on a Fiesta, started appearing only as a coachbuilder name on pimped up limousines. This meant Mercedes had no real brand or backstory to fall back on when coming up with the new model – they were just tacky S-Class derivatives for more money. Which is all the Maybach was.

The most amusing thing about the new Maybach was how Mercedes tried to represent it as some sort of pinnacle of technology and engineering. The sneaky fuckers were reusing the outgoing W140 model underpinnings, then stapling selected bits from the new W220 to the old platform mixed with rehashed tat from the options pages of the limo catalogue. You might get away with that sort of recycling old stuff approach when you’re pushing out a repmobile made down in the Eastern Cape, but not when you’re trying to compete with one of the most snob-laden rarified brands around. All those parts from various products made by Mercedes and development work done by the firm’s engineers ensure the Maybach rode, handled and felt like, well, a Mercedes. It simply wasn’t worth over three times the prices of the S-Class. The Maybach was nothing more than a warmed-over turd with glitter sprinkled over it. And the con stank just as bad.

Sales of the Maybach 57 (an apt name for such a mongrel) started slowly and steadily went nowhere. Someone rashly mentioned a target of 2,000 cars a year, but eleven years after production began, total sales for the Maybach staggered over the 3,000 mark and the Luger was finally taken out the drawer to end the fiasco. And no-one, except for those who suffered the cliff-face depreciation of a Maybach first-hand, remotely cared.

It does make you wonder why Mercedes flounced off when they had the chance to buy Rolls-Royce. When Vickers announced they were looking to palm off the company, They were very loud in saying they were not interested, perhaps rather too loud. After previously getting the bums rush from Vickers it smacked of petulance, which is a terrible weakness in business. They had, on a plate for small change, one of the most well-known badges in the world, knew something about the firm and the people, and were more than aware they could get new models out pretty quick and for a quite low investment. Instead, they decided their own, bumbling, in-house way was better.

There is, however, a footnote to all this. Audi, created by Horch after being booted out of the company that bore his name, got the name back off Mercedes some years later. Now you would hope that the Volkswagen will have watched what happened to Maybach, remembered the burning smell of the money they threw away on the VW Phateon, and decided that it would be a ridiculous idea to create a competitor to their football player-friendly range of Bentleys.

I so really hope they do it.