Act of Hubris

DTW recalls Daimler-Benz’s Maybach misadventure. 

Crosstown traffic: Maybach 62. Image: carsnb

As the New Millennium approached, Jürgen Schrempp, Daimler-Benz CEO appointee in May 1995, was a man on a mission. Schrempp believed that the company was something of a sleeping giant. While it was consistently successful and profitable, with products that were highly regarded, he believed there was much more that could be done to leverage the storied marque name and extract maximum value for shareholders.

Over the preceding decades, Mercedes-Benz had carefully nurtured a reputation for building thoughtfully designed and technically excellent vehicles that were market-leading in terms of quality, safety and durability. They were, by and large, cars that one chose with the head rather than the heart and were favoured by those who valued understatement and discretion over extravagance and notoriety.

The flagship S-Class was the perfect transport for senior politicians, bankers and captains of industry, allowing them to move unnoticed and in comfort, avoiding unwanted attention from opponents, competitors or inquisitive journalists. The sheer ubiquity of Mercedes-Benz’s most prestigious model in the business districts of major cities guaranteed the anonymity required to conduct business (and other) affairs in secret.

There was, however, a growing demographic of ultra-high net worth individuals whose personal fame was very much part of their ‘brand’ and central to their success. Such individuals were often leading figures in the creative industries or dot-com millionaires. They were not mere chief executives, but owners of enterprises they had built from scratch. For them, the sober uniformity of even a top of the range S-Class would be regarded as far too mainstream, conformist and commonplace to be an adequate foil for their fame.

Schrempp decided that the Mercedes-Benz marque, which was to be stretched downwards almost to (if not beyond) breaking point with the launch of the first A-Class in 1997, could not at the same time be contorted further upwards to accommodate an ultra-luxury model aimed at this demographic. Instead, the defunct Maybach marque, a manufacturer of luxury cars in the inter-war years that had been acquired by Daimler-Benz in 1960, would be resurrected.

The idea of an uber-Daimler-Benz was not a new one, however, and long predated Schrempp’s appointment as CEO. Speculation about a reinvented 600, and even a revival of the Maybach marque, was circulating in the late 1980’s when the W140 S-Class was in development and was reported in Car Magazine by Georg Kacher.

A Maybach concept was unveiled at the 1997 Tokyo Motor Show*. It was beautifully finished and opulent in the extreme, but underneath was the bones of the 1991 W140 generation S-Class. The styling too was underwhelming, looking more like an enlarged S-Class rather than anything distinctive or original.

Daimler-Benz watched from the sidelines in 1998 as BMW and Volkswagen fought for control of Rolls-Royce and Bentley. The spoils were ultimately split between those two automotive giants. BMW immediately got to work designing a new generation Rolls-Royce limousine for the ultra-wealthy which would become the Phantom.

Volkswagen took a different approach and decided to combine its Phaeton luxury saloon project with the development of a new generation Bentley Continental range. These new models would be given virtually unlimited development resources, unlike their noble but impoverished predecessors. Schrempp knew (or should have known) that he had a real fight on his hands to establish the largely unknown Maybach name against the establishment stalwarts.

Maybach 62 (c)

The production versions of the Maybach were launched in June 2002, unchanged in appearance from the 1997 concept and still based on the now decade old W140 architecture. The 57 was a four-light short-wheelbase model, the 62 a six-light long-wheelbase version. The model numbers referenced each car’s overall length at 5.7 and 6.2 metres respectively. Both were powered by a new 5.5 litre twin-turbo V12 producing 540bhp.

There was no doubting the quality of engineering and craftsmanship evident in the new cars, but their appearance was already overly familiar and dated: the W140 had been replaced by the lighter and more athletic looking (if inferior) W220 S-Class in 1998. Moreover, the Maybach (especially in LWB form) had a rather unfortunate ‘stretch-limo’ appearance that somehow lacked dignity.

This was a major miscalculation. Daimler-Benz really ought to have thrown everything at Maybach and made it a state-of-the-art technology and design landmark, simply to plant its flag in the sand and give Maybach a fighting chance. Instead, it was hobbled from the outset.

It was also very damaging to Maybach’s prospects that, by the time of its launch, the dramatic drop in Mercedes-Benz’s traditionally superlative quality caused by the drive to cut development and build costs was increasingly apparent. Nothing better illustrated the precipitous fall than a comparison between the W124 and its successor, the W210 E-Class. The former was built like a bank vault, the latter like an ordinary car, and not a very good one.

It was, however, the 2003 launch of the Rolls-Royce Phantom that effectively condemned Maybach to failure. The Phantom was effectively a moonshot programme, based on a bespoke aluminium spaceframe architecture and had a handsome and imposing ‘Art Deco’ inspired design that was simply in a different league to the compromised Maybach.

Daimler-Benz attempted to boost the appeal of Maybach in 2005 by launching a higher performance 57S version with a 6.0 litre engine, aimed at owner-drivers. This produced 600bhp and achieved 100km/h (62mph) in under five seconds. In 2008 a ‘landaulet’ version of the 62 was launched with a retractable roof over the rear compartment and an eye-watering price tag of over €1 million ($1.3 million).

There followed in 2009 ‘Zeppelin’ branded luxury versions of both the 57 and 62, with even more features and flourishes. There were countless personalisation options, including questionable dual-colour paint finishes.

Maybach did attract a number of notable celebrity owners, including music mogul Simon Cowell, pop stars Madonna, Nikki Minaj and Rihanna, and rap stars Jay-Z and Kanye West. Whether that was a help or a hindrance in establishing the marque as a serious player in the ultimate luxury market is a moot point. One particularly unsavoury Maybach owner is Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s Supreme Leader, who managed to circumvent international sanctions to acquire an armour-plated 62 model.

An interesting aside to the Maybach story was the unveiling of an extraordinary looking two-door coupé, the Exelero in 2005. This was built by Stola, an Italian specialist automotive engineering company, and was based on the platform of the 57. It was never intended for series production, but was commissioned by Goodyear’s German subsidiary, Fulda, to test and promote its new high-performance tyre, the Carat Exelero. So extreme was its appearance that the car could readily have served as a Batmobile in the movie series. It ended up in the hands of the aforementioned Jay-Z, who also owns a 62 Landaulet.

Maybach continued to struggle through the decade and was dealt a further blow by the 2008/9 Global Financial Crisis. In November 2011, Daimler-Benz announced that Maybach production would cease in 2013, with no replacement planned. Global sales in over a decade amounted to around 3,000 units, compared with an original forecast of 2,000 annually. The Maybach name was subsequently reanimated as a designation on top-line versions of the Mercedes-Benz S-Class and GLS-class models.

Image: mbworld

There has since been talk of a new stand-alone Maybach model and a couple of concepts have been unveiled, the Mercedes-Maybach 6 GT coupé and convertible in 2016 and the peculiar looking Ultimate Luxury saloon-SUV crossover in 2018, but nothing more tangible since.

It seems likely that in its current iteration, Maybach is viable. However, notwithstanding the 2016 and 2018 concepts, its re-emergence as a stand-alone marque with its own unique models seems unlikely, especially as the current strategy appears to be working and generating sales.

Daimler-Benz allegedly invested more than €1Bn ($1.3Bn) in the Maybach revival. That equates to a loss of more than €300k ($400k) in each car sold. However, this sum fades into insignificance alongside the €45Bn ($60Bn) the company allegedly spent acquiring, restructuring and disposing of Chrysler over nine years from 1998 to 2007. Add to that the disastrous decline in Mercedes-Benz product quality and reputation over which Jürgen Schrempp presided in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, and his is not a proud legacy.

* Ominously, the Mercedes-Benz team promoting the new Maybach concepts had to cut short their stay in Tokyo and return to Stuttgart to deal with the fallout from the failed A-Class ‘Elk Test’, where the car rolled over in a simulated avoidance manoeuvre.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

32 thoughts on “Act of Hubris”

  1. You can tell from the outset of this woeful tale it´s not to end well. From inside M-B, the Maybach concept must have seemed dramatically different – mustn´t it? I presume a lot of sensible people must have been tearing hairs out when confronted with Schremp´s reasoning. Benz already was name of stellar value (despite the rubbish it had made since 1993) and they didn´t need to revive a dead marque; the proposal was a high-level version of a mistake made numerous times which is to put an expensive car on a cheaper car´s bones; and then there was the matter of the styling which looked crass in 1997 (the interior is even more awful than the exterior and the exterior is appalling). Apart from the general strategy being wildly off target, I am curious to know how the management chose the choosers for this design. Especially given Benz´s long history of carefully considered design, the Maybach is especially distressing to look at. Benz stuck with the dominant trend of organic shapes and amplified it. What they needed to have done was set up a PhD level design team to really re-think what luxury was. What they did was add 10% even to things already at 100%. As I like to say, when the biggest burger needs to be improved you don´t add more of everything, you do something different. Who wants a 600 g hamburger? The Maybach was a 900 g hamburger, served rare.

    1. No Maybach here, but I know what I want for dinner tonight!

  2. Jürgen Schrempp’s legacy is not a proud one a(and other) nd this includes his former jobs at Fokker and EADS. At the end of his career he had caused financial damage of around 80 Bn€ in cash, not market capitalisation.
    He also was the first German manager permanently bragging about shareholder value which made him a favourite of the media despite of DaimlerChrysler’s market capitalisation was less than half of Daimler’s former one alone.
    Schrempp’s defining characteristic (despite his oversize ego) was his thick Swabian accent, something that is absolutely frowned upon in German industry leaders’ circles.

    One has to wonder why the supervisory board let him have his way for so long before sacking him quite unceremoniously (but with a three digit million € copensation package). He’d burnt all the cash in Daimler’s piggy bank, resulting in a giant cost cutting programme for Mercedes, reducing production costs by lowering the quality standard and, of course, by cutting wages of the employees.

    The difference in philosophy between Mabach and Phantom was summed up by CAR. The Maybach has a rear seat that can be reclined and stretched like the one in a first class aircraft compartment. Therefore the Maybach combines the two places (car and plane) which are the most unpleasant to spend time in. The Phantom has an optional U shaped rear seat, creating a lounge atmosphere for private conversation because the Phantom was typically used by its owner standing still and then would be driven to the next meeting while the owner went there with his private aircraft.
    Seems Rolls Royce got it right and Maybach didn’t.
    CAR also compard the Maybach’s logo to a pair of copulating spiders.

    1. The only Phanton owner I knew would never buy German: his memory of the Holocaust was never going to vanish.
      He had several Phantoms, as it was slightly revised. They became quite ugly, but there was nothing better.

  3. Shareholder value is one of a handful of really toxic ideas that have done a lot of damage to society. “If it is not broken, do not expend time attempting to repair it”, say the Americans. M-B was a cash-rich company with super products and the envy of everyone else. Bring shareholder value to the mix and all of that was dynamited. JS Mill correctly noted that happiness comes when you´re busy doing something else you like. Long-term profitability is much the same.
    Where are Danny Bahar these days and Linda Jackson these days?

    1. Of the three large native car makers in Germany Mercedes is the one most susceptible to hostile takeovers. BMW and VW/Audi are more or less family owned businesses but after Kuwait dumped its interest there’s no single large shareholder for Mercedes that could prevent the company being bought. Their only hope for independent survival is a high share price. That’s but one of the adverse consequences of Chancellor Schroeder’s ill-guided politics of disentangling the shareholder structures of German enterprises.

      Jürgen Schrempp was the absolute darling of the media. He was portrayed as a strong decision maker, a visionary and he cared for shareholder value. He was often compared (most favourably, or course) to Fugen Ferdl who was the pet hate of the media because he did care for products, not shareholder value.
      You could tell how Schrempp worked by his actions after the DaimlerChrysler “merger of equals, marriage in heaven”. Being chairman at Mercedes already was the best paid job in the German industry with about 2M per year but this was not enough for Schrempp. Even before the ink under the DC contracts was dry he claimed he needed a significant salary increase to at least 30M per year because otherwise his American colleagues wouldn’t take him serious. And he got what he wanted. (When Fugen Ferdl got into the hot seat at Wolfsburg his salary for the first year was one Deutschmark. He did this to prove that he was interested in the job).

  4. By a strange co-incidence I saw one of these on the road in a very ordinary part of Hampshire the other week. I mean, what were the chances?

  5. The exterior styling was uninspired and not appealing. It looked like it was a copy lifted from a certain Korean brand. On the other hand the interior is very comfortable. It is well done. This is a car in which you feel special when you are driven about in it. It doesn’t provide the sense of occasion of the old Jaguar XJ-12 though (I don’t know if anyone else ever quite captured that sensation). Still, it is most luxurious. What killed the Maybach line dead was how bad it looked from the outside. It just didn’t work.

    By the way, using a turbocharged V-12 three-valve per cylinder engine (type M285) was one of the results of cost cutting. Prior to the M285 engine being adopted the intention was to use a naturally aspirated V-24 based on the M120 V12 four-valve per cylinder architecture (there was also a proposed W-18 engine based on the M120). Power output was more for the M120 V-24 than for M285 but the real advantage was its impressive and effortless low rpm torque. The trouble was that the automatic transmission needed development to handle all that. When Mercedes decided not to go ahead with the V-24, they informed the press that the V-24 was not refined enough for the application. That may have been correct were they to have been taking the drive from one end of a 12-throw crankshaft but the reality was that the drive was taken from the centre of the crank via a gear-drive. The issue they had was with the transmission’s inability to cope with some serious low rpm torque. There were “disturbances noticed in the cabin” and those were from a distressed drive train (not stiff enough).

    The idea of lots of cylinders is sound, but not if they are too large for the transmission and drivetrain (and 500cc each is getting up there- 330cc would have been better- cheaper too). By the time it was clear how much of a problem redeveloping and refining the entire drivetrain would be, as well as the resource needed to complete that task, cost cutting mode had been selected. From that point Rolls Royce and Bentley had the Maybach well beat and it was on the way to the graveyard. Then the lack of decent exterior aesthetics finished the job and interred it.

    W140 chassis was AOK. You shouldn’t have carped on that. It was very well developed and worked exactly as it ought to have. An interesting fact is that at one point it was planned to use a composite construction of thin sheet steel and plastic for the front sub-frame and some body panels. The supplier was French. It was all very light, but… in the end considered to be too expensive…

    Oh well.

    1. A V24 !? A Bunch of PR manure from Benz. I highly doubt they had anything in metal never mind on a paper napkin. Good luck passing the emissions with that never mind in what exactly were they planning to shoehorn it in ? Cadillac Sixteen had a long ass nose and that was a OHV V16.

    1. I think Schremp paid himself to do what he wanted. He reached the top and became a moronocrat. Steve Ballmer lost 900 million for Micrsoft; Kay Whitmore at Kodak who didn´t spot the digital camera; Carly Fiorana at HP; Ken Lay at Enron, Chuck Conway at KMart. There a loads more like this. John Scully at Apple (he fired some designer called Steve).
      These people aren´t paid to do work like you and me. They use corporate politics to take power and access to resources in return for allocating some of this to those who facilitated their rise.

    2. Just as Daniel Goedevert once put it: the fiurther up you get the more the windows to the world turn into mirrors and in the end the only thing you see is your own image (pronounced French, meaning image as well as picture).

  6. In terms of awareness of the outside world Shrempp must have been clueless. Surely he should have known that by the time the Maybach hit dealerships the dotcom bubble would have burst. Bubbles always do *. This shrank the car’s potential market to mere dictators, “Rap-Artistes” and Premiers*it footballers. Anyone of those groups is toxic to people of taste. En masse they are a PR disaster. I’m sure there were people at MB who were thankful that they somehow avoided the ultimate reputational disaster; as far as I know Mugabe never brought one!

    If Shrempp wanted to print money MB should have brought the assets of Panther, revived their ersatz vintage cars and stuck a telephone number price tag on them. The same suckers- well maybe not third world despots, they like bullet proof glass to protect them from the adoring multitudes- would have lapped them up simply because they were rare ostentatious and mega expensive and the mark up would be phenomenal (If they were able to convince industry regulators that the car was a continuation and not a revival perhaps they could have dodged type approval …).

    *Why is it only captains of industry that think these things can last for ever?

  7. The comparison between Schrempp and Ferdinand P. is somewhat unfair. The former was “only” paid by his employer and took whatever he could get, the latter owned (with his family) a large share of the company. A large salary would have meant for Ferdinand P. that his payment of dividends would have been smaller.

    The comparison between the two individuals is also unfair, as the two are not comparable. Ferdinand P. was not loved (to avoid the word “hated”), but even his greatest critics had to acknowledge that he had achieved great things and brought VW to the top of the world. Schrempp was a darling of the media and shareholders, and destroyed more of his company’s money than many wars before. Schrempp has left a trail of devastation like a bulldozer, and the fascinating thing in hindsight is that he got this far.

    The comparison between Bentley, Rolls Royce and Maybach shows the whole dilemma. The former, within the limits of their resources, did everything right, the latter did everything wrong. Bentley and Rolls Royce have been forgiven for being built on a platform of the parent company because the whole package was right.
    Nothing was right at Maybach, so the flaw of the “cheap” platform could or would be particularly hard to overlook.
    The Maybach was just an S-class bloated by hot air and luxurious gimmicks.

  8. Hi Daniel,
    Great assessment of the ill-fated über-Benz; a small correction if I may though: at the 1997 Tokyo Motor Show, as far as I can remember there was just the one Maybach concept on display. Judging by the size it was more a 62 than a 57.
    Here are a few photos I made at the time (the one showing the whole car is slightly out of focus but that is perhaps better for most viewers’ sensitivities 🙂 Oh, and I fully agree with Richard Herriott’s view- spot on!

    PS: Sometimes my links to photos work, sometimes not. I am at a loss why as I am using the same method every time… suggestions anyone?

    1. Thanks for the correction, Bruno. Text amended accordingly. Actually, the concept looks like a 57 in that it doesn’t have the fixed window in the C-pillar that distinguishes the 62 from its smaller sibling. The colour scheme is, er, interesting: black over pink over maroon, with what appear to be white wheels, upholstery and carpets.

  9. The Maybach project was a fascinating synthesis of the excessive and the half-hearted.

    First of all, the late-in-the-day decision to turn Maybach into a standalone brand, rather than a model line, was rather ill-judged and implemented in decidedly sloppy fashion – the grille shape and overall ‘obese W220’ flair of the car’s design would always betray its Mercedes roots in the most obvious way. The interior combined extraordinarily luxurious leather & wood with decidedly sub-par W220 switchgear (not to mention the horribly cheap main gauges), resulting in a flair resembling more of a German Maritim hotel* than The Ritz.

    I still vividly remember the Maybach’s hilariously pompous launch. They put the car in a glass container that was transported to NYC on the QE2’s deck and then flown by helicopter to downtown Manhattan. Zose Germans truly wanted to make certain their flagship would arrive in style.

    Schrempp truly stood for the worst of his generation of German executives. He combined the arrogance of a proud German engineer with the greed and show-off mentality prevalent among many financial sector social climbers. The way in which he wasted the billions amassed by the likes of Joachim Zahn did leave the kind of spectacularly legacy he was after though.

    One man whose role in all of this I still find exceedingly difficult to ascertain is Jürgen Hubbert, who strikes me as a decent man who either couldn’t or wouldn’t resist the wrong orders.

    *This is the typical example of the Maritim flair:

    1. Ah, yes, a veneer comprising lots of superficial shiny, sparkly things to impress the gullible. Very Maybach.

    2. Here’s the four wheeled Maritim hotel lounge:

      That’s a very Swabian idea of luxury.
      You improve on a glass of Trollinger by making it a larger glass of Trollinger, not by getting some Brunello di Montalcino.
      You improve on zebrano wood with three layers of lacquer by fitting inlaid mahogany with five layers of lacquer. The result is an interior that looks like a tart’s boudoir.

    3. It takes a lot of skill and effort to make real wood look like plastic, but Daimler-Benz seems to manage it convincingly. As to the interior’s similarity to a tart’s boudoir, I’ll have to take your word for that, Dave.

    4. I’d argue that both this

      and this

      are convincing cabins, even if Mercedes never really matched the warmth of a British luxury car’s cabin. But in either case, there’s none of that ‘drunk geography teacher at the prom’ feel that defined the equally pretentious & gaudy Maybach.

  10. Some years ago now I was at Mercedes Benz World at Brooklands. It’s an impressive building and can contain some impressive exhibits if one times it correctly. Wandering around to the dealership side and towards the service area were several stationary Maybach’s, one I seem to remember being all silver, maybe chrome but equally offensive to the eyes. Not long after I was at Silverstone for the British Grand Prix with friends. After the race we attempted to try and see some drivers only for security to deny access. Suddenly, the crowds parted and there wafted through a Maybach. Sat in the rear were Bernard Charles Ecclestone and Flavio Briatore. I remember seeing a weak smile from Bernie and a host of catcalls, gestures and expletives from the crowd.

    As to Herr Schremp, my, he sadly appears to be the archetypal Maybach customer. How many millions of any currency do you need to be “sacked?” Looks to an outsider like me that when you’re the boss it’s my way or the highway. Awful, dreadful state of affairs.

    1. The only Maybach I can recall seeing: an aubergine metallic one parked on a side street in Cologne 15 years ago. The car resembled a scaled up Hyundai up until one realises Hyundai have never made anything so horrible. It was more car but not better – a 21st century equivalent of a stretched Lincolon Town Car.

    2. Richard, I really have to say that your remark is gratuitously offensive…to the Lincoln Town Car.

    3. I have genuinely fond recollections of the Town Car from visits to New York circa 2000/2001. It was a car that served a purpose and worked well within the context of its intended environment… in stark contrast to something like the Maybach.

      Having said that, I wonder how many current luxury cars couldn’t rightly be subjected to similar criticism. Though I suspect it will not be a popular opinion, I’ve seen some videos about recent Rolls Royce products that are getting dangerously close to the same level of taste and subtlety as the subject of this article… ‘Black Edition’? Really?

  11. Only on DTW could you find clever witticisms like “drunk geography teacher at the prom” and “the understated elegance of Norah Docker”.

    You guys really are a class act!

  12. Poor Jürgen’s ears must be burning…

    Despite his questionable stewardship of Daimler-Benz, he seems to have amassed an impressive collection of awards and honours, “great-and-good” positions, and NED-ships in global companies.

    He seems to have had problems with keeping his trousers on – I bet that cost him!

  13. Just a gossip, I remember reading in CAR Magazine back in 1995 that Jürgen had some trouble with the italian police when, accompanied by his secretary and a colleague, was “detained” while they were “perambulating in a joyful mood with a bottle of wine” in Rome at 2.00 am. I know everyone can do whatever they want in their private life, but it´s still curious from a CEO, especially one that got that position only three months before.

  14. Would it be unfair of me to suggest that the Maybach 57, for all its other sins, directly inspired the W221 S-Class, believed to have been attributed to a certain G. Wagener? I can certainly see a lot of Maybach, not only in the silhouette, but in the vertical tail lamps and floating bootlid treatments. Mind you, the exaggerated wheelarch flares on 221 were likely to have been Gordo’s own idea. After all, the Sindelfingen recycling scheme was starting to pay dividends by then.

    1. Well observed, Eóin. Although its a moot point as to whether the W221 S-Class benefited from the Maybach influence. I could never get past Gorden’s weird asymmetric wheelarches to assess it further.

      I’ve only ever seen one ‘proper’ Maybach in the metal, and that was in Bray, Co. Dublin last year. I’ve no idea how many were sold in Ireland, but I guess they’re pretty rare.

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