Lusting after supercars is like lusting after supermodels: it's easier to pant over their pictures than to actually get your hands on one.
When I was young and green, I used to think the problem was merely money. I imagined that if you had the sticker price, you could walk into a showroom and drive home in the car of your dreams. And so you can, if your dreams run to widely available models-Subarus or Mustangs in Hertz color schemes-or to wallflower exotics like that silver-on-mustard-yellow aerokit Tiptronic Porsche with lipstick-red seatbelts that's been gathering grime in some disgruntled dealer's lot since May Day. But if you have the misfortune to fall for a genuinely hot supermodel-a fresh-faced dream car so exciting that it has Saudi princes and dot-bomb survivors bidding multiples of your annual salary above list price just to get a place near the top of the line-well, old buddy, that's when your heartache begins. Unless you're prepared to go mano a mano with Jay Leno and the sultan of Brunei and drive your new car straight to bankruptcy court, you have two choices.
You can do the sensible thing and bide your time for a year or two until the object of your desire turns up used, with just the colors and setup you wanted, at a cost comparable to its new-car sticker.
Or you can cave in to your desire and insist that love will find a way. That means living a life of obsession, persistent as a pimply teenager writing daily mash notes to Britney Spears. It means immersing yourself in the kind of anxiety associated with gangsters hunting for the Maltese Falcon and kids waiting months for a mail-order X-ray spy ring. It can drive you plumb crazy. I took that road. This is my story.
My career as a lovelorn loony began on the morning of Friday, July 9, 1999, in a tent at the British Grand Prix at Silverstone, when Mercedes-Benz introduced its first prototype-or "study," as they termed it-of a gorgeous, curvaceous, absurdly luxurious sports car with the lanky-hooded lines of a 1920s speedster. Its promised powerplant would be sufficiently refined to burble idly down Main Street without overheating yet potent enough to set a two-lane blacktop afire. I fell in love with the concept in a heartbeat. Way too good to be limited to a short-run show car-or even to the exotic SLR, which it did eventually spawn, last autumn, at half a million bucks a copy-it had to be destined to emerge as the fifth-generation SL. Such a machine could match the peerless Gullwings of the '50s and possibly trump them. I'd be willing to forfeit my X-ray ring and most of my life savings to get my hands on one. My epoch of desperate infatuation had begun.
A month later, at a McLaren promotional event in Poland, I put in some passenger-seat track time in the Mercedes CLK430 that served as the medical car. Behind the wheel was team physician Dr. Gary Hartstein. We turned a dozen laps, hitting the apexes hard to blast away pools of water deposited by a violent late-morning thunderstorm, until the track was dry enough for the McLaren F1 two-seater to get out there and awe the crowds in the stands (drawing howls of delight and alarm from its jellified passenger, me). Impressed by the CLK's high-speed aplomb, I talked my wife into acquiring a ragtop 430 to replace her aging Saab. We ordered one from a local dealership, Teutonic Mercedes (to protect the guilty, all names of dealerships and sales people have been changed). The sales manager, Klaus, estimated that it would take ten months for it to be built and delivered. This was the beginning of my education in what happens to list-price-paying customers when their dealers have more buyers than cars.
Ten months passed, then twenty months. No car. Periodically, I would call Klaus to see how things were going. "There is such demand for this automobile, such demand!" he exclaimed. "Some buyers are paying ten thousand, even fifteen thousand dollars over list for 430 cabrios. But don't worry! We are not doing that! We are treating our clients fairly!"
Since I hadn't accused Klaus of nudging us down the list to favor buyers who were willing to pay well over list, the fact that he kept bringing up the subject, if only to deny it, gradually aroused suspicions. Around about the two-year mark, Klaus was replaced by a new sales manager, Hans, a young man fond of asking questions only to answer them instantly.
"Am I saying it's impossible that my predecessor fiddled with your order? No," Hans volunteered. "Do I claim salesmen never lie? No. Are we playing games with you? I hope not."