The Waiting Game

Timothy Ferris
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Gary Hovland

Omar was a Pepperdine undergraduate who, along with a classmate, had been assigned by their marketing teacher to envision a profitable venture that required no start-up funds. The two came up with a scheme to put supercar customers in touch with sellers willing to fill orders at modest premiums. The teacher liked the idea so much that Omar and his colleague gave it a real-world try. They started phoning Mercedes, Ferrari, and Lamborghini dealers around the country, locating desirable cars that were coming in soon at nonstratospheric prices and then auctioning the slots on eBay. Before the semester ended, they were earning $10,000 to $15,000 a month in commissions. Omar provided references, which checked out, and put me in contact with Wallace, the top salesman at Southern Comfort Motors, thousands of miles from my home in San Francisco, who was offering his first allocation of a 2004 SL55.

Like me, Wallace had recognized early on that fifth-generation SLs were going to be the bomb. Unlike me, he knew what to do about it. To garner as many slots as possible, he contacted the clients to whom he'd sold SLs in recent years, warned them that their cars were soon to be wallflowered by the glamorous newcomers, offered to buy them back at top dollar, and took their orders for new ones. Armed with tons of orders, he was allocated tons of SLs and was able to sell a few slots through Omar. I liked Wallace, an ebullient Israeli ex-racer given to greeting my phone calls with a shouted "Teem-o-teee is in the house!" So, although we didn't even know what an '04 SL55 was going to cost, except that, of course, it would be knee-weakeningly expensive, I sent him a $5000 premium and dispatched another $5000 to Omar. If it worked, I would have one of the first '04s, for ten grand over list, by November.

To pass the time, I cruised the Internet for soft-core AMG porn, ogling advertising videos of German guys cruising back roads in SL55s and marveling at shots of the car's sexy convertible hard top folding into the trunk in sixteen seconds flat. I studied the AMG Owners Club Web site, where fanatics from Korea to Dubai goad one another into disabling the 155-mph speed limiters on their 55s, remapping the firmware to garner ten percent more horsepower, adding bigger wheels and louder exhausts, and taking speed runs early on frosty mornings, when, they maintain, the cold air's higher density increases power and makes their cars go even faster. Some of these guys, in India and Singapore, were pouring money into cars for which they had already paid a 145 percent duty on top of the retail price and dealers' premiums. "I guess when it comes to cars, adult men become children again," one mused.

Things got sticky at Southern Comfort Motors in July, when Wallace went on vacation and a couple of high rollers dumped attach cases full of cash on the sales manager's desk, walking off assured that the first two '04 SL55s to show up were theirs. But Wallace proudly reported on his return that he'd manfully marched into the sales manager's office and wrestled my slot back. "The other two guys are paying a lot more money, but that's not the issue," he said. "We offered you a number back in March, and you agreed to it. You are not to be punished. The sales manager and I had an argument, but it was not a bad argument. You and I are in business, Teem-o-teee!"

Meanwhile, one of my old buddies at Teutonic called to say that a Designo SL500 had just come in. "You just have to see it; it's so beautiful," he whispered. He was right. The Designo hand-stitched leather warmed up what otherwise was a somewhat cold interior, and it would perfectly complement my own SL55's hand-built AMG engine, signed by the technician who assembled it. That meant even more money, of course, but hell, we didn't know what the car was going to cost, anyway. So I phoned Wallace, and we added a graphite Designo package, seven minutes before deadline. Wallace advised me that the custom interior would delay the car another month or two. "They like to pump out the plain vanilla cars first," he reported. "They can make a dozen or so cars a day in regular trim, only four a day in Designo. But don't despair, Teem-o-teee. I have for many years been selling cars, and take it from me, this will be very rare, a car like no other. Wait till you see it!" So I waited.

Weirdly, I was ordering a car I'd never driven, so when AMG held a "Challenge" event at Infineon Raceway (the track previously known as Sears Point) last August, I stopped by.

I parked the Porsche in heavy dawn fog amid a gauzy dreamscape of SL, CL, and S AMGs piloted by seasoned Mercedes owners, most of whom, unlike myself, were genuinely well heeled rather than just stone crazy. One told me he liked Mercedes sedans so much that he'd bought a dealership. An even more impressive gaggle of AMGs was arrayed on the paddock, attended by squads of mechanics tweaking their tire pressures and setting their suspension and transmission maps on Foolproof. We went inside for a chalk talk-a bunch of middle-aged, mostly white guys in Prada running shoes and Rolex GMTs, being tutored by Bill Cooper, a genial veteran driver and instructor with thirty years of experience racing everything from formula cars to Corvettes. Cooper's advice was laconic and to the point: "Use the controls like a rheostat, not an on/off switch; never surprise the car. Concentrate; motorsport is unforgiving of inconsistency. Keep your eyes on your goal. Look where you want to go, and get used to looking farther and farther ahead as your speed increases. Of course, explaining all this in words is like standing up here trying to tell you how to ride a bicycle."

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