Out on the paddock, there was a mad dash to grab the most glamorous-looking AMGs, so I selected a relatively plain-Jane E55 sedan. I'd heard that the first E55s were so fast that AMG had to go back and rework the software in the SLs to restore their status as the quickest in the lineup. Sure enough, out on the track, the E proved to be a wonderful automobile, ludicrously easy to drive fast and blessed with appalling amounts of torque and superb brakes. Turns came up faster than a Wall Street sidewalk viewed by a suicidal jumper, yet the braking points were always well past the final braking signs-all this from the very antithesis of a cop magnet, a car so inconspicuous as to resemble a taxicab. I could appreciate why the E is the top choice of AMG enthusiasts out to get the maximum bang for their bucks.
Next time around, I grabbed a CL55, which was, if anything, even more fun-a big, fabulously quick two-door so user-friendly that I could windmill it through hairpins with the heel of my hand on the steering wheel, like a ducktail-haircut JD in a hot-rod Lincoln. The CL remained rock-solid until the last turn before returning to the pits, when, for some reason, its left rear brake pad exploded. (Mechanics rolled it into the garage, smiling the big, knowing, "it all costs money" grins one sees on pit crews everywhere.) The S55, though listed at a curb weight only 65 pounds heavier than the CL, felt front-heavy by comparison and was harder to gather in at the end of a straightaway. But it was still mighty sprightly for so roomy a sedan.
At last, I was able to strap myself into an SL55, at the front of the grid. Waiting for the flag to fall, I wrestled with nagging doubts raised by several reviewers who had described the SL as more of a cruiser than a true sports car. Robert Farago, writing in the Robb Report, had gone so far as to declare that "throwing Mercedes' two-ton roadster around bends seems a bit, well, boorish." I'd owned nothing but Porsches for the past fifteen years-a Turbo, a 928 S4, and the C4S. What if it turned out that I'd squandered more money than I could possibly afford on a track-shy cream puff?
I needn't have worried. Flooring the pedal with the traction control turned off filled all three rearview mirrors with billowing clouds of white smoke that persisted until I was an eighth of a mile down the track and hurtling into turn 1. Up the hill, still at full throttle, the sensation was one of smooth, ceaseless acceleration, like the space shuttle climbing to orbit. Onto the binders for a late-apex blast through turn 2 sent the SL gliding effortlessly from mild understeer into a neutral zone broad enough to park a semi. As I came out of turn 6, a sweeping downhill affair that can stitch up your sphincters in a hurry if you get loose, the rear hung out just long enough to kick up a puff of dust at the exit point, producing the gratifying if delusional notion that I actually knew what I was doing. This amazing automobile then flung itself down the straight with a mighty howl and was close to its 155-mph computer-governed top end when the gaping maw of turn 7, a hard right-hander, opened up until the windshield was full of grasslands. Maximum braking lit up the ABS as I looked right, found the apex, hit the throttle, and went into another rocket launch. Boorish, perhaps, Mr. Farago, but what a gas.
After lunch, I put in some right-seat time with a few real drivers. Elivan Goulart, an accountant who is also a two-time Formula 500 champion with a .500-plus career win ratio, took me out in the SL. As you might expect, he turned quicker lap times than mine, and with a lot less fuss-at least, until we went off the track at the turn 10 exit of our last and hottest lap. Goulart was so confidence-inspiring, though, that as we hurtled sideways through the dirt, fast approaching a white wall dispiritingly marked with the smeared black outlines of the many other cars that had smacked into it recently, I laughed like a loon, clapped him on the back, and shouted, "Come on, son, gather it in! I know you can do it!" Which he did, tidily gathering up the SL three meters shy of the wall and slipping back onto the track, smooth as melting butter. "The trick is just to try to keep the wheel as straight as possible, returning to the track slowly," he remarked as we returned to the pits.
My bracing day at the track was followed by two more months of waiting. A couple of cherished SL55 slots went by before Mercedes got around to building my Designo-but then, miraculously, it did. I followed the car's anguishingly slow progress through computer printouts: "PRODUCED NOT SHIP," "AT PORT-NO SHIP ASSIGNED," "SHIP ASSIGNED," "SHIPPED," "CLR US CUSTOMS; RLSE SHPMNT TO INVTY," "RETAILED."
Then, one sunny October day, Gloria, a saleswoman at Southern Comfort Motors, called to say, "I hope you don't think I'm just a dumb blonde, but I'm sitting in your beautiful new car with my cell phone plugged into it, and I'm ready to program the computers the way you want them." Together, we set the headlight and interior-light turnoff intervals, the outside rear-mirror tilt-down option for parking in reverse, the radio scan function, and a score of other bewildering features. Two days later, the car was on a truck bound for California.
It arrived at Pier 23 on the Embarcadero in a thunderstorm at eleven on a cold November weeknight. Accompanied by my stepson, Alex, I watched anxiously as a pair of exhausted Mexican-American drivers unstrapped the car from its perch up top in the covered twin-car carrier, fired up its thundering engine, and slowly backed it onto the broad sidewalk.
I signed the papers and shook hands with the drivers, and then Alex and I climbed in and eased the car onto the rain-slicked roadway, marveling at its low-speed docility. Many otherwise wonderful supercars are apt to shudder with racehorse nervousness when idling in traffic, but the SL simply relaxed into an uncanny impersonation of an ordinary Merc sedan, albeit one with an imposing exhaust rumble. When the traffic lights by the baseball park turned green, I floored it. The SL let out a NASCAR-volume howl, and the fat rear tires fishtailed through three successive gearchanges while the blue-lit tachometer, innocent of a redline indicator, simply bounced its needle off the peg.
As we soared up the long I-280 entrance ramp and then vaulted downhill across five lanes of freeway at triple-digit velocities in the driving rain-an experience more like carrier-landing an all-weather fighter jet than driving a car-a thought dawned: Gee, I haven't insured this thing yet!
Plumb crazy, no doubt-but still alive, and still young.