Imagining that a personal touch might help, I started dropping by to chat with Hans and his sales staff, acquiring more knowledge of their broken marriages and drinking habits than was perhaps strictly necessary. This approach paid off six months later, when our car finally showed up-a lovely "Designo cashmere" two-plus-two with a splendid, free-breathing V-8-and Hans actually deigned to sell it to us. My wife felt it was too fancy, viewed its automatic transmission with disdain-she's a stick-shift gal-and kept threatening to sell it, but after a month or two, she had fallen for it. So had I. My air-cooled '97 Porsche C4S-a rolling piece of sculpture, its silky silver curves as lovely as a Frank Gehry roof-began to seem a bit harsh and assertive for a guy pushing sixty. I wanted something a thousand pounds heavier but faster than the Porsche. That would be the next-generation Mercedes SL.
Sure enough, the new SLs were soon announced. My Porsche could outrun the SL500, judging by its specs on paper, but the SL55 AMG, with its supercharged 5.4-liter V-8-now, that could be the car of a lifetime. I immediately put in an order with the Teutonic boys, but, despite our having bonded over our shared enthusiasm for wood-floored MGs and single-malt scotch, they were as coy as pampered cats about when my coveted SL55 might actually appear. So I also started courting Lars Kinder, the sales manager at Wanker Motorcars. Lars was a big, bald motorsport enthusiast with twenty years of experience selling Mercs and a serious jones for the SL he'd been obliged to part with decades earlier. Fondling a 1:32 steel model of his lost 190, Lars would muse about the vagaries of Daimler-Benz. "They're nuts," he said, chuckling. "You never know what they are going to do. We can order you an SL, and you might get it one day, or you might not. It's a crapshoot."
The problem, though none dared say its name, was that no dealer wanted to deliver me an SL55 at anywhere near sticker price so long as impatient rich guys were bidding them up. Then, one morning, while Lars and I were sipping coffee from stainless-steel AMG mugs at his desk in the cathedral-like Wanker showroom, a fax came in announcing that Mercedes, in a break from past policy, was going to start taking orders for European delivery of SL55s and other "specialty cars." I wrote a check on the spot and placed what must have been the first such order in North America. European delivery meant I'd be insulated from the threat posed by last-minute buyers willing to pay top dollar to bump me down the wait list. When I called Teutonic to back out of my prior commitment, Hans accepted the news with the cheerful equanimity of a prom queen being jilted by the recording secretary of the high school chess club.
Life was good-for six months. Then Mercedes-Benz USA abruptly canceled all European-delivery SL55 orders, presumably in response to complaints from dealers who preferred skimming mountains of cash off the top. I learned of this when an envelope came in the mail from Lars. In it was my deposit check, "Void" scrawled across it, with a copy of the invoice effaced by a handwritten note reading, "Sorry not possible."
I was stuck. By now, every dealer I could find had taken deposits on all the SL55s they could expect to get from now till Armageddon. If I paid a deposit and waited my turn, even assuming the dealer dealt with me honestly, I could look forward to taking delivery of my new Mercedes down at the local retirement home, 'round about my seventieth birthday.
Fuming with indignation, I telephoned an executive at Mercedes-Benz USA. "We do not encourage our dealers to do such a thing as to mark up prices and cancel orders, but they are all independent businessmen," he said. "Nor do we like long waiting lists; they don't do anybody any good. But brokers and speculators make everybody crazy by jacking up prices, and it would violate the antitrust laws if we tried to control our dealers. There are dealers who recognize that although some customers will pay a premium price, they are less likely to come back and order another car, whereas forgoing that tempting premium can ensure a lifetime customer. We're not bashful about pointing that out to our dealers. But that's about as far as we can go.
"We here in the States sell more SLs than any other market in the world," he added, "so we always have our hand in the air to our parent company to get more of them. My advice is to shop around. Some dealers have shorter lists than others, and the situation from store to store can be vastly different."
Fair enough; I shopped around. I found a dealer in Los Angeles who had a silver SL55 on the showroom floor, ready to go, for $100,000 over list. No thanks. I reached a freelance agent-on his cell phone, in a Porsche Turbo he was delivering to a client in Malibu-who offered to get me a red SL for a $60,000 premium. I spoke to a gray-market supplier who was air-freighting SL55s into the United States via Lufthansa for 30 percent over list plus an estimated $18,000 to federalize the car once it got to California. Things were looking bleak. Then, through eBay, I got in touch with Omar.