To Beijing, by Bluetec Mercedes (PART 5)

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Cars At Yongding Gate

This was a little bit of a movie star moment for us, with dozens of cameras flashing and DaimlerChrysler CEO Dieter Zetsche announcing our car number and our names

Friday, November 17, 2006

We left Badaling and the Great Wall this morning, with all 36 diesel E-class sedans falling into formation behind several Chinese police cars, lights flashing and sirens whooping, for the 50-mile drive into Beijing and the finale of the nine-country, 8500-mile, 25-day E-class Experience Paris-Beijing 2006. The convoy wended along a road at the base of the hills that are crowned by the Great Wall here, but overcast, polluted skies made it difficult to see much of China's most famous attraction. The mood in our car among me, Denise McCluggage, and photographer Alex P was subdued: after driving for 4 days all the way from the city of Lanzhou in central China, we were all a bit tired and just wanted to get to Beijing without incident. I suspect most of the other drivers felt the same way. And I know the Mercedes-Benz organizers who had seen this event from initial concept two years ago to this point had their fingers tightly crossed that nothing untoward would happen in this, the final fifty-mile stretch.

The Badaling Expressway was lined with apartment towers as it led us into the capital city, where Chinese citizens weren't exactly crowding the roadsides waving palm branches but definitely took notice of the procession of decorated Mercedes sedans, waving and smiling. The police held back traffic in a few places on the expressway, and in a Volkswagen parked at the side of the road, a woman raised her young son's hand to wave at us as her husband grinned excitedly. Traffic grew heavier as we reached the city center and skirted Tiananmen Square on our way to Yongding Gate, which stands at the southern edge of Beijing. Both Chinese and foreign tourists at Tiananmen and Yongding pointed their cameras at our fleet, as the Mercedes G-wagen video truck wove in and out of traffic to get a better vantage point for shooting. Beijing lacks Shanghai's stunning skyline, but the areas near and around Tiananmen and other squares have the scale and elegance of Washington, D.C.

All of the E-classes were directed into the center of the park adjoining the Yongding Gate, pointing toward a huge white tent that Mercedes had set up for a press conference. And there we cooled our heels for about two hours, taking pictures, milling about the parked cars, and, for the Mercedes organizers, breathing a big sigh of relief that this most ambitious of media events had come off with nary a hitch. Several European and Asian journalists approached Denise for photos and autographs: She received almost as much attention as the statuesque blond German woman who was driving one of the civilian (versus journalist) cars, sponsored by eBay.

The sliding doors at the end of the tent finally opened, the DaimlerChrysler press conference began, and then, one-by-one, each team drove its E-class into the tent and up a ramp. This was a little bit of a movie star moment for us, with dozens of cameras flashing and DaimlerChrysler CEO Dieter Zetsche announcing our car number and our names. I got the sense that it was a fairly big event for the local Beijing media. Then Denise drove our car, #11, the last few hundred yards to the base of Yongding Gate, we assembled for a group photo, and that was it: We had to surrender our keys and walk to a bus that would take us to the Grand Hyatt.

We'd grown fond of our Bluetec Mercedes E320, which had been about as comfortable, safe, fast, and responsive as anyone could have asked. Of the three Mercedes-Benz USA Bluetec cars, one is being sold to a private collector in Southern California, one is going to the Mercedes-Benz Classic Collection in Irvine, California, and the third will end up with the people at Mercedes-Benz AG in Stuttgart. But first, our very car, #11, is now on its way to Los Angeles, where it will be on display at the L.A. Auto Show in early December. It should still have all the grime and coal dust that Denise and I collected on the road from Lanzhou to Beijing.

Joe DeMatio

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