Classic Cars

Coast to Coast in a $475 1977 Mercedes-Benz 230

The reminder

Somewhere along the way, I forgot what its like to love a car. To be not enthralled with power or precision, but enamored, charmed, ready to forgive an ocean of faults for a few drops of good character. This car, a $475 1977 Mercedes-Benz 230, is the perfect reminder.

Mercedes built a staggering 2.7 million W123 sedans between 1977 and 1985. They are cars of automotive legend, machines that helped craft American understanding of German engineering. These sedans, coupes, and wagons that embody the truth behind the worn and weary clichés: tank-like, mechanical, indestructible.

This is not a vehicle I’d seek out. It’s slow and pondering. German. It does not sprint or dart. It trundles along with a stodginess I’d long associated with professors who thought too highly of themselves. For a knuckle-dragger who grew up pining for the cars that filled his father’s old Hot Rod pages, it is a thing from another universe, far from the Impalas and Mercury coupes that formed the early flickers of my automotive lust. Even now, some part of me will always see a Mercedes or BMW badge and think, that’s a nice car. A denizen of a higher social stratum.

I bought it out of desperation, a thing for a story after Plan A dropped its transmission 45 miles into a 1,000-mile adventure. The seller told me the car needed valve seals and guides. I asked him if it would make it from its home in Eugene, Oregon to Portland. He nodded. I took him at his word and drove it nearly 5,000 miles over three weeks.

You can’t look at it without smiling. It’s everything. The size. The simple, handsome lines, dabbed here and there with just enough chrome to remind you it was penned in another era. How even after 40 years, every mechanism on it yields a beautiful, mechanical click–the doors, the hood, the headlight and hazard switches. How everything works. There’s no jiggling of knobs or smacking of steering wheels. No holding your tongue just right while you twist the key. It simply functions.

That’s partly due to the thing’s construction, but also its specification. There is no sunroof, no automatic climate control, no cruise control, no power windows or door locks. All of the niceties that degrade and fail over the course of a generation are absent. It is happy to do its job from now until the heat death of the universe, so long as you keep dumping oil down its throat.

What it doesn’t burn, it leaks. Two cupped hands could hold oil better than the front main seal and oil pan gasket. It spent its life wandering from Idaho to Washington, and finally, down to Oregon, all states that are kind to old metal. There is some rust, though. This will never be a concourse car.

But that means you can simply drive it. Throw the keys to friends and have everyone pile in. Street park it. Never lock it. Leave the windows down while you run your errands because what could happen? And every time you return to find it unmolested, it rebuilds your faith in humanity, bit by bit.

My wife, Beth, flew out from Virginia to meet me in Seattle for a long weekend. We picked up another couple, piled our luggage in the cavernous trunk, and headed for the ferry across the sound.

My friend tells me these are the sucker months, the days that convince Californians to move north, when the long, gray winter and the endless blackberry brambles seem like an impossibility. I get it. There’s a wide part of my heart that wants to be here, and it gets to singing as we watch the water slide beneath us. He points to the distance and says, “Look, there’s Rainier.”

At first, I can’t see it. My Appalachian mind aims my eyes too low, where there’s nothing but a thin haze and clouds hugging close to the horizon. The broad peak is above it all, and when I raise my gaze, I see that old volcano like a backdrop in oils, a scene that has wandered into our reality from some far-off fantasy.

The air is cool and clear, made cold by the quick wind at the ferry’s prow. It could be April anywhere else in the world. Porpoises breach and dance through the dark, still water to our starboard, and it’s difficult to believe that this is someone’s normal. Some lucky bastard’s home. We leave the windows down as we wander south, laughing and talking as we drive. It’s a delicious feeling, one I haven’t had since high school when my car lunched its A/C compressor, and I was too broke to fix it.

It’s the sense of being in the world rather than sheltered from it. It’s the salt smell of the sound and the way the air changes cool to warm and back again as you wander. How the car has not been bred out of the experience. You hear the little four-cylinder. Feel it thrumming ahead of you, pulling you on to the next wonder. It is open and pleasant. The door sills are thin and low and wait for your elbow. There’s room, everywhere.

I catch myself looking for glimpses of the car in storefront windows and the polished sides of food-grade semi tankers. It makes my heart glad to see it, every time.

The thing is a gamble, of course. It had 272,000 miles when I picked it up in Eugene. I kept waiting for it to falter and give me an excuse to leave it there in the Pacific Northwest, to thank it for its time and say goodbye. I eyed the temperature and oil pressure gauges, waiting to catch it in the act of leaving us stranded, but it never did. The Mercedes just kept moving, happy to be of use.

After 1,500 miles, half of me feared that it was only good because neither of us had managed to disappoint each other, yet. The Mercedes hadn’t destroyed some unobtainable part and stranded us for a week. I hadn’t mangled a repair, hit a curb, or blown a tire.

Worse, how does a car like this fit in my life? It was the safest thing on four wheels in 1977, but I’d be an idiot to put my daughter in it for anything longer than a bop to the store. We have no garage for it to sleep in, no space or time or cash for the car’s pile of minor needs. And while the lack of air conditioning was fine in the perpetually temperate Northwest, hot and humid Virginia might have something else to say.

Maybe that’s the price you pay to be reminded that cars are good and amazing things. That they’re the excuse you need to pack up and go. To leap. To take good people along with you. To watch their eyes grow bright as they take that big wheel and amble through the neighborhoods they’ve known all their lives, now with a new taste on their lips, their hands fluttering in the breeze like wings.

I dropped Beth off at the airport, then spent a morning in a West Seattle gutter changing one questionable coolant hose out of cowardice. I grabbed a set of pawn shop tools and pointed the 230 east with nothing to keep me company but Caroline Rose and John K. Sampson on the two-speaker stereo. I have crossed this continent more times than I can count, and still it is a shock to know the breadth of it. To understand the awesome miracle of this country, how such fractured and disparate places and people hold together, knowing we’re better for it.

You fill your windshield for three days, four, and still don’t run out of land to see. Places to go. I fall out of pace with the world, with its churning news and grinding fears. It’s a crime how microscopic we let our lives become, every sin and flaw magnified to unmanageable proportions, our days a galley of ghosts.

I find myself facing the nightmares my grandfather knew. Nukes and Nazis. Russia. The goddamned KKK. The world’s bigger than that, though, and out here, gulping down wide swaths of it, you understand the goodness inherent in people. I can’t pop the hood to check the oil without someone wandering up and wanting to know if everything’s ok. It’s a heartening sameness. You see it and realize we’re all living out our days with one wary eye on tomorrow, content to know that if nothing else, our horizons don’t change.

Mine do, for now. The land shifts, and the air with it. First, sweetened by Washington’s fir trees, then Idaho’s pine, darkened later with smoke from Montana forest fires, the blazes ignited by dueling thunderstorms. They roam over the grassland, stumbling to either side of Highway 200, lightning stabbing at the ground in fours and fives. They are massive and beautiful and full of destruction. Hot Shot firefighters eye their progress like the herds of mule deer that gather along the shoulder, tense and ready to bolt at some hidden cue.

Then comes North Dakota and the knowledge that there isn’t an ugly state in this union. Miles and miles of sweet corn, the smell strong enough to make my mouth water in the mid-day heat, followed by Minnesota, its waters, and the first smattering of deciduous trees. A single bald eagle cruises the shoreline out my passenger window. There’s a shift that happens, and something in me knows I’m closer to home than Seattle. Maybe it’s the humidity. Perfect cumulus clouds sit like dollops of cream, thousands of them stretching off to the horizon in a way that only happens in the Midwest. There are more people, too, and after a thousand miles of empty country, it’s a shock to see so many cars.

After Minnesota is Wisconsin, its roadsides blushing with wildflowers. Yellow black-eyed susans and blue chicory, amok and gorgeous in every ditch and field. Somewhere, in the back of my mind, I begin to suspect that yes, we’ll make it the 3,000 miles to my home in Virginia. I try to banish it, to think of anything else for fear of giving fate one more thin excuse to put its boot to my neck, but it won’t go away. It stays there through the endless toll booths of Illinois, across Indiana and Ohio. And by the time the sun sets on the last day, I can see my green hills. Smell the thick Appalachian air of home, a breath away through the mountains of West Virginia.

The 230 never falters. Never stumbles. It wants highway speeds, happier at 85 than 55 and content to scream its little head off even as it pukes oil out its valve cover. I keep the speed at 70, not for engine life, but for oil consumption, and by the time I take my exit, there isn’t a doubt in my mind that I could turn around and drive straight back if I needed to. This is a thing that cannot be deterred.

It feels at home here, soaking up the uneven chip-and-seal of my county. Rolling into my driveway. Parking in front of my house. After so many hours, I should loathe the thing. After so little sleep, I should want to bar the door, pull my wife into bed and not leave until famine or fire threatens to oust us.

But Virginia is happy to have me home, and the morning is a wonder. Sunlight drips through the mist that clings to the river below our ridge, the mountainsides drenched in the orange light of morning. Yes, this is my normal. Yes, this is some lucky bastard’s home. Mine. Somehow, I have not yet run the wandering out of my blood. I grab the keys and roll down the windows. The odometer’s a few shakes shy of 277,000 miles, and my father’s got nothing to do for the day. Maybe he needs the reminding of a good car.

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