The Waiting Game
Lusting after supercars is like lusting after supermodels: it's easier to pant over their pictures than to actually get your hands on one.
When I was young and green, I used to think the problem was merely money. I imagined that if you had the sticker price, you could walk into a showroom and drive home in the car of your dreams. And so you can, if your dreams run to widely available models-Subarus or Mustangs in Hertz color schemes-or to wallflower exotics like that silver-on-mustard-yellow aerokit Tiptronic Porsche with lipstick-red seatbelts that's been gathering grime in some disgruntled dealer's lot since May Day. But if you have the misfortune to fall for a genuinely hot supermodel-a fresh-faced dream car so exciting that it has Saudi princes and dot-bomb survivors bidding multiples of your annual salary above list price just to get a place near the top of the line-well, old buddy, that's when your heartache begins. Unless you're prepared to go mano a mano with Jay Leno and the sultan of Brunei and drive your new car straight to bankruptcy court, you have two choices.
You can do the sensible thing and bide your time for a year or two until the object of your desire turns up used, with just the colors and setup you wanted, at a cost comparable to its new-car sticker.
Or you can cave in to your desire and insist that love will find a way. That means living a life of obsession, persistent as a pimply teenager writing daily mash notes to Britney Spears. It means immersing yourself in the kind of anxiety associated with gangsters hunting for the Maltese Falcon and kids waiting months for a mail-order X-ray spy ring. It can drive you plumb crazy. I took that road. This is my story.
My career as a lovelorn loony began on the morning of Friday, July 9, 1999, in a tent at the British Grand Prix at Silverstone, when Mercedes-Benz introduced its first prototype-or "study," as they termed it-of a gorgeous, curvaceous, absurdly luxurious sports car with the lanky-hooded lines of a 1920s speedster. Its promised powerplant would be sufficiently refined to burble idly down Main Street without overheating yet potent enough to set a two-lane blacktop afire. I fell in love with the concept in a heartbeat. Way too good to be limited to a short-run show car-or even to the exotic SLR, which it did eventually spawn, last autumn, at half a million bucks a copy-it had to be destined to emerge as the fifth-generation SL. Such a machine could match the peerless Gullwings of the '50s and possibly trump them. I'd be willing to forfeit my X-ray ring and most of my life savings to get my hands on one. My epoch of desperate infatuation had begun.
A month later, at a McLaren promotional event in Poland, I put in some passenger-seat track time in the Mercedes CLK430 that served as the medical car. Behind the wheel was team physician Dr. Gary Hartstein. We turned a dozen laps, hitting the apexes hard to blast away pools of water deposited by a violent late-morning thunderstorm, until the track was dry enough for the McLaren F1 two-seater to get out there and awe the crowds in the stands (drawing howls of delight and alarm from its jellified passenger, me). Impressed by the CLK's high-speed aplomb, I talked my wife into acquiring a ragtop 430 to replace her aging Saab. We ordered one from a local dealership, Teutonic Mercedes (to protect the guilty, all names of dealerships and sales people have been changed). The sales manager, Klaus, estimated that it would take ten months for it to be built and delivered. This was the beginning of my education in what happens to list-price-paying customers when their dealers have more buyers than cars.
Ten months passed, then twenty months. No car. Periodically, I would call Klaus to see how things were going. "There is such demand for this automobile, such demand!" he exclaimed. "Some buyers are paying ten thousand, even fifteen thousand dollars over list for 430 cabrios. But don't worry! We are not doing that! We are treating our clients fairly!"
Since I hadn't accused Klaus of nudging us down the list to favor buyers who were willing to pay well over list, the fact that he kept bringing up the subject, if only to deny it, gradually aroused suspicions. Around about the two-year mark, Klaus was replaced by a new sales manager, Hans, a young man fond of asking questions only to answer them instantly.
"Am I saying it's impossible that my predecessor fiddled with your order? No," Hans volunteered. "Do I claim salesmen never lie? No. Are we playing games with you? I hope not."
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.
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."
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.