By on March 10, 2007

220se-again.jpgAs an immigrant back in the days of the “melting pot,” I was as eager to assimilate as a wide-eyed frat pledge amongst his potential brothers. I tried to forget German, made futile efforts to learn baseball and remained deeply smitten by American automobiles. I repressed memories of my abandoned European flames: Porsche, Mercedes and Jaguar. But my jilted lovers found me hiding in Iowa, and began to torment me with their seductive powers.

My violin teacher drove to school in a baby-blue Porsche 356 Cabriolet she’d picked up in Germany. (The Teutonic roadster still wore its white oval export plates.) Her profession was auto-appropriate; the boxer’s piston quartet con blower performed its concerto wherever she drove. I could hear the Porsche’s siren song from blocks away as I walked home from school.

One rainy afternoon, my teacher offered me a ride home. Oh, those tan stitched-leather seats! The exquisite VDO instruments. The impeccable steering wheel with its Porsche coat of arms. That sound. If it weren’t for her mustache, I would have prayed for a kidnapping.

When new neighbors moved in down the street, they brought a shiny black Mercedes 220 SE sedan with them. Comparisons between the doctor’s imported German sedan with our domestic Ford Fairlane were inevitable. They were both black and similarly sized. Both cars sported red interiors and questionable finlets on their hind-quarters. Beyond that, there was a world of difference between them.

The Mercedes’ deeply-tucked, anatomically-correct front buckets and back seat made the hard plasticky slabs in the Fairlane look and feel like the benches at our local Greyhound bus station. The Merc’s well-wooded and padded dash, with its beautiful plated castings protruding from its surface, dripped with German Kunstwerk.  The Fairlanes’… didn’t.

In the engine room, the Mercedes’ fuel-injected OHC six bristled with alloy castings, making the Ford V8 look primitive. Adding insult to injury, the little six made more horsepower than the eight.

More painful observations: The Mercedes automatic had four speeds; the Ford-O-Matic had two. And a glance under the rear revealed a sophisticated low-pivot IRS and coils, versus a solid axle and leaf springs.

A brisk ride in the neighbors’ 220 SE made the sum of its advanced parts all too obvious. Instead of wallowing along, this baby felt planted down, rock solid. The well-damped long-travel suspension soaked up the frost heaves and expansion joints like a black leopard on the run. The nervous six’s raspy warm-up scales around town turned into a silky soprano aria at speed.

The doctor’s other car was a black Ford Model A, which he drove to work when the whim struck. It was already an antique. We played “The Untouchables” in it for hours on end. As I got to know the Model A and the Benz better, I began to have a creeping realization that our Fairlane had a lot more in common with its Ford progenitor than I wanted to admit.

The final blow was the great modeling showdown with my older brother. One Saturday, we bought car models at Kresge’s. I picked a modest-scale 1962 Corvette. He grabbed a brand new model: a magnificent large scale red Jaguar XK-E.

My brother was blessed with a surgeon’s hands. He collected broken radios, disassembled them, and created new electronic devices from scratch. My hands fell more into the farmer/carpenter vocational arena. They were clumsy executors of my “the more the better” philosophy regarding cement. The fact that my ‘Vette model had about one-tenth the parts of his superbly complex XK-E only underscored the lopsided-ness of this sibling rivalry.

Never having seen a Jaguar XK-E in the flesh, his model blew me away. Its deliciously-long front end was like a well-sucked cherry Popsicle on a hot summer day. Flipping up the plastic bonnet revealed that worship-inducing cathedral of an engine, surrounded by a spider’s web of tiny chromed or shiny black parts, punctuated by the exclamation marks of the knock-off wire wheels.

Turning over the model and looking under that red mini-skirt rear end was like opening your parent’s family medicine book and seeing things you couldn’t have even imagined. The Jag’s complex erector-set conglomeration of struts, springs, shocks, in-board disc brakes, u-joints and half-shafts was a complete revelation.

I knew all too well that my Corvette’s cement-pocked body hid a pathetic cart axle and leaf springs. Before long, it too was consigned to another pyrotechnic “accident” in the drive-way.

I felt beat-up. The new ’63 Sting Ray was soothing balm on my wounds. But my unconditional love for American wheels was never quite the same again.  The flame flickered on and off for another twenty years, until it was finally snuffed out that day in 1985 when I traded in my Ford T-Bird Turbo Coupe for a new Mercedes 300E.

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17 Comments on “Auto-Biography 7: Awakening...”


  • avatar
    Gottleib

    What excellent writing. I too can identify with all that you write as I too was a youth in the 1950′s. While my step-father was born and raised in Iowa of Norwegian parents I was born and raised on the northern coast of California. Our Doctor friend had a Karman Ghia, Isabella and a Porsche 356b. The realtor neighbors had Cadillacs and Lincoln Continentals. The son of the small manufacturing company had the Jaguar XK120, with the side curtains. I used to love walking by that car on my way to school just to smell the aroma coming from the leather seats. Thanks for the memories.

  • avatar
    shaker

    Your reminiscings reminded me of my own love affair, which early on was all things Corvette (with special emphasis on the Sting Ray fastback). Then, while walking through a country club parking lot one sunny day in 1970, I laid eyes on a Mercedes 250 SL for the first time. It was all I could do to keep my hands of the white beauty, sporting its twin-rail "pagoda" roof — it was built like a fine watch compared to my beloved Corvettes. The interior was precise in its simplicity, and beautiful in its function. My school-time notebook scrawlings suddenly changed from all-angle views of plastic-fantastic to Teutonic steel elegance (sporting over-wide tires; I was ahead of the curve there). I was asked by school mates "what kind of car is that? I would answer with all of the knowledge I had gleaned from the local library's back copy of R&T, citing the in-line 6's power to displacment ratio, the independant suspension, etc. But alas, even when I landed a job in the steel industry a few years later, I came to the realization that 3/4 of a year's pay was too much for a car in those days (even used!). The love affair smoldered until I spied my white beauty a few years later (who had subtly morphed into a 1968 280SL) in an upscale used car dealer… the salesman eagerly offered me the keys, I opened the door, and as I was getting inside — the "pagoda" roof nearly knocked my head off my shoulders. That pretty much ended the affair, as I assumed that even though I could have used a soft-top for more headroom, it ruined the look of my love. I returned the keys, and never looked back. To this day, I'm a victim of my 6'4" frame, and it has profoundly affected my vehicular "loves", which have tended to be "practical", or larger cars. Thanks for the chance to remember.

  • avatar
    Gottleib

    Shaker wrote: “To this day, I’m a victim of my 6′4″ frame, and it has profoundly affected my vehicular “loves”, which have tended to be “practical”, or larger cars.”
    I have to confess I share your pain being 6’3″ and someone that loves cars. There are but a few that will fit comfortably especially since what is now classed as a large car is what was once was a mid size, etc. etc. Today’s compacts used to be called mini’s.
    I have found that cars that have a telescoping steering wheel coupled with a power seat can usually provide accommodation that are decent for those of us with the gift of height.

  • avatar
    Mark

    I too have fondness for the days when I was a kid. I was especially fond of the 65 Mustang my next door neighbors had…just a beaytiful car.

    Mercedes at that time had some beautiful cars as well.

    Must really kill those that really appreciate Mercedes that the company is pumping out such unreliable junk. Truly the fall of an automitve icon as strength and reliability were as synonomous with Mercs as safety is to Volvo. Truly a shame.

  • avatar

    Mark: I couldn't agree more. When my father brought home a 300 SEL 6.3 from Europe, it was nothing short of a revelation. While Merc still makes some terrific brick sh4thouses, they're almost all badged AMG. When I see a low end Merc, a little part of me dies inside. Too bad Mercedes execs don't feel the same way… Anyway, thanks for taking me back Paul. And could our readers PLEASE email this link (not the article) to their friends? This series deserves a wider audience.

  • avatar
    frontline

    Paul! What an exciting read! You are really on it!
    Picture this: Every morning, for a couple of years, a classy lady in new orangey bronze 72 350 or 450 SL would come down the hill and then turn left at our bus stop. I marvelled how she consistantly, gently spun the tires every time she started off up the road. I think it may have been the first time I was feeling that MB was indeed something special.
    Thanks Again Paul.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    Shaker: I’m 6’4″ too, and the pagoda SL has always been very high on my list of wanna-haves, particularly because it seemed to be more tall-friendly than most other love-interests (XK-E). I’ve got to keep up with my yoga classes.

  • avatar
    philipwitak

    memories indeed. i was very fortunate to have driven a 66 4.2 litre e-type coupe from 70 through 73 and a 64 356c cabriolet from 80 through 89. even drove the porsche west from port huron, michigan, to san diego when we moved back in 82.

    two of my favorite automobiles and two of the best i’ve ever owned. what i wouldn’t give to have them both back, now.

  • avatar
    Sajeev Mehta

    The Fairline vs. Benz was a real hoot to read. Though I gotta say the Turbo Coupe was a big step up in narrowing the gap; it was a fun car in its day, obviously lacking the polish of the 300E.

  • avatar
    Luther

    Its pretty bad when you hear of people cross-shopping a Honda Accord with the MB C-Class. I liked the way the C320 sport coupe drove though especially with a 6-speed manual… Then MB discontinued it in the US.

    I always liked the MB 190 SL. Maybe one day I will pick one up and restore it.

  • avatar

    Oh, the cognitive dissonance, Paul. La Belle Americaine inferior to the best of the world you left behind.

    Makes me remember that the ’65 Peugeot 404 wagon we acquired that year in France was far superior to my beloved Chevies–much better handling, mch better suspension, precise rack and pinion steering, better switchgear (four on the tree), superior fit and finish, and oh, the beauty of the body by Pininfarina. But at that time I was much too much a GM partisan to fully appreciate the Peugeot’s virtues as compared to Chevies.

    In fact, it was only in maybe 15-20 years ago that I came to appreciate the fact that the ’57 Chevy wagon, in which we x’ed the country twice, the mythical, prototypical wonderful family car, was a POS. And only within the past five, perhaps, that I day dream of finding the Peugeot’s VIN in my late parents’ files, and tracking the thing down, and finding it in good shape. I used to have recurring dreams that somehow I acquired the Chevy at this late date, but lately, the Peugeot is the primal vehicle that miraculously reappears in my life.

    Loved the part about the violin teacher with the Porsche, but TOO BAD she had the mustache. I so wanted to live that extra dimension vicariously.

    Somehow all this reminds me of how my mother used to tell us how her dashing 10 years older cousin, Victor (who was one of Denver’s finest architects until he died about a decade ago), would take her for rides in his sporty I-can’t-remember-what-kind-of-car-and-she’s=no-longer-here-to-tell-me–this was probably in the mid ’30s–at the then incredible speed of 45 mph.

    which reminds me of my maternal grandmother’s important role in the history of the automobile: she wrapped the family car around the first traffic light the day after it went up.

    Anyway, these autobiography stories are wonderful in themselves and the way they trigger all these great memories.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    Dave: Man, we share a lot in common. Peugeots 404′s, including a wagon, were a big part of my life later on (late 70′s). I had six or seven of them! Stay tuned.

  • avatar

    Wonderful! Another great article Paul. Thank you.

    I’m a very lucky man, in that I am the caretaker of my father’s old ’65 E-type Jaguar (aka “XK-E”). Your description of its engine as a “cathedral” is appreciated. I love to open the bonnet for your average “car guy” whose previously most esoteric sighting was a flathead Ford or an air-cooled VW. Many of them are completely confounded by what they see. Those bell-shaped triple SU’s, the twin long polished cam covers rising over the timing chains, the exhaust manifolds falling away like flying buttresses. Frequently they ask “This a V-12, right?” I tell them no, this is the legendary inline 6, XK engine that won Le Mans five times, and has powered everything from race cars to sedans, even limos, and tanks. In a world dominated by squat V8′s the XK is an elegant and beautiful machine.

    –chuck

  • avatar
    Vega

    @Robert: Don’t forget, Mercedes has through all times built “low end” Mercs, that is cars with small (gas and Diesel) engines used as Taxis or as vehicles for people who chose quality and brand cachet over gimmicks. They just didn’t export them to the US. My grandparents switched from a top range Opel to a bottom of the line Mercedes 200 (W115) in the early 70s. So for us Europeans Mercedes isn’t just about building the most luxurious cars of all, it’s about competing in the top niche of every market segment.

  • avatar
    Sigivald

    What Vega said; while Mercedes is a luxury brand in the US, in Germany, they’re not, especially.

    In addition to top-end luxury cars, they make trucks. They make garbage trucks, in fact. They make taxis. They make no-frills bottom-end don’t-have-AC-or-power-windows cars for the European market.

    (Well, I don’t know if they still make the latter, but they certainly did. Power windows and AC may be “necessities” in today’s market, even in a Munich taxicab.)

    (I’m personally shocked that they ever made a 220D wagon on the 123 chassis. Those things barely move as sedans with the non-turbo 3L straight five. A tiny, anemic 4 cylinder with the heavier station-wagon body? Madness, to American standards, but…)

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    Vega: MB did import their low end cars to the USA. Until about 1984, you could always get a low-end 240D; before that 220D, 200D or 190D. They sold quite a lot of them. The ’80′s emphasis on performance combined with cheap gas made it (to MB) irrelevant. I’m sure there would have been a few hard-core 4 cyl. diesel lovers to keep buying them.

    Ironically, Eugen is crawling with those old 240D’s and 300D’s – we have two used car dealers selling nothing but them to the biodisel contingent (big here).

    Mercedes was traditionally seen as a the highest “quality” car in Europe; the word “premium” is a more modern, marketing expression. Taxi’s loved the reliability, and MB made special deals with taxi drivers – it was considered good PR. In recent years the percentages have slipped quite a bit.

    But in the Europe, like the US, Mecedes has long lost the unique standing it once had. Partly, everyone else figured out how to do the same thing, but cheaper, and MB had to cut costs to compete. It’s a whole different playing field than it was in the 60′s, like so many other things.

    Robert: your dad brings home a 6.3; my dad brings home a stripper Dart- what’s up with that? Lucky you.

  • avatar
    Vega

    @Sigivald:

    Mercedes doesn’t build any car without AC and electric windows anymore. period. And even the base level C-Class offered here in Germany has all the high-tech basics of the more expensive ones like multi-link rear axle. That’s why it’s over 30k EUR. Premium doesn’t mean always having the biggest engine, it’s about substance. Kinda like the opposite of what Cadillac and Lincoln are doing.

    Oh yes, and the build trucks. Actually,they have done that for over 100 years now. And it has never diminished the image of a single S-Class…


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