Auto-Biography 7: Awakening

Paul Niedermeyer
by Paul Niedermeyer
auto biography 7 awakening

As 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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  • Paul Niedermeyer Paul Niedermeyer on Mar 12, 2007

    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.

  • Vega Vega on Mar 13, 2007

    @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...

  • SCE to AUX Probably couldn't afford it - happens all the time.
  • MaintenanceCosts An ugly-a$s Challenger with poor equipment choices and an ugly Dealership Default color combination, not even a manual to redeem it, still no sale.
  • Cha65689852 To drive a car, you need human intelligence, not artificial intelligence.Unfortunately, these days even human brains are turning into mush thanks to addiction to smartphones and social media.
  • Mike1041 A nasty uncomfortable little car. Test drove in 2019 in a search for a single car that would appease two drivers. The compromise was not much better but at least it had decent rear vision and cargo capacity. The 2019 Honda HRV simply was too unforgiving and we ditched after 4 years. Enter the 23 HRV and we have a comfy size.
  • SCE to AUX I wonder who really cares about this. "Slave labor" is a useful term for the agendas of both right and left."UAW Wants Auto Industry to Stop Using Slave Labor"... but what will the UAW actually do if nothing changes?With unrelenting downward pressure on costs in every industry - coupled with labor shortages - expect to see more of this.Perhaps it's my fault when I choose the $259 cell phone over the $299 model, or the cheaper parts at RockAuto, or the lower-priced jacket at the store.Do I care about an ethical supply chain? Not really, I just want the product to work - and that's how most consumers are. We'd rather not know.Perhaps the 1990s notion of conflict-free, blood-free, ethically-sourced diamonds will find its way into the auto industry. That would be a good thing.