Auto-Biography 21: Doing an E

Paul Niedermeyer
by Paul Niedermeyer
auto biography 21 doing an e

In 1985, I started a Spanish language TV station. Having run a multi-lingual broadcast outlet for the world’s most famous guru, I was ready to rock and roll. There was only one minor detail: thirty million dollars. Fortunately, my partner and I found it. Unfortunately, we didn’t choose our sugar daddies carefully enough. It was a wild roller-coaster ride– even if I did end back on the ground. At least I got a sharp set of wheels out of the deal.

So, at 32, I became a part owner and General Manager of KVEA, the station that spawned Telemundo. I had a dream gig: buying stations and building a Spanish language TV network. And I got the company car of my dreams: a 1985 Mercedes 300E.

Mercedes’ all-new W124 series Benz had just arrived on the American automotive scene. It was an automotive milestone: the last time Mercedes would field a sedan that was far enough ahead of the competition to render it virtually meaningless.

The four-door German sedan certainly looked the part. It had the slipperiest body outside of a mud-wrestling pit, yielding the lowest drag coefficient of any car of its day. The 300E was also stuffed full of innovative technology: a new five-link rear suspension (air for the wagon), ABS brakes, fuel injection, air bags and a radical mono-blade windshield wiper. And it weighed less than 3200 lbs.

[Remind me again: why does today’s MB E350 weigh 600 lbs. more, get no better mileage, and have a terrible reliability rep? I guess MB engineers spent the last twenty-five years with more pressing problems, like Maybach and Chrysler.]

When I saw the 300E, it was déjà vu all over again. Just like the Thunderbird, I was gripped by an advanced case of veni, vidi, vici. I HAD to have one. And so I did.

The 300E fulfilled my every desire; it was as if I’d designed the car myself. It was a handsome beast (enhanced with oversize BBS wheels), as well as efficient, reliable, comfortable and solidly built. But most of all, it loved to roll.

The 300E was bred on the Autobahn, in the fast lane. Although its silky six only stumped-up 177 horses, it would do an honest 140mph. I verified its top speed (more impressive in 1985 than now) as soon as possible. And I had witnesses: Stephanie and our two little kids in the back. (She’s never complained; we’ve survived thirty years of accident-free fast driving together. Knock on wood.)

Every car has its “happy” cruising speed. The 300E’s was 110mph. I spent as much time as possible at that speed, savoring the blissful state of restful alertness that the velocity engendered.

Of course, my Mercedes’ magic carpet ride had its inherent risks: 110 was exactly double the posted speed limit. But the rules of the game were different then. California still had a state-wide ban on radar. The CHiPs would “play the ramps,” swooping down on speeders from on-ramps like fighter jets off the deck of a carrier, or an avian predator hunting for a kill.

Unlike today’s lop-sided hi-tech war, it was a sportsmanlike game of cat-and-mouse. By staying hyper-alert and using the rear-view mirror constantly, I excelled at recognizing cop cars from great distances. And slow down. Fast. In fact, I batted 1000– except for one “bear-in-the-air” ticket.

My 300E was like a rock, unshakeable no matter how rough the road or weather. It induced a feeling of security and well being every time I stepped inside. Too bad it couldn’t protect me from the storms brewing at work.

Telemundo’s majority owners were plugged into Michael Miliken’s junk-bond factory, and put in little of their own cash. The recession of 1991-1992 hit the media hard. When the crunch came, they walked. Foolishly, too, since NBC paid $2.7 billion for Telemundo in 2001.

Telemundo stock crashed and burned. Goodbye fortune. The final blow came when a new CEO fired the management ranks in a futile effort to justify his brief existence.

Aged 39, I was free again. I had never set out to be a corporate “suit.” I enjoyed the challenges, but not the politics, questionable ethics and “creative” financing. I never looked back, except for missing the Mercedes.

I’m intensely independent, and needed to live the rest of my life on my terms. So I sold the Benz, a token of an era now ending.

I had bought the 1966 Ford F-100 for $500 to haul brush. Now, hooked up to a trailer, I used it to move our stuff to Oregon in 1993. The Beverly Hillbillies were fed up with expensive, pretentious and crowded California, and were heading back to the hills.

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  • The Flexible Despot The Flexible Despot on Jun 18, 2007

    Great article, as ususal, Mr. Niedermeyer. My daily driver is a 1995 E320, with 110,000 miles on the odometer. I've had it for about 2 years. Love that W124 chassis and body style. I have never had a car that tracks as well straight down the road. It makes high speed interstate driving very enjoyable. I doubt I will ever sell it. There is no telling how many miles it can eventually go. It is a great used car bargain, if it has been properly maintained. No timing belt to deal with either, which is nice.

  • Yankinwaoz Yankinwaoz on Jun 18, 2007

    I owned an 89 260E W124. I consider the mid year W124's to be the closest thing to automotive perfection on the planet. The car was perfect in every way. Just the right size, excellent power, fun to drive, fast, safe, sexy, and conservative at the same time. MB ruined them in the later years when they removed the glove box for a passenger air bag and replaced stuck a bad excuse for a glove box between the front seats. It handled beautifully in all weather and road conditions. I would drive that thing off road on camping trips and would be fine (talk about strange looks from fellow campers in 4WD pickups when they see me drive up the dirt road in a dark gray W124 with all my camping gear in the trunk) My now ex-wife has the old W124 now. She demanded that she get to keep it. Oh well. I would love to buy another one!

  • Ollicat I have a Spyder. The belt will last for many years or 60,000-80,000 miles. Not really a worry.
  • Redapple2 Cadillac and racing. Boy those 2 go together dont they? What a joke. Up there with opening a coffee shop in NYC. EvilGM be clowning. Again.
  • Jbltg Rear bench seat does not match the front buckets. What's up?
  • Theflyersfan The two Louisville truck plants are still operating, but not sure for how much longer. I have a couple of friends who work at a manufacturing company in town that makes cooling systems for the trucks built here. And they are on pins and needles wondering if or when they get the call to not go back to work because there are no trucks being made. That's what drives me up the wall with these strikes. The auto workers still get a minimum amount of pay even while striking, but the massive support staff that builds components, staffs temp workers, runs the logistics, etc, ends up with nothing except the bare hope that the state's crippled unemployment system can help them keep afloat. In a city where shipping (UPS central hub and they almost went on strike on August 1) and heavy manufacturing (GE Appliance Park and the Ford plants) keeps tens of thousands of people employed, plus the support companies, any prolonged shutdown is a total disaster for the city as well. UAW members - you're not getting a 38% raise right away. That just doesn't happen. Start a little lower and end this. And then you can fight the good fight against the corner office staff who make millions for being in meetings all day.
  • Dusterdude The "fire them all" is looking a little less unreasonable the longer the union sticks to the totally ridiculous demands ( or maybe the members should fire theit leadership ! )