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It was like déjà vu. The girls, Elayne and Soni, were back again ten years later with another “fabulous” (Elayne’s favorite adjective for everything) foreign car acquisition opportunity. They had a friend, a car buff named John Calley, who would be “willing” to sell his “virtually new” 1966 Mercedes 300 SE convertible for “only” $6600.
I’m going to ask our Blog readers to pause for a moment. This discussion was taking place in early 1967 when a new Cadillac Eldorado was selling for $6000, so $6600 for any car was really a lot of money in those days.
There’s a back story here: John Calley, who later went on to become a successful Hollywood producer, was at that time a young TV executive. As a hobby John would fly over to Europe, buy a new car, drive it around for a week or two, and ship it back to New York as a “used car”, thus avoiding new car import duties. He would then drive the car across the country to Los Angeles where he would sell it to the “beautiful people” who just had to drive the latest foreign import.
“Where would we get $6600 to buy a car?” I asked Elayne and Soni. “You girls have sure come up in the world since Mort Viner’s $250 Jaguar Saloon.”
“No,” they replied in unison. “This is a real car,” added my wife. It’s the same Mercedes convertible that the Pope drives. “The company should buy it for you. John knows lots of people who want the car. He’s giving us first chance. Don’t make a decision now,” pleaded Elayne, (an old salesman’s trick she learned from her father, Harry Nagin). “Sleep on it.”
“Yes, yes,” added Soni, “sleep on it. John promised he would hold it for us for a day.”
I didn’t really “sleep on it”. In fact, I didn’t sleep at all. First there was the stigma associated with Jewish families owning German cars. On the other hand my brother drove a Porsche and my sister a Volkswagon Bug. As for the idea of the company buying me a car, well that didn’t seem so unrealistic. After all, Harriscope leased Burt Harris’s car.
I threw out the idea to Burt the next day. After all we had just borrowed $3,000,000 from a couple of banks to buy two profitable cable TV businesses. Considering the fact that I was drawing zip in the way of salary, it wouldn’t hurt to ask.
Always a “class act”, Burt’s immediate response was “Sure, why not? Elayne will look good in a Mercedes convertible.”
That was it. The company wrote a check payable to John Calley. The girls took it to the studio where John was working at the time, picked up the car’s papers and the keys, and drove back to Malibu in our new (well almost new) 1966 chocolate-brown Mercedes 300 SE convertible.
Yes, it was Elayne’s car. I even ordered personalized plates in her name, but she seldom drove it that first year. “Too nervous” she used to say, preferring the Ford wagon, especially when “schlepping” the kids in their various car pools.
That car gave us an identity. We found out that Mercedes made only three hundred 300 SE convertibles. They were testing out a new large block six cylinder engine and something called an air suspension system that was designed to be more efficient than traditional shocks and springs.
For our little family, which had lost everything we owned in a fire only a few years before, that Mercedes provided a wonderful psychological boost. There I was taking home less than $25,000 a year, yet driving one of the most beautiful status symbols in America. Restaurant attendants parked it right out front with the Rolls Royces and Bentleys.
I took very good care of that Mercedes, and washed it myself every week. About six months after we acquired the car, I got a call from John Calley. It appears that some producer wanted to use the car in a movie. They needed it for three days and would pay $500 a day. “That’s $1500,” I said to Elayne, “almost twenty-five percent of what we had invested in the car, we can’t pass it up.”
“OK,” Elayne replied, “But what are they going to do with the car?” Suddenly I thought of a movie we had just seen called “Bullet” starring Steve McQueen which featured a famous car chase up and down the hills of San Francisco. I called John.
“Don’t worry,” he replied. “It’s a love story about a young couple who rent a house on the beach. All they do is drive it up and down the highway. What with you living in Malibu, the car will feel right at home.”
We saw the movie when it was released about six months later. I don’t remember its name, but the car sure looked great, and we received a lot of calls from friends. Our Mercedes convertible was almost famous.
Like so many coupes and convertibles, the Mercedes 300 SE was really a two-passenger car. Sure, with little kids you could always squeeze them into the back seat where leg room was really tight. For that reason however, we usually drove the station wagon when we carried passengers.
Only once that I can remember did the size of the Mercedes create an embarrassing problem. What with two CATV systems in Palm Springs, CA and Flagstaff, AZ, Burt and I were looking to expand when I heard that one of the cable operations in Malibu was for sale. I called Bruce Merrill, head of the big company that owned that cable system, and he offered to fly out to the Santa Monica airport in his private jet to meet us. On the day of his arrival I decided to impress this important man by picking him up in the Mercedes.
In those days you could drive out onto the runway to meet visitors arriving on private planes. I was able to pull right up to the Lear Jet as a tall man came down the stairs. He was probably six feet four. It wasn’t Bruce, nor was the next man to deplane. He was shorter than the first, maybe just six-two. The third was Bruce Merrill himself, who was as tall as the others but considerably heavier.
I was in shock. These guys looked like members of a visiting football team. I kept looking at the three men and back to the interior of my Mercedes. The top was down, and one look would tell you that to accommodate just one of those giants I would have to slide the passenger seat as far back as it would go.
Bruce Merrill was a real gentleman, however. Right away he recognized my problem.
“Don’t worry,” he said, putting a big arm around my shoulders. “We’ll make it work.” And so they did. We drove to our offices in Westwood, which were fortunately less than five miles away, with Bruce in the front and the other two big men seated on top of the back seats like homecoming queens.
Burt was at the office when we arrived. From there we took two cars. Bruce and one of the other giants drove out to Malibu with Burt in his secretary’s four-door Buick. Burt’s car of choice at the time was a sporty two-seater Corvette.
Anyway, that meeting went well. We bought Bruce’s Malibu cable TV system and went on to buy or build eighty more, all of which will make fodder for a future Blog.
A Mercedes is still considered a status symbol. The German company has always had a reputation for building quality vehicles with only a few superficial style changes from year to year. They were considered good solid cars you could drive forever. Adolph Hitler’s car of choice was a Mercedes which also made tanks. Some say the only reason he lost World War II was because Germany ran out of gas.
The company made several SE convertibles. There was the 250 model followed by the 280 model, each of which were virtual clones of my Three Hundred. However, they never produced any more 300 SEs, and as the years progressed the reason became obvious.
Once in a while you will see one of those 1970 or 1971 280 SE convertibles on the road or perhaps at high-priced antique auto auctions. However, it’s very unlikely that you will ever see a 300. As I mentioned earlier, my car was a good looker, but she didn’t have legs like her brothers and sisters.
Our air suspension system was the first to go. The repair department at the Mercedes dealership took a shot at fixing it, but the best they could come up with was a Band-Aid. They had to send away to Germany for a new set of pumps and valves which cost me a fortune.
The next casualty was the car’s special large block six cylinder engine. Its problem was identified by black smoke erupting from the exhaust. The Mercedes dealer recommended a local German mechanic named Hans, who was part-owner of a Mercedes repair shop on Pico Boulevard. Hans took a hand at rebuilding the engine, a project that required a couple of months, because he also had to send to Germany for the parts. At the time, I happened to be in the used car rental business (Another Blog story to come) and was driving whatever was available.
Unfortunately the engine rebuild job had a life of about six months. With no other place to go, I brought it back and left it with Hans. Every week I would call him to check on our “progress”. The last time I called, I was told that he was not available. “Who’s calling?” was the response. I explained that I was the owner of the Mercedes 300 SE convertible. The voice on the line told me to come in and pick up the car.
I got a ride over to Pico and Centinela. The car was there waiting on the lot. Where’s Hans?” I asked one of the other owners who came out to meet me.
“We have sad news. Our partner, Hans has taken his own life.”
I was in shock. I looked up at him as if to say ‘what happened?’, nodding towards my 300SE, the “impossible” repair job.
“No,” he said observing my glance toward the car. “It wasn’t your 300 SE. His wife left him. He was very depressed. We think he just couldn’t deal with her loss.”
To this day I’m not sure. There’s no question but that the Mercedes was cursed. Nevertheless I was stuck with it and continued to drive the car, when drivable, and continued to send it over for a Band-Aid to one shop or the other as needed.
One day, I went out to my garage at home to drive the Mercedes to work, and once again the air suspension had gone out. The car was virtually on its knees, just inches above the ground. Hans had taught me a temporary fix for such an occasion. I would get into the car, turn on the motor, and wait about five minutes for the body to rise up to a drivable position. It was only a temporary remedy, but one that I had been forced to use frequently those past few years.
That was the last straw. No doubt about it; the car was certainly cursed. I drove the Mercedes directly to my office in Westwood, and parked it in the building’s garage. I went up and made a call to the ‘Recycler’, a classified newspaper. Without a second thought I placed an ad to sell my 1966 300 SE Mercedes convertible. I took a picture of the car and sent it into the paper. Actually, I thought to myself, the car really looked pretty good. The interior leather seats had been reupholstered. The top had been replaced a couple of times, and the last paint job was fairly new. Nevertheless there was going to be no seller’s remorse on my part. I knew what was going on underneath that car and under its hood.
The ad ran two days later. That morning, the day of the publication, there were nine messages waiting for me when I arrived at the office, all in response to the ad. I called the first number on the list. The voice that answered had a German accent. In response to his first question, I quoted what I thought at the time was a ridiculously inflated price.
“I’m asking $29,000,” I replied. There was no hesitation at the other end of the line.
“We’ll take it,” he said. “When can we see the car?”
“Today if you like,” was my answer.
I gave them the office address and asked how soon they could be there.
“We can be there in thirty minutes,” was the reply. Please hold the car.
I rushed down to the garage. There it was waiting. It looked clean enough, however I was not at all surprised to see that the air suspension was obviously on its way down, so I jumped behind the wheel, started the engine and waited for the car to climb up from its “knees.” I was having no pre-sale seller’s remorse.
The buyers arrived shortly after I returned to my office. In walked two young men in blue jeans with long hair who looked like rock and rollers. I suggested they sit down and offered them some coffee. However, it was apparent that they were anxious to see the car.
The light was bad in the garage, nevertheless they gave the car a quick examination. One of the boys got into the driver’s seat and turned on the key. God love the car, it started immediately and no black smoke. They looked under the hood and under the vehicle itself for rust. Being a California car that was usually garaged, rust was not a problem. I don’t think they ever bothered to check the tires and hardly glanced at the odometer which read only 12,000 miles, but was actually on its third time around.
“We’ll take it,” they said almost in unison as we walked back to my office where I sat them down, and in a spirit of honorable full disclosure, laid out my history with the car, its large block six cylinder engine problems and of course the past and current situation with its air suspension system.
“We understand,” said one. “We are familiar with the 300 SE and its problems, however as we said, we are prepared to purchase the car and take possession immediately.”
“OK,” I said. “How do you propose to pay for the car?” realizing my buyers looked maybe one step above California hippies.
“We’ve brought American Express traveler’s checks,” one replied.
“You are carrying $29,000 in traveler’s checks?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said, pulling out a stack of ‘Amex’ booklets.
“Ok,” I said incredulously. “Let’s go over to my bank.”
So we walked over to the local Security Pacific (now Bank of America) branch which validated that the checks were for real. The checks were cashed, and the money was deposited in my account. With that we signed some papers, and I took the boys up the street to a local coffee shop to celebrate. At lunch I asked them what they proposed to do with the car.
“Oh it’s already sold,” said one.
“Sold?” …. “You’ve already sold the car? To Whom?”
“Yes. To a German collector,” he replied.
“If you don’t mind my asking; how much is he paying you for the car?”
“In American money it would be about sixty thousand dollars,” added the other.
“Wow,” I thought to myself. “Some guy is paying sixty thousand dollars for a car he’s never seen.”
The boys went on to say that they actually came here to California to buy two cars. The other, as I remember, was some kind of classic Porsche. They were meeting with a possible seller that afternoon.
We walked back to my office and down to the garage where I suggested they let the car idle for a while, so it could climb up off its knees.
“By the way,” I advised, “You have to go down to the Motor Vehicle Department and register the car. The State of California also requires that you purchase liability insurance coverage, because I will be calling and cancelling my policy on the car as soon as you leave.”
“That won’t be a problem for us,” said one of the boys. “From here we are going to drive the car directly down to the harbor at San Pedro where it will be loaded into a container and shipped to Hamburg.”
With that they bid me “auf wiedersehen” and drove off.
I surprised myself as I took the elevator up to the office. I still had no seller’s remorse, even taking the boys’ big profit into consideration. All I could think about, as I drove home in a rental car that evening, was that one of these days some rich ex-Nazi is going to be driving my old 300 SE Mercedes convertible down the Autobahn when black smoke starts pouring out of its tailpipe and from under its hood. He’ll pull over and discover that his air suspension has also given out. There he will be with the car on its knees, stuck on that super-highway and $60,000 poorer. It would be my personal revenge for World War II, the Holocaust, the concentration camps and the deaths of six million innocent relatives.
I was smiling, as they say… “All the way to the bank.”
Of course Geoff Nate’s Car Stories wouldn’t be complete without his adventures in the car rental business. We will save his life changing Rent-A-Wreck “Saga” for another blog.