[This is a short story I wrote when my son Patrick was 17 and a junior in high school. He’s now 40. It was brought to mind when I saw the notification in our local newspaper, The White River Valley Herald, of the passing of Chip Milnor, an all-around good guy, great mechanic, and worthy Silverback who played a small, but critical role in this story. It’s a bit long for a morning read, so it will be published in thee daily segments over the Memorial Day weekend. Rest in peace, SB Chip. This is a story about fathers and sons, springtime, cars, and the perils of vanity. SB SM]
Memories of Mercedes
Part One- Things Are Good
A Mercedes Man. Admit it. It conjures up certain images. A propertied man, perhaps a little gray around the temples. Imposing and yet elegant. Someone who swaddles himself in performance and the precision of German engineering. Moneyed, yet tastefully so. Understated because he can be. A Mercedes Man.
These are the memory synapses that flashed when I drove past the farmhouse on Camp Brook Road, enroute from Rochester to Randolph on a sunny day in May. It was the kind of day that makes Vermonters finally feel secure in the fact that they have broken the stern spine of winter. The leaves pop, the juices flow, and the male of the species contemplates his vehicular status.
Camp Brook Road is not generally a place to go car shopping, especially for a Mercedes, but Vermont is a place where magic happens. I had been passively car shopping for a third family vehicle, one designated for the two teenage members of the family. The criteria were simple enough—safe, reliable, in good running condition, and cost NOT TO EXCEED $3000. Thusfar we had considered, and rejected, a Chevrolet Celebrity wagon with lots of rust, a majestic 1972 Lincoln Continental coupe that stretched halfway from Randolph to East Barre, and a slew of Japanese gazukimobiles with a zillion miles on their respective odometers.
Never, in our wildest dreams had we considered a Mercedes. Yet, suddenly here was one, a stately machine the color of aged burgundy, dappled by sunlight. its hood ornament glinting proudly for all to see. And it had a For Sale sign on it! Although I barely caught it out of the corner of my eye, for a male in a car-heightened state, it was long enough to fall in love.
In the next nano-second my mind processed information as follows. A Mercedes? Naw. Don’t be ridiculous. Besides this one looks too good, and good means expensive. Still, who knows? And it doesn’t cost to look. A Mercedes? Nah. But it is good-looking. No, I’m running late. I can’t be frittering around looking at cars, BUT it would save time to just cross it off the list now instead of making a separate trip back.
I braked, fatefully, made the U-turn, and went back.
This was a stunning car–a 1975 280-C two-door coupe, a deep wine color reminiscent of Chateau Lafite-Rothschild at over a hundred bucks a bottle. It had a bright red accent stripe, with a hood ornament that reeked of old money, and the Mercedes logo emblazoned on all four hubcaps. It was one of the best-looking vehicles I had ever seen. The body was close to perfect, with only few tiny rust spots. The owner came out and yakked about the engine and mechanical condition. Only 42,000 miles on the odometer, which the owner admitted didn’t work. There were even remnants of a decal for the Mercedes Club of America. “Please” I said to myself, “say the magic words.” It didn’t take the seller long. I think it was his third sentence.
“And it RUNS GOOD,” he said.
“Runs good.” Could there be two sweeter words in the English language? Not when it’s a sunny day in May, and you have discovered the car of your dreams in the outposts of Camp Brook Rd., halfway between Bethel and Rochester.
I countered with my own sweet words, at least for the other guy:
“How much you asking?”
When he replied $3500, I tried to contain my surprise. A price of three times that amount would not have surprised me, but one that was within a scant $500 of our target price was unbelievable, too good to be true. And what’s five hundred bucks these days, with the stock market near an all-time high?
The car was inspected, registered, and ready to roll.
I played it cool, and said that I would need to show it to my son, Patrick, who was nearing the end of his junior year in high school. Although young and relatively inexperienced in the vehicular ways of the world, when I told him about my discovery later that evening, he immediately grasped the significance. He would have the only Mercedes in the high school parking lot.
As we prepared to set off for a test drive, my wife (who is not a member of the male species, and therefore woefully incapable in matters of this sort) tried to insert a note of rationality. Shouldn’t we have the car checked out by a competent mechanic? Isn’t a car like this likely to be very expensive to maintain? Is it a gas hog? What’s its maintenance history? And shouldn’t we a least see if the seller will accept less?
I patiently pointed out her inexperience in these matters. A mechanic would charge $150 just to find something wrong with the car, and who couldn’t find SOMETHING wrong with a car built in 1975? The car was already six years old when its driver-to-be was born. But hey, we’re not looking for perfection here. And the guy already told me it RUNS GOOD. We’re just looking for reliable transportation, and Mercedes are renown for their longevity. And safety! Let’s not forget the all-important safety factor. Sure the price is a few bucks more than we intended to spend, but THIS…. IS….. A…. MERCEDES. A car of this vintage will maintain its value and undoubtedly be worth more in two or three years. And did I mention the guy told me it RUNS GOOD?
For once my teenager and I (the other son was still at college) were entirely in sync. The car, he agreed, was a classic, and therefore a sound investment, worth it for the value of the hood ornament alone. A short test drive later convinced us further of the merits of our decision. Sure, it was funky to drive, but hey, what do you expect of a car that was made when Gerald Ford was President?
We decided not to dicker to price, because horse-trading is beneath the dignity of a Mercedes owner. If we needed to be concerned about a few hundred bucks, then we shouldn’t be buying a Mercedes.