Most summers, I travel up to the mid-Atlantic states to see many of my siblings, who are clustered in the Washington D.C. area. I usually start with my brother Norman, who lives in Annapolis. We're both car guys and tech guys and love to mull over the merits of the latest plasma HDTV over a frosty beverage. I also use Norm's place as a launching point to travel to points further north. This year (I wrote this in the summer of 2008), I visited some cousins in Lakeville, MA and Norwich, CT. I won't bore you with the details of the bipolar granddaughter whose visit with her grandparents (my cousins) coincided with my visit, nor will I go into any detail about one of my favorite cousins and his delightful wife and their many, many cats. Fortunately, I like cats, so it just added another fun element to the brief visit.
An unexpected and pleasant surprise was the presence of a good friend, Palm Beach Macintosh User Group (now defunct) president, Brian Bahe, who, as a personal trainer/masseuse/etc., was staying with his client on Maryland's eastern shore, who, let's just say, is extremely comfortable both there, and her home in south Florida. What a great job. Other than exercising with the client for an hour or so a day, and running a few errands for her, he's pretty much footloose and fancy free.
Oh, did I mention that she was pretty comfortable? Well, to discuss the value of her home would be gauche and very low class, but just between us girls, it's a magnificent home with all the comforts, including a rather large garage, which houses some of her favorite rides, including her Bentley convertible--oh, sorry, drophead coupe, a Range Rover, an AMG Mercedes-Benz SL65, and bringing up the rear, a 1970s vintage Volkswagen Thing. More about the latter two cars in a moment.
So, I got an email from Brian, asking if we could get together for lunch. I picked the Panera Bread restaurant near downtown Annapolis, as it had free Wi-Fi so we could both run our respective MacBooks, check mail, etc., while schmoozing and having great eats. On my way to meet him, he called my cellphone to let me know he was driving the "Thing", and that he had run out of gas on one of the area expressways. So, off I went to find a gas station that also sold gas cans. I found one on the second attempt, and was back on the road in a flash. I finally saw him off to the side of the road (it's kind of hard to miss a bright yellow VW Thing...trust me). It took another few minutes to find an exit and turn back toward Annapolis. Supplied with a gallon of the precious essence, we were on our way back into town, but first, I located a gas station so he could fill up. That's when it was my turn to drive the little beastie.
The thing is, well, this Thing had been somewhat modified. First there were the oversized tires that rubbed in the wheelwells whenever the steering wheel was moved more than a few degrees off center. Then there were the brakes. It had some. Finally, there was the engine. Someone apparently had souped up this engine to an inch of its life, and topped it off with a tuned exhaust system that set up such a cacaphony that I kept waiting to get pulled over by the local gendarmes. Oh, almost forgot to mention the hair trigger clutch that caused me to stall a few times--not a great thing to do when your car has a marginal battery, like this car did. Brian had to get out and push it a bit at one point to get it started (he's the strong personal trainer, let him do the pushing!), but like its VW roots, well hidden by all the other stuff, given a bit of forward motion, a quick pop of the clutch, and we were back in Thing nirvana. On the expressway, the oversized wheels, in extremely great need of a good balancing, shook to beat the band at speeds above 50. Frankly, with all the noise out back, I'm not sure I could have handled going much faster than 50. At my first opportunity, I turned that puppy around and brought it back into town, pulled into the Panera Bread parking lot, and was never happier to give up a set of car keys. I think I should say that I once owned a VW Bug, a 1971 vintage Super Beetle, but it was so civilized, it even had air conditioning (even though the electrical system, what there was of it, wasn't beefed up in the slightest to support this power hog). From what I can remember about it, it wasn't nearly as challenging to drive as Brian's boss's Thing.
Anyhow, when I got back from my side trip to New England, Brian called again, this time offering to bring over the Mercedes-Benz from his employer's garage. How could I say no to that! Let me tell you a little bit about the AMG Mercedes-Benz SL65 roadster. I think this one was around a 2005 or 2006 vintage and was just stunning--all black with a power retractable hardtop. It looked evil. The standard SL600 roadster was no slouch, with a 6 liter V-12 engine, 5 speed automatic transmission, 19 inch wheels, and such. To this, add another $52,000 or so (in 2005, the price of a new SLK350) to have AMG, a German car tuning company--one of the first to be factory approved--massage the car by adding twin intercooled turbochargers to the slightly enlarged twelve cylinder engine (604 HP, 738 ft-lb of torque). They also added bigger brakes to handle the extra power, fancier detachable rim wheels (19 inches), beefed up suspension, and so on. The end result is a car capable of 0-60 MPH in about 4 seconds, the quarter mile in 11.9 seconds, and a top speed (electronically governed) of 155 MPH (but with additional equipment is capable of 186 MPH). Fuel economy? Hah! I laugh at your oil wells! Anyone who can afford a car like this can afford all the gas they want, and they will be filling the tank quite often with premium fuel to slake its 12 MPG (EPA city) thirst. Yes, Virginia, there is a gas guzzler tax--about $7,700. When this model first hit the streets in 2002, it was the fastest automatic transmissioned car in the world. All this for a price somewhere north of $180,000 in 2005. Oh, baby.
In an online road test, Car and Driver magazine reported that the biggest problem this car had was getting all that power and torque to the ground. Well, duh! I guess that with all that power (and torque!), no one wanted to add traction control, or maybe with all that power (and torque!), no traction control system on the planet could keep its rear tires from lighting up.
Armed with some of this knowledge, Brian tossed the keys to me and said, "wanna try it out?" Any of you remember Jackie Gleason from the old Honeymooners TV show, when, performing his role as bus driver Ralph Kramden, he appeared on a TV game show and when the red light went on, all he could say was hamana...hamana...hamana...etc. If I didn't exactly say that, I sure was thinking that! This was a car that could get me very seriously maimed or killed! Far be it from me to have to report to the car's owner, "that's the way the Mercedes-Benz!"
Well, I pulled out into traffic, being very careful about the accelerator pedal, and if anything, until I got used to it, I erred fully on the side of caution. Some might say I drove in a rather stately manner around town--first, a good idea when you are driving an unfamiliar car with over 600 horsepower, and second, a good idea to avoid attracting any more attention from the local gendarmes than I was already. My confidence rose as I discovered the real scary part of the accelerator pedal was pretty much all the way down. If you drove it like a normal car, it responded like a normal car. Like the old saying goes, a little old lady could drive this car and never know what potential there was under the hood.
I eased it out to US 50, on my way to I-97, the road from Annapolis to Baltimore. When I got out on I-97 and got away from some of the traffic, I made some tenuous stabs at the accelerator pedal, and was rewarded with a firm push back into my seat. Within a heartbeat or two, I had gone from 50 to 90, all in near silence, supreme stability, and body-coddling comfort. Oh my God! This is how I want to live! I backed off to 65 or so, and gave the pedal a few more stabs. Again, I was instantly at 90 and it felt like I was doing 35. This car was really designed to encourage you to drive at insane speeds, but sanity prevailed! I was not about to bend someone's hideously expensive car, or get a ticket for that matter.
I remember another summer, through a series of screw-ups from Avis, where I wound up with a really nice Cadillac DTS (the big DeVille) for my drive up to Annapolis, followed by a run to Cleveland for a family reunion. This DTS gave me 27 MPG (better than my Toyota RAV4!), and with that lovely Northstar V-8, it, too, gave me a nice push back in the seat (punctuated by a manly rumble from the low-restriction exhaust). The difference between that Caddy and the Benz (among others!) was that the Caddy's (air-conditioned) seat was so soft, when I punched the accelerator, I was pushed back into the seat so far that I feared losing control as I literally and uncomfortably moved away from the steering wheel. After one or two of those experiences, I moved the seat forward another inch or two. No such issue with the Benz. I think I read somewhere that you don't sit in a seat in a German car so much as you sit on one, a testament to the firm and supportive seats in most German cars. But I digress...
I'd had enough fun for one afternoon, and besides, we had left another of Brian's friends back at the Panera Bread restaurant, and I'm sure he was wondering what had become of us. I pulled back into the parking lot, and I saw one teenaged boy looking at the car as I parked it. If his jaw had dropped any lower, his chin would have had a case of road rash. I'm sure he hated that gray-haired old fat guy as he struggled out of the car (sits reeeeal low). If he only knew I was just a pretender that day.
What a wonderful car. Everything the motoring press has written about the solidity of a Mercedes-Benz is absolutely true. I felt I could really go places with this car. It made me wish I had gone to one of those performance driving schools so while I probably wouldn't have tested the car's limits, I may have felt a tad more confident pushing it further than I did.
So, the next day, it was off to McLean, VA to spend a few days with my sister and her husband, and a houseful of guests. As always, my sister threw a huge family bash and got all the many generations of folks (including my brother Guy) who were in town together for an enjoyable afternoon and evening. The day after the party, it was back to the airport and home to deal with my stupid diabetic cat who now has a thyroid problem, oh, and get back to work, too.