Curbside Catharsis: Travels with Dad and Brigitte

Author’s note: Friday I sold my 1989 MBZ 300 SE after 16 years of ownership. As a tribute to a car that meant so much to me over the years, her story is repeated here today. 

(Originally posted 10/14/2012)   There’s something I must make clear to you before proceeding with this story: I am an idiot in any situation involving a woman. One-hundred percent of the time, I will follow a great pair of legs into hell (or a Mercedes dealership, as the case may be) with both eyes open. With that understood, let’s continue.

I would never have considered buying a Mercedes at all were it not for Lori, a freelance graphic artist at our ad agency and a dead ringer for Xena, Warrior Princess. Lori drove a buttercup-yellow 240D and loved all things Mercedes. To my astonishment, she agreed to accompany me to our agency Christmas party, after which we started dating.

I don’t have a shot of my ex, but here’s my EX.

Don’t get me wrong: I loved everything about my Hampshire Green 1990 Accord EX except the motorized seat/shoulder belt that kept knocking lit cigars out of my mouth; aside from that, it was a fantastic little car that gave me more than my money’s worth of faithful service. After nine years and 215,000 (mostly trouble-free) miles of ownership, I knew the end was near. My car was in desperate need of a replacement transmission, A/C compressor and ignition back-switch, and a new transmission alone cost more than it was worth. True to form, I soon entered full-idiot mode and began shopping for a used S-Class to replace the Accord and impress Xena.

I first saw Brigitte on the lot of a local MBZ dealership, where she went by her birth name of 300 SE. At first, I wasn’t interested; as long as I was making a Honda-to-Mercedes long jump, I figured on going all-in with a 560 SEL. Still, I had to admire the Smoke Silver beauty that sat in front of me, looking every bit as elegant (and nearly as pristine) as the day she’d left Stuttgart some 11 years earlier.

I agreed to a test drive, mostly to find an excuse to let the salesman know I wasn’t interested. I settled into in the driver’s seat—admittedly more of a driver’s throne–and then shut the door, an elegantly weighted piece that closed with all the authority of a Mosler safe.  As I pulled into traffic, my thoughts quickly shifted from solid as a vault to slow as a stone: it felt like the old girl’s weight and turning circle were more appropriate to something with 16 wheels and hydraulic brakes. You didn’t so much steer this thing as change direction.


On the other hand, our leisurely pace allowed plenty of time to look around the cabin, and I noticed that wherever my gaze fell, something had been done perfectly. After more than a decade and 68,000 miles of driving, every switch still operated with NASA precision; every piece of wood trim still glowed with a rich luster.

It may be true that a test drive mostly seals a purchase decision, but this one actually changed my thinking. As a kid in Illinois, my greatest automotive aspiration was a Cadillac or Lincoln, but suddenly I saw them as mere Chevys and Fords hiding under an expensive skin; instead, here was a car to be taken on its own terms: It was not slow, but stately, a doyenne comporting herself with grace and dignity. Although I became a Mercedes owner that day, I would still have much to learn about the timelessness of great design and the elegance of painstaking craftsmanship. In fact, I was not all that upset when Lori dumped me a few weeks later. (Should I have held out for a 560?) After all, I still had Brigette,

which I’d named in tribute to another gracefully aging beauty, Ms. Bardot. (Seen here in her prime)

Those of you who’ve gone the used-German route know that it’s like sending a kid through college: eventually, you simply accept the writing and justifying of check after check. Yes, I had expected the Mercedes service visits to cost more than the Honda’s, but it did surprise me to find that they include not only a complimentary wash but also full-service condescension and intimidation:

Me: I’ve got a small oil leak. Could you please check it?

            Service Manager: Nozzing is designed to leeg. Vat did you do?

Still, I didn’t care. I eased my financial pain by occasionally looking up the stratospheric price of a new S-Class, an amount of money that made mine a relative bargain in comparison; I also embraced a philosophy familiar to many an owner of an old MBZ: Well, I’m in it this far…

Many months and thousands of dollars later, I’d brought every mechanical and cosmetic aspect up to spec. During the week, I usually drove my beloved Protegé5, which is to the SE as a Jack Russell is to a St. Bernard. But on the occasional weekend when I actually had a bit of disposable income, it was off to Palm Springs. The area’s Mid-century Modern architecture and Scotch-and-cigars Rat Pack vibe seemed like the proper setting for both me and the car to spend a Saturday.

In August 2006, two days into some much-needed R&R in Scottsdale, came a call from California: My 85-year-old father had broken his hip and was undergoing emergency surgery. The tough old Minnesota native survived the surgery, but not by much, and would never again walk on his own. A nursing home was out of the question—he starved himself and threw tantrums at every one we tried—so I took him home to Apple Valley and hired a live-in. Literally. As in a caregiver who didn’t drive.

At least once a week over the next three years, I made the trip from Irvine to Apple Valley to do Dad’s grocery shopping and take him to medical appointments. I brought the Benz, since it offered easier ingress and egress than my Protégé. Besides, whenever he rode in it he’d always smile and tell me that it was such a nice car and I’d better hang on to it, and I always assured him I would. With time came changes: It wasn’t long before every time I came up he’d exclaim, “You got a new car!”; I’d simply say that no, Dad, it’s the same one I’ve had for years. At first I was annoyed that this exchange repeated every few minutes; eventually, I became grateful that he still recognized me.

On June 28, 2009, Brigitte and I drove him and his caregiver to Outback for an 88th birthday lunch. Nine days later he was gone. We buried him in Riverside on the hottest day of July. It was not a short drive, and the price of premium fuel was summer-vacation high, but there was never a question that Brigette must make one last trip for Dad. Following the hearse, I could almost hear him say that this was a nice car, and to hang on to it.

Why, Lord, why?

On a Sunday night seven months later, I was driving home from the Desert Concours. Traffic on the 91 Freeway is always heavy, but is especially bad on Sundays as motorists return from Las Vegas or the desert and bring it to a halt. I was at a dead stop at the end of a long and motionless line of westbound vehicles when it happened in a flash: I heard the squeal of tires, saw blinding light in the rear view mirror and felt the impact of a sickening, jarring thud. As I  prepared to pull off the freeway, I saw the other driver’s silver Range Rover speed away in the carpool lane. He was apprehended a couple of miles up the freeway, but I had really hit (or rather, was hit by) the Trifecta: Rear-ended by an uninsured motorist with a suspended license who fled the scene. It was just my luck to get slammed by the only damn Range Rover in Southern California not driven by a studio executive.

Obviously, the car had been a big part of my life, and not merely in terms of time and trouble and expense. Unfortunately, to my insurance company it was just another old car worth maybe $2,700.00, tops. I could either take that amount in exchange for my car, or accept $2,500 and retain the salvage title. The choice wasn’t hard. I knew that parting out the car would make the most sense, but remember what I said about me and women? Had I known at the time how hard it would be to finding a willing body shop, I might well have taken the $2,700 and run. Since the car couldn’t be driven, I shot plenty of photos of the damage; with prints in hand, I proceeded to make the rounds of  local body shops. Since no sane body man will provide an estimate without an in-person inspection, I didn’t expect one. I just wanted to find someone willing to take on the job; I did not. Not that I blame them–if I had a shop and some guy wanted me to fix an old wreck with a bent frame, I’d tell him to get back on his meds. It was but the first of many points at which I could/should have bailed, but hey, as long as I’m in it this far

A few months before the wreck, I’d had the car painted by a couple of  freelance body guys who rented space at a shop and worked when they felt like it. The job had taken a while–a long while–but I had to admit that their work was very good and their price astonishingly low. They were sick about what had happened to my car and told me to tow it in. Bent frame?  No problem, they’ve straightened plenty. Tight budget? We’ll figure something out. In a hurry? Well, at least I had two out of three. And as long as I’d be paying them in cash (wink, wink), I might as well give them a chunk upfront so they can start rounding up parts. They spent more than a year on the project, but the car looked good. At last, I thought, the hard part is over. Silly me.

I don’t know how it is where you are, but trust me, it’s not easy to register a salvage vehicle (or ‘zombie’, as I call them) in California. Honestly, H.P. Lovecraft had it easier. If you like trees, please don’t read further, because this state kills a hell of a lot of them to produce the pile of forms that must be completed during the registration process. In addition to the usual Smog Certificate stuff, there are Application for Title, Headlamp and Rear Light Certificate, Brake Certificate forms and one that must be completed during the required, in-person inspection of the vehicle by a DMV officer.

If you haven’t visited a California DMV office, here’s how it works: You take a lunch and make a day of it. Yes,  you poor, naive souls, appointments are available, if by ‘appointment’ you mean ‘approximate time, plus or minus two hours’. Flat tires and dead batteries aside, people out here join the AAA just to avoid having to visit the DMV for registration-related stuff. Having completed all the proper forms, I gathered them up and confidently strode into a AAA office, where I learned that the AAA doesn’t handle registrations for salvage titles. I’d just have to bite the bullet and pack a lunch.

It’s been about six months since Brigette returned home. She again looks wonderful, and I’ve been driving her once or twice a week, just to keep the juices flowing, but it’s just not the same. How much of that is psychological, I don’t know, but every passing week reveals another misaligned body gap or suspension noise I hadn’t noticed before. I still love her, but I don’t think she remembers much. Or perhaps I just remember things differently. It’s not Thomas Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again as much as Leonard Cohen’s cold and very broken Hallelujah.

Anyway, that’s my story, dedicated to all of you who know that our cars are not merely metal conveyances, but things with which memories are made. We love them for the context in which they frame our lives, and for the pleasure they bring to PCH on a balmy summer night or on a snow-dusted highway on the way to a family Thanksgiving.

There is a postscript to this story: Last August, my mechanic called to give me first dibs on a ’91 560 SEL with less than 92,000 miles. He’d told me that he’s known and serviced the car since it was new, and that it was perfect in every aspect. Just to torture myself, I went over and had a look. He was right, it was absolutely magnificent, and Smoke Silver to boot! He wanted $6,500 for the car. The price was more than fair, but the timing was not; given my finances at the time, it might as well have been $65,000. A few days later he sold the car to another longtime customer, so at least I know it went to a good home.

And besides, I’m in it this far…