COAL: An Interlude — Part 1

2006 Cadillac STS-V

It’s been a while, but I am back!

In the intervening two-and-a-half years since I last wrote up a COAL, I’ve made further car purchases…15, if my count is correct. But it’s going to take me a bit to collect my thoughts about them. In the meantime, I’ve come up with some words about several other cars with which I’ve had up-close experience. Some of them, I owned for a short time, while others were merely in my care for a bit. Either way, none warrants a full COAL article, so I put them all here. Call it, if you will, an interlude. Here’s Part 1 of that interlude.

Car 1 – 2006 Cadillac STS-V

For those not in the know, the STS-V is a pretty rare car. Not to be confused with the STS V8 (which merely had the 4.6-liter Northstar V8), the STS-V was its own thing. It got a unique aero kit, a mesh grille, special exhaust, unique suspension, its own interior materials including rich Tuscany leather with suede inserts. The centerpiece, though, is the engine: a 4.4-liter supercharged Northstar V8 making 469 hp and 434 lb-ft of torque. Hence, STS-V models are readily identified by the word “Supercharged” emblazoned across the bottom of each front door.

The STS-V was far more refined than the CTS-V, and it was Cadillac’s competitor to the Mercedes-Benz E 55/63 AMG and BMW M5. That said, it was a much rarer car than either of those, with only 2,500-ish produced between 2006-2009 and a significant number of them going to the UAE. Whether that was GM limited production or because few had the taste for a nearly six-figure Cadillac sports sedan, I couldn’t tell you.

This particular STS-V belonged to a woman called Dr. Wood, who became something like a second mother to me. She was an administrator at the small HBCU in Arkansas I attended—and helped me get a full-ride to that college—but she was actually local to Oklahoma City, where my home base also was, and was a member of our church. She had a condo in Little Rock, near the college, but would frequently drive the 5 hours back to Oklahoma City, usually one weekend out of the month. Her daughter, who was in my class, went with her, as did I. Since she liked to nap, she usually handed the wheel to me.

2006 Cadillac STS-V Interior

Stock photography of a 2006 STS-V interior. Mrs. Wood’s has this same gray color, rare enough, but features gray wood trim instead of the brown. According to the forums, only 6 were built this way.

What does an 18-year-old with almost 500 horses at his disposal do? Well, he develops a lead foot. That much power and a dislike for GM’s turn-signal/wiper/cruise-control all-in-one stalk led me to forgo cruise control on the interstate, and usually end up exceeding the speed limit by some measure. Thankfully, no troopers ever caught me tearing down I-40. I also remember the car being ready and willing to change direction with a flick of the wrists, as I found out when I made a sudden lane change and only traction control saved me from tossing the car into a concrete barrier.

The other thing I learned, at my tender age, was that a RWD car with staggered wheels and (as I found out) summer tires does not a great winter car make. I remember one January when Dr. Wood, her daughter, and I all set out to go to Oklahoma, with me at the wheel. I pulled out of the parking lot relatively gingerly (I thought), and—with only a light dusting of snow—the car did a complete 180, ending up pointed the wrong way. We quickly took the car back to her condo and rented something, and she shortly after bought a winter beater (a 2004 Volvo XC90 2.5T).

But what of the STS-V’s fate? Well, I’m pleased to say I never wrecked it, and Dr. Wood still has the car. It spends most of its time garaged since she has another daily, but it’s been good to her. It’s had no major failures since she bought it CPO in 2010, and the only drivability issue it’s ever had was a failed fuel pump, which was quickly replaced.

Car 2 – 1993 Mercedes-Benz 500 SL

1993 Mercedes-Benz 500 SL

Our 1993 SL. Apart from the bumper damage, it looks great from this angle.

My best friend, the aforementioned Austin, and I bought this car together on a whim. Originally, for the sheer novelty of it, he was looking at a 1991 Chrysler TC by Maserati, but found that car to be every bit as unsatisfactory as its K-car origins would suggest, plus the owner (it was on consignment at a dealership) wanted $5,500 for it. On the way home from that dealership, we saw a bright-red 90s SL-Class sitting proudly on the corner at the local GM superstore. So, we pulled in.

The salesman seemed surprised anyone would be interested in it, but I knew a bit about them. The R129-generation SL-Class, which lasted from 1990-2002, was one of the last Mercedes-Benz products with no-expenses-spared engineering, which made it an attractive proposition to me, in particular. On top of that, the engines were rock-solid, and the wedgey styling had aged well across more than a decade of production.

A quick inspection revealed this to be a 1993 model, and a 500 SL, which had the 5.0-liter “M119” V8, and which seemed to be the volume option for the SL-Class during that era. It had a bit of paint fade, but seemed to be otherwise fine. It also had what looked like a mint-condition hard top installed, which was great since this was in February. Inside, there were a couple of wear areas, like the stitching that was beginning to come loose on the driver’s seat, there was a mysterious bit of tape on the A-pillar near where the sun visor was, and an A/C vent had gradually excused itself from its correct position in the dashboard over time, and looked ready to fall out altogether.

Austin and I took one look at each other and were almost simultaneous in asking the salesman to fetch the keys so that we could take it for a test-drive. That test-drive revealed the car to be throaty and full of life. On top of that, it had enough power and was comfortable enough that it seemed almost like it would make a decent modern daily driver, and I was smitten with a car that could remain this drivable and modern-feeling. I told Austin that while I had wanted no part in the TC by Maserati, I would go in with him on this SL. The dealership wanted $5,000. I figured we could talk them down to $4,000. This was early 2020, when the market was still dead, after all.

1993 Mercedes-Benz 500 SL Interior

Our SL’s interior. Here, Austin’s attitudinal Spaniel Isabelle (or Is-A-B*tch), as he calls her, makes a cameo.

Over the next few days with the 500 SL, with each of us trading off on driving it, we got to know it better. I found the infrared key fob, which you actually had to aim at the sensors on the doors, thoroughly charming and very 80s-feeling, and Austin thought the mechanical odometer and trip computer—which he’d never before experienced—were equally interesting. The one feature I liked, though, was the power-adjustable rearview mirror. All you had to do was twist the mirror-adjustment knob into the neutral position, and you could adjust the mirror without physically touching it. Better still, it was tied to the memory settings. I’m sure new owners of these cars were thrilled with not having to fettle with their rearview mirrors after someone else (valet, the dealership techs) had driven the cars, and I’m amazed this feature has died off.

There was one thing we didn’t test at the dealership, and later—after having procured the car for $4,000—we wished we had, because it made all the difference.

You see, the R129 SL relied heavily on hydraulics for its top operation, not just for the rising and lowering of the soft top, but also for latching and unlatching the hard top. These were, of course, wear items, so over time, the gaskets and seals in the hydraulic mechanisms would crack and cause the entire system to lose pressure. Had we tested the top before we bought it, we’d have realized that and factored it into the price. But we didn’t. And so, when I peeled that odd, tartan-patterned tape off the A-frame and later hit the switch to unlatch the top, all I got for my trouble was liquid running down the pillar.

A bit of internet sleuthing revealed this to be a common R129 issue and informed us on how we could manually unlatch the top. After we did that—with Austin complaining very loudly—the system had enough pressure to let us lower the soft top, if slowly. But…whatever portion of the system was leaking…leaked right onto one of the body computers. This caused the car to hesitate, stumble, and go into a primitive pre-OBD2 version of a limp mode where it wouldn’t accelerate beyond 25 MPH…as we alarmingly discovered trying to merge onto the highway.

1993 500 SL rear

Our car from the rear. The paint looked a little flat on the trunk, but I bet it would have cleaned up well with a simple polish.

I found, and bought, a repair kit that came with all of the seals to repair the system, plus the correct hydraulic fluid from FCP Euro. The problem was that I already had two project cars at the time (which you’ll hear about later) and was about to close on my house, which would then need some interior paint and to be furnished. I was even seriously considering buying a local CC-er’s Citroën XM, which itself would need some work. So I just didn’t have the bandwidth for fixing the 500 SL’s leaky hydraulics. And since that was a pretty major component of the car’s experience, Austin and I decided to sell it.

I took some good pictures of the exterior and interior, described the car’s condition in painstaking detail, and listed it for what we had paid for it. It didn’t take long for us to get a bite from a woman in Dallas, a three-hour drive away. She said she and her husband would come up to Oklahoma City, pick up the car and drive it home. When they got there, I made sure she understood the issues with the top and that under absolutely no circumstances should she push the switch to lower the top during her drive. Life and limb depended upon her following these directions. I covered the switch in bright red tape just to make sure she remembered, and I threw the kit and the hydraulic fluid I’d bought in the trunk.

And that was the end of the 500 SL’s brief tenure as a joint-custody fun car for Austin and me.

Stay in your seats for Part 2 of the interlude!