Das Panzerwagen

Das Panzerwagen

Those who’ve been following along on this summer’s adventures may well recall that I left Spokane, WA, some five months ago in a blue Ford Focus hatchback. We made a big loop, the Focus and me, dipping down through the west and south of America, and had our share of adventures. But when I arrived in Wisconsin it was clear that our time together was coming to an end.

The rear suspension, which had been the Focus’s main problem all along, had loosened to the point that driving her had gone from a mildly nerve-racking experience into a soul-searching gaze into the abyss. Due to terrible corrosion, repairing her was impractical: it was going to cost immensely more to fix her than she was actually worth. I took her to a local mechanic, who said the following two things: You drove this here? I nodded. Mister, the only direction this thing should be driven is to the junk yard.

And so began the hunt for a new set of wheels.

I considered two options—the first was to buy a newer, reasonably reliable car that would get me across the country with minimal problems. To me, that sounded about as exciting as reading the phone book. The second was to buy something with a little more character. Those who know me know which direction I leaned.

The biggest issue with buying a classic car is that while they’re more unique, and thus more fun, they’re also much more of a hassle. They act erratically and break down inexplicably, and if you’re foolish enough to buy a foreign model finding parts can be painful.

I scanned the classifieds and hunted Craigslist. I test drove a couple old Beatles. I considered some newer Jettas. I stumbled upon an old dump truck. This being Wisconsin, for a hot minute I contemplated a Harley.

One afternoon my cousin and I passed a storage facility, in front of which sat a car with a For Sale sign propped in its window. We pulled over, checked it out, and got the owner’s phone number. Back at the house I called. Pete answered, his northwoods accent this and nasally. He explained the car’s history, maintenance and functionality. It all sounded good to me.

Can I set up a time to meet you and take it on a test drive? I asked.

I’m passing by the car right now, Pete replied. Why don’t I put the key in the trunk and you can stop by when you have the time? Take her out all afternoon, then call me after and let me know what you think.

I smiled.

Pete, you’re a very trusting guy, I observed.

Well, he answered, I’m from Montana. That’s how we do things out there.

Later that afternoon my cousin and I drove over to the car. We opened the trunk, found the key, and propped side by side we screamed up and down the roads of rural Wisconsin, marveling the whole way at what a wonderful car we’d found.

We went back and forth for a bit, Pete and I, but eventually we agreed on a deal we both found satisfactory. And that, dear readers, is how I came to own a bright red 1975 Mercedes 450SL convertible.

She’s a beast of a car, this one. At 8-cylinders I’ve doubled the number on the Focus, although in doing so have cut the gas mileage more than in half. Heads turn when she passes and catcalls cut the air. She purrs and gobbles up the road, and performs exactly as Mercedes intended—a sports car that feels like a luxury ride.

I’ve had some work done on her and have spent plenty of my own time tuning her up and giving her a protracted deep clean. At this point it seems like all systems are go. At 41, she’s two years older than I am, which by certain measures makes her archaic. She’s far from mint, but she seems to be running plenty good enough to get me back home.

Traveling in an old car is, like any traveling, always a crap shoot. But I’m banking on the odds paying off.

Starting this week I’ll be back on the road, looping through the Midwest and then finally aiming west. If you’re out and about and see a red Mercedes broken down on the side of the highway, here’s hoping you stop and say Hello. On the other hand, if you see me flying past, give a honk and a wave.

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