Immigrant Bengalis

The title of this article is a misnomer because it implies that I owned more than one Mercedes-Benz (MB).  The fact is that I owned only one!  Isuppose that I chose this title because I still have a faint hope that I would be able to somehow buy another MB before I die.

I am not a “car person”.  To me, a car was always a means to go from the proverbial “point A to point B”, but perhaps with a little bit of comfort.  My ex-wife used to work for GM and was eligible for an 18% discount off the sticker price for most of the GM cars.  As a result I always drove a large GM car – typically a Buick or an Oldsmobile.  The feeling in driving such cars was the same as what you would get if you were sitting on the couch of your living room on wheels.  I liked that feeling, and the smell of a new car was probably one of the most addictive smells for me.  We changed cars about every three years or so.  I owned an Oldsmobile Aurora when I went to the San Diego auto show in the convention center with a friend.

After wandering through all kinds of concept car prototypes and super turbo muscle cars I spotted the MB from a distance – a CLK 320 Cabriolet!  It was sitting under a bright spotlight; a convertible with top down.  What was unique about the car was its color – kind of metallic blue but with a heavy dose of lilac.  The color of the top was dark purple and the leather seats were gray.  This was the very first time that I fell in love with a CAR at first sight.  The year was 1999; I was in the middle of a mid-life crisis, having gone through a divorce a few years earlier.  I was doing great in my professional career, but was somewhat lost in my personal life.  This car would be the perfect “prop” for me, I thought.  I inquired about the price with the beautiful lady who was showing off the cars.  I was expecting a price tag of $80K or so, but I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the price was in the mid-fifties.  It was still a very expensive car, but the price was not outrageously high considering the fact that a nice American car would probably cost close to $40K.  I was overcome with the desire that I had to have that car.

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I was sitting in the office of a new car salesman at a local MB dealership a few days later.  He smiled at my enthusiasm about the car and informed me that there was a one year waiting period for this car; everyone had gone nuts over it.  It was probably a marketing strategy for MB that they were producing this car in Germany at a controlled rate.  It was a good way to sustain the price and the passion.  “So, what do I have to do if I wanted to order such a car?” I asked.  He said all I had to do was to sign a piece of paper and give a $500 deposit.  It sounded simple enough, but I was still not sure about my decision.  My next question was, “Would I get the deposit back if I changed my mind later and did not take delivery of the car?”   The salesman was reassuring: “You don’t have to worry about that.  People would line up to buy the car if you backed out”. 

Since it is a customary practice in the US to haggle over the car price during the purchase of a new car, I felt that I should try to get a discount.  However, I was a little hesitant considering the demand for the car; “I suppose price negotiation is out of the question?”  I asked.  The salesman smiled again.  He said, “The only thing we are going to guarantee is that we are not going to sell you the car at a price higher than the sticker price”.  I opted for the exact same color combination that I saw in the car at the auto show.  I wrote a check, signed on the dotted line and left the building with the thought that I just ordered a convertible Mercedes-Benz – my very first MB!  I had not even test driven the car because there was no demo model in the car lot.

One year of waiting was a long time for procrastination.  I frequently thought that the $55K price tag (including taxes and destination charge) was a lot of money; in fact, I could buy two brand-new Honda Accords, the darling car of the Bengali community, for a lesser amount of money.  On the other hand, I knew that this was probably my last opportunity to buy a MB and enjoy it.  I would probably keep any car I bought for another eight to ten years and after that, who knew what would happen?  Perhaps I would not have my executive job or my health would falter.  I envisioned driving that car along the winding Route 1 of the California coastline, hopefully with a beautiful woman by my side, much like what you see in many car commercials.  Almost every-day I looked at the colorful pictures of the exterior and interior of the car in the catalog I had picked up from the dealership, read all the review articles in various magazines about this model and started to plan where I would go first with this car.

My long wait finally came to an end.  I received a call from the dealership that my car was in.  The excitement of the moment overshadowed any last-moment hesitation on my part.  I amassed the necessary funds for down payment and was ready for my pick-up.

The salesperson thoroughly went over every feature and every control of the car with me.  It was fascinating to see how the convertible top went up or down smoothly at the touch of a button – an amazing feat of those German engineers.  He mentioned that the dealer would give me another Mercedes Benz as a loaner car every time I needed to bring the car for servicing and give the car a free wash.  He played the powerful multi-speaker Bose stereo system for me.  Finally, I sat down on the driver’s seat and fastened my seat belt for “take off”.  All the sports cars are rated by one key parameter: how quickly they could acquire a speed of 60 miles per hour, starting from rest.  I do not remember the number for my model, but I pushed the gas pedal hard as soon as I entered the freeway.  I must confess that I was not overly impressed.  Sure, it was a very smooth acceleration and I felt like floating in clouds, but it was not too different from what I experienced every day in my big old Aurora.  I wondered whether I made a big mistake by spending so much money for a frivolous desire to show off a MB convertible to my friends and neighbors.

It was several days later that I realized why everyone was gaga about a MB.  It was not really how quickly it could accelerate from zero to 60, but how quickly and how smoothly it could go from 80 to 120 mph.  There is a five-lane stretch of Interstate 5 along the ocean from Oceanside to San Clemente on my way back from work.  I used it as a speedway to test drive my car at very high speeds.  All the American cars I had driven before typically developed some sort of vibration at a speed over 90.  This was sheer joy and I wished we had an autobahn type road with no speed limit. 

During this period, one event became almost a daily routine for me.  I would be typically driving at a speed of 80 mph, minding my own business and not bothering anyone.  (I had concluded that the car was not meant to be driven slower than 80).  Suddenly some guy would zip past me in some old car like a Chrysler Le Barron convertible.  His unspoken message to me was clear and simple: “I may not have an expensive car like you, but my car drives faster than yours!” If it were the old, pre-MB personality of mine, I would have let it go; but now sitting behind the steering wheel of this German wonder, I simply could not let that happen.  So a race would ensue where I would be chasing the other car, weaving in and out of different lanes to pass the other cars and with a speed approaching 100 mph or so.  Then, after a while, I would find an empty stretch of the freeway and I would just push pedal to the metal.  I would not care if the speed was 120 or more.  I just knew that the other car did not have the ability to keep up.  My greatest joy was to see the reflection of the other car in my rear view mirror getting smaller and smaller.

I shared these stories with some of my friends and jokingly told them that I had about $300 set aside as possible fine in case I got pulled over by a cop.  One friend cautioned me that if the cop caught me driving faster than 100 mph, they would simply take away my driver’s license in addition to any fine.  That warning did make me more careful, but I would still occasionally drive at 120; it is hard to explain the joy to someone who has not experienced that.

My other pleasure was driving at night with the top down and my Bose speakers cranked way up with some song like Santana’s “Black Magic Woman”.  It was just like sitting in an open air concert.  I gradually developed a belief that I could do anything with this car as far as speeding and steering were concerned.  The car was completely at my command.  However, this led to my self-inflicted accident – the only accident I had with this car.  I was looking for a store in a small shopping plaza; I had the street address, but was not sure exactly which block it was.  I was driving probably at 40 mph or so through a reasonably busy street while looking both ways for my store.  I finally spotted it, but perhaps a little too late to make a right turn to enter into the shopping plaza.  No problem, I thought.  It was a MB and the German engineers must have designed this car with some scenario like this in mind.  So I made the turn at a very high speed.  The car did not quite follow my intended curve.  It rode over the pavement and almost hit the pillar at the entrance.  I came to a screeching halt.  All the brake lights started flashing and the head-rests in the rear seats popped up – probably some safety mechanism.  Surprisingly, the car just had a minor dent.

Unfortunately, when I took the car to the dealer for an inspection, they discovered some misalignment of the body frame and stuff like that.  Repair estimate was something like $2500.  Fortunately, my insurance company paid for that.  This incident further restricted my daredevil instincts, but I always loved driving my car, especially on a hilly winding road.

It seemed that ownership of the MB gave me a pass into a privileged “club” whose membership was restricted to those owning a MB.  It is kind of an unspoken, unadvertised club; you only know its existence when you own one and only by intuition.  The MB owners also know that, although BMW and Audi, are two fierce competitors of MB, they simply do not quite cut it.  However, it was very disappointing to us, the owners of “expensive” MBs, when MB introduced a couple of years later a whole line of more economical MBs, priced in the $30,000 to $35,000 range.  It felt like MB unnecessarily introduced a “class system” within this MB club!

Ownership of this car also opened the door for me to a whole new class of people in the society whose existence I was never quite aware of.  The story of a female real estate agent comes to mind.  I was going to see an ocean-view lot in Malibu and she was the listing agent whom I had talked to over the phone, but not met before.  She was a gorgeous blonde driving a larger E-class MB.  She gave me a warm smile and a very friendly handshake when we first met.  She offered me to show a few other lots in the area; I had no doubt my car did the trick.  We were passing by one area when she pointed to a large fenced compound, surrounded by large trees on an ocean-view bluff-top and mentioned that it was Cher’s house.  She said that the area used to be quite reasonably priced (whatever that meant), but then Cher built her 30 million dollar mansion and the price of all the houses skyrocketed!  I happened to have seen pictures of Cher’s house in the Architectural Digest magazine; it was an absolutely phenomenal house and her taste in home decoration was similar to mine.  I jokingly told the agent to somehow pass the word to Cher that I would not mind being her “love slave”, if I could live in that house.  “You can do better than that”, she chuckled “She is an old hag!”  Was she flirting with me? I was not sure!

I probably would have kept the car forever, but it was virtually useless for many purposes (such as long-distance vacation or grocery shopping) because of its very limited trunk space.  Besides, the maintenance cost was rather high, compared to an American car, and I was required to use premium grade gasoline which added to the expense.  It was becoming a real burden for a person on fixed income.  After driving for ten years and after only one hundred thousand miles I traded it in for a Cadillac CTS.  I told a friend, “It is time for a change.  When I was a younger dashing executive, a convertible MB was the right car.  Now that I am an old fart, a Cadillac is the right image!”

A year later I went to visit Nice, France on vacation.  As part of a city tour, the tour guide pointed to an area where Mercedes, who the MB cars were named after, was buried.  I assumed that she must have been the daughter of Carl Benz, the founder of MB and her name was Mercedes Benz!  I imagined a young beautiful topless woman partly immersed in the blue water of the Mediterranean ocean as the perfect embodiment of my blue convertible with the top down!  I silently blew a kiss to my Mercedes – the car, not the woman.  It was a fitting closure to my life with Mercedes-Benz.

One footnote: upon some further research on Wikipedia, I discovered that Mercedes was really the daughter of Emil Jellinek, who was a very powerful entrepreneur and sat on the board of Daimler Benz; a new powerful engine was developed by Wilhem Maybach under his auspices and it was named Mercedes Benz after his beloved daughter.  Subsequently, the name of the entire company was changed to MB.

(Posted October 1, 2014)

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My First Mercedes-Benz
Basab Dasgupta