650 Miles to New Jersey for a Glass of Orange Juice

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Not the actual car.

Woke up Friday morning a bit early for a shower, I don’t shower much.  But this day my dad and I would be driving to New Jersey to look at a 1990 Mercedes-Benz 300SL, a nine hour drive that would benefit from me feeling and smelling fresh.  Cash and tools in hand we were excited at the prospects of a solid German soon-to-be-classic with a $5000 price tag.  The burgundy over tan convertible hadn’t been registered in years, was stored inside and belonged to a family relative.  With 97,000 miles, it still had a lot of life left.  

“How is it running?” I questioned on the phone before the trip.

“Oh, she runs-a-real good.” John replied.

“What doesn’t work?  I mean does the air work, the top go up and down?  Roll bar?”

“Everything works.”

“Can we drive it cross country?” my final last ditch question to gain insight from a couple who clearly are not car people. 

“I don’t see why not.”

Well what one doesn’t “see” is more obvious for those with a vision.  And our vision was to take a gingerly used car back to Michigan starting the evening we arrived in Mahwah, NJ.  But it wasn’t to be.

The first thing I commented approaching the garaged car is that it would look better with a tan top.  The top was burgundy like the car.  The hard top was sitting on its rack next it.  My dad agreed, tan would be better.  Since this was to be my dad’s Sunday driver it was obvious this was strike one.

We knocked on the door and met up with John and Rose.  They turned over the keys as we poked and prodded.  “What do you think of the top?”  John exhumed. “It’s new, only about four years old.”  That’s great, I didn’t know it had a new top.  “Yes, when I got-a-the top I had them make it burgundy.  You know, it came with a tan top.  But I don’t think it looked-a-good with the tan top.  She look a much better with a the burgundy.”  Umm, yes it’s a beautiful new top… with, er, the original dingy tan headliner.

It started right up with not a hint of smoke from the exhaust.  We moved it out of the garage and the floor was bone dry, not a drip.  A/C blew cold just as described.  Everything work.  But the test drive revealed the perishes of a car that sits.  Either the ignition system or O2 sensor or other sensors prevented smooth idle and acceleration.  It coughed inconsistently despite fresh gas and a Techron additive.  At highway speed the car shook pretty violently from old tires, the steering wheel was out of alignment.  It didn’t feel like a car ready for 600 miles.  Cosmetically the driver seat was trashed and upon closer inspection it had been repainted but not by John who owned it 21 out of 23 years.  Huh.  Well then why the repaint so early?  The doors and trunk still had their VIN tags and the paint looked good but it didn’t matter.  We had just reached strike two mechanical and strike three cosmetic.

We returned the car to John and Rose and told them the car wasn’t for us.  It was an honest exchange for all the reasons we found.  After all this was family.  It was something we had to see in person, no regrets, no hard feelings.  Had we not taken the drive it would have haunted us, the simple not knowing what we might have missed.  

“Would you like to come in for a drink before leaving?”  Rose asked.   Would love to.  We sat inside around the kitchen table sharing a few family stories over a glass of orange juice, turned and drove 250 miles west before stopping at a Hampton Inn for six hours of laying in a strange hotel.  At noon on Saturday we pulled into my driveway, home at last, weary but with new vigor.  We are going to focus on getting a Miata which I’ve been pushing all along.   

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