For the first time in 18 years, there's a new car with SCM Managing Editor Cindy Banzer's name on it, heading our way. Well, not exactly brand new, but new to the Martin-Banzer family. A 1999 Mercedes E320 4Matic sedan in champagne with tan leather, it's currently on a transporter making the journey from St. Louis, Missouri, to Portland, Oregon.
You might reasonably wonder why we would buy a recent production car 2,000 miles from our home. 4Matics, while not commonplace, are not exactly as rare as Daytona Spyders.
It all came down to price and service. Once Cindy had decided on a budget of $30,000, the search began. Local dealers had inventory priced thousands of dollars above blue book, refused to negotiate, and often didn't even bother to return phone calls.
We turned to the Internet. A car located in Cleveland looked promising, and we asked subscriber NAME DON to look at it for us. The car lot was an abandoned gas station filled with cars in various stages of decrepitude. Aside from the "check engine" light being on, an ashtray scarred from cigarettes and large scrapes down the grime-covered side, it was exactly as described on the Internet and in e-mails we had exchanged: "Perfect, never smoked in, ready to go, needs nothing." We passed.
Then another SCM subscriber surreptitiously e-mailed us a list of auction results for 4Matics from the dealer auctions around the country. Most were cheap! We had found the Shangri-La of used Mercedes. We contacted SCM Mercedes specialist Scott Featherman. He cautioned us that exceptional cars rarely make it to auctions, as dealers keep them to retail. Blinded by the possible savings, we ignored his advice.
Scott contacted a dealer who attends auctions, and asked him to keep an eye out for something that met Cindy's criterion. A nice car, with no stories, good miles, and of course dirt-cheap. If something came up, we would buy the car from him for a modest profit.
A few days later, the dealer called Scott with his report. On one day, he had watched 400 late-model lease-return Mercedes go through an auction, 15 of them 4Matic sedans. Of those, all but one had stories of one type or other, ranging from extensive paint work to repaired frame damage. The once-nice car sold for full retail, and the myth of buying great cars cheap through a dealer auction was exploded.
Disheartened, we made more calls to local dealers and private parties, without any success.
Returning to the Internet, we came across a 1999 4Matic offered by Plaza Motor Company (www.plazamotor.com), an authorized Mercedes dealer in St. Louis, Missouri. The salesman, Kieran Gutting, was affable enough, and the car carried a reasonable "Buy It Now" price of $29,500. As these cars are expensive to repair, the fact that it was Starmarked, making it eligible for a Mercedes extended warranty, was important to us.
A friend of Scott's ran the VIN number through the Mercedes service computer, and it came back clean. The Carfax showed just one owner.
A few parries and ripostes later, the deal was done, contingent upon a visual inspection. For $30,500, we had purchased the car, complete with a four-year, 100,000-mile warranty.
Subscriber Rob Sass of Passport Transport, headquartered just five minutes away from the car, examined it for us, confirmed the condition and handled the exchange of cashier's check for title. And as we pack our bags to head to Rétromobile in Paris, Cindy's new Mercedes is in a Passport truck, headed our way.
By systematically exploring local, regional and national options, we were able to find exactly what we wanted, at the price we were looking for. Perhaps the true benefit of the electronic age for car buyers comes in the instantaneous access to both cars offered and their histories that is now available. With the SCM database, a collector can look up the serial number of a Maserati Birdcage or 427 Corvette Sting Ray and see if there is any record of it crossing the block. With late-model cars, the Internet makes the market a national one, and service computers and Carfax provide access to a cars' pasts that were never before available.
There is a caveat, however. No matter how well the data checks out, the final part of any deal must be a visual inspection. There is simply no substitute for the eyes of a collector, carefully examining a car, whether it is a 40-year-old 356 or a four-year old 320.
As for the money we've saved? I'm sure we'll find a way to squander it on one of our ancient collectibles. For instance, the bills for the new engine on our two-stroke Saab 96 are just starting to come in, we're just finishing a restoration of a factory hard top for Cindy's 1978 Alfa and of course, with spring coming, all five of our motorcycles have started to ask for $50 bills to be thrown their way as well.
NORTH TO ALASKA
We've got another SCM road trip planned. This time, we'd like to drive an old sports car up the Al-Can highway from Portland to Anchorage. We plan to leave in late June and take at least ten days to get to Anchorage. My co-conspirator will be Bjarne Holm, a high-school buddy who shamed me out of my MGA and into my first Alfa many years ago.
All I need now is the right car. A $10,000 TR6 seems like a good candidate; if you've got one to sell me, drop me an e-mail at email@example.com. Or if you have another candidate you think I should consider, I'm open to your advice. I would prefer a convertible that is relatively rugged and fully fettled.
We're still in the search for a Ferrari GTC/4, but somehow that doesn't seem like the appropriate car for the Al-Can. And as there are still too many cars in the Martin-Banzer garage, you'll note, in this month's Showcase Gallery, that we've aggressively lowered the prices of our big Healey and Mondial.
ON THE COVER
"Femme au Volant," which illuminates our cover this month, was created by Alain Levesque. Jacques Vaucher, of l'art et l'automobile gallery in New York City, described the painter's style as a synthesis of Italian Futurism, Russian Constructivism, French Cubism and German Bauhaus.
Levesque has been a member of the Automobile Fine Arts Society (AFAS) since 1997, was the featured artist at the Meadow Brook Hall Concours in Michigan and his work has been shown at the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance.
Prints of "Femme au Volant," from a signed and numbered edition of 200, are available from l'art et l'automobile for $190 plus shipping. Each measures 16 x 21.7 inches. 631/329-8580, or www.arteauto.com. (NY)