Tuesday, December 25th, 2012
When I sold my 2001 Honda Prelude in June 2012, I had four main criteria for its replacement:
1. V8 power, because no human being should have to suffer anything less.
2. Rear-wheel drive, because I've owned enough Hondas for one lifetime.
3. Something that could reasonably be called a "car" (unless I stumbled on a pristine 80-Series Land Cruiser, the coolest SUV of all time, and felt like dropping in a V8).
4. A price in the vicinity of $12,000.
But I knew what I didn't want:
No classic muscle cars, because they're generally insanely expensive, and anyway, I think you have to have grown up with those to appreciate them.
No Corvettes, because I am kind of an honorary European when it comes to interior quality, and the first remotely tolerable modern Corvette cabin is in the way-more-than-$12k C6.
No other GM products, because they're not Corvettes.
No Mustangs, because anything nicer than, like, a high-mileage 2006 GT would break the bank, and that cabin's suspect as well.
No BMWs, because I gathered that any V8 BMW for $12,000 or less would have ripped leather, weird engine problems, and a distinct aroma of decay.
No Jaguars, because Ford left their fingerprints all over the modern ones, and the only pre-Ford V8 Jaguars started life with a six or a 12 and had something like a Chevy small-block swapped in (to say nothing of the by-all-accounts horrorshow electronics).
No VW Phaetons, because that's not a V8.
No Porsche 928s, because they're old enough to have cracked dashboards and stuff by now, and I've read that the parts—which seem to break regularly—are increasingly hard to come by.
No Bentleys, although I might have been tempted by this one, especially at such a generous discount:
Anyway, I probably forgot a few, but at the end of the day, I realized that my next car was going to be one of two things:
A Lexus or a Mercedes-Benz.
At which point I stopped soul-searching and started shopping.
Lexus was up first, largely because I was still a slave to the common American belief that Japanese cars are reliable and cheap to maintain, and German ones aren't.
But hey, let's give credit where credit's due: in the 1990s, and perhaps into the early 2000s, Lexus was incontrovertibly making some of the (sorry, Chevy) most dependable, longest-lasting cars on the road. So I had that part right, at least.
It wasn't just about reliability, though. A lesser-known fact about Lexus is that, right around the time I was graduating from high school, they came out with a genuinely kickass 4.0-liter V8.
My infatuation with Lexus's 1UZ-FE V8—specifically, the one with variable valve timing, 290 horsepower, and the electronically controlled five-speed automatic—goes back to 2009, before I bought my Prelude, when I test-drove an AARP Gold 1999 LS400 because I thought it would be funny. Instead, I came away telling everyone who ever listens to me about cars, and I realize I may have lost a few of them in the process, "GodDAMN, now that is a proper motor."
I mean, it really is. Remarkably smooth...seamless power delivery...not allergic to redline...sounds fantastic in that distant, Lexus-ey sort of way. Effortlessly fast. Like anyone with a functional right foot, I love the 306-horsepower 2GR-FSE V6 in the current Lexus IS and GS sedans, but I would swap in that old V8—which has 23 more pound-feet of torque than the latest 2GR-FSE, by the way—in a heartbeat. It's really and truly that good.
Also, check out the photo above. That '98-2000 LS is just a beautiful car. Compare it to a W140 S-Class of the same vintage—presumably one of Toyota's main inspirations here—and you'll find that in places where the Benz is a bit overgrown and ungainly, the Lexus is taut, smooth, and proportional. Shoot, compare it to the current Lexus LS. You tell me which one looks more like a luxury flagship.
But here's the thing: were those old Lexus interiors all they were cracked up to be? Were they really on par with Europe's best? Timeless quality and luxury at two-thirds the price?
I say no.
Lexuses are, of course, gussied-up Toyotas from Japan (the LS is the Toyota Celsior over there), and the more LS400s I looked at, the more I came to see them as just that: fancy Toyotas.
The cruise-control stalk, for example, was identical to the one in my parents' not-so-dearly departed 1995 Corolla wagon. The new-for-1998 trip computer—mandatory if I wanted the 290-horsepower V8, which also debuted in '98—was a hideous neon green dot-matrix design (left) that actually looked worse than its predecessor (right):
Hey, don't take my word for it. Here's Trish Robb in her original review of the '98 LS:
And overall, it's hard to explain, but I just didn't think the LS400's interior was that...nice. The leather seemed a little cheap. Some of the materials reminded me of the contemporaneous Camry. Even the smell was a little off, and I'm pretty sure it wasn't from the presumably wizened previous owners.
I concluded that buying an old LS would be uncomfortably close to buying a Grand Marquis or something: good for a few laughs, and great for road trips or mobile orgies, but ultimately not a particularly rewarding experience.
Nonetheless, I found a one-owner 1998 LS400 with under 60,000 miles at a used-car joint in the SGV, and I made an honest effort to buy it. Trouble was, the guy who ran the place wanted at least $12,500. I countered with $11,000, which seemed pretty compelling to me given that the front shocks were blown, the exterior was some purple-tinged silvery color, and the interior was blue.
I left my number and never heard back.
This was indubitably for the best. On further reflection, I realized that I didn't really want that car anyway. And unless I could find a pristine example with a better color scheme—and without the optional Atari-grade navigation system—for around the same price, I didn't really want an LS, period.
As for the Z30 SC400, I dunno, something about the "that's what we thought 'futuristic' looked like in the 1990s" styling kept me from seriously considering one, even though I do like that interior—and the door hinges, by the way, are amazing. I'm not even kidding. Go open a Z30 SC's doors sometime and check that action out.
Point being, I was suddenly lukewarm on Lexus, leaving me with exactly one brand in all of autodom that could satisfy my needs.
So it was that, not long thereafter, Long story short, I eventually found myself driving to a sketchy Santa Monica used-car lot to check out a silver 1998 Mercedes-Benz SL500, listed for the unfathomably low price of $8,995.
Despite all these thoughts about V8s and rear-wheel drive and so forth, and even though I'd always loved the styling, the R129 SL500 hadn't been on my radar.
For one thing, I didn't realize it was in my price range: I remember walking by one of the post-refresh models (1999-2002) with AMG wheels and like 90,000 miles at a dealership in Glendale earlier in 2012, glancing at the high-teens price tag, and figuring that was that.
For another, you just don't see that many of them on the road anymore, even in sunny LA. Reliability issues, perhaps? I had certainly heard the scuttlebutt about '90s Benzes and the financial pain they can cause. That didn't sound like fun.
In short, without doing any real research, I had effectively removed the R129 from consideration.
But as I was browsing Benz listings on Craigslist after the Lexus episode, some things started to click. Earlier R129s were actually amazingly affordable. Low-mileage specimens weren't exceedingly rare. I noticed a handful that seemed to have been kept in the family from day one, more like a pet than a car. Good sign. I also noticed a few with crazy high miles that still had the original engine and transmission—another good sign.
Then I remembered that the most influential book of my youth, a coffee-table collection called The World's Fastest Cars 1989, had featured a 500SL (the nomenclature changed to "SL500" in 1994). I used to know every number in that book by heart. The output of the SL's 5.0-liter V8 came to me in a flash:
354 pound-feet of torque.
Okay, so it dropped to 315/347 for arcane reasons circa 1993. Those numbers look a little less badass. But still, this car was getting better all the time.
And what was this—the hand-assembled DOHC M119 V8 (of 500E fame) that produced those numbers was discontinued after 1998, replaced by a machine-built SOHC V8, the M113, that had three valves per cylinder instead of four and made less power and torque: 302 and 339, respectively. Yet the market prices were lower—much lower in some cases—for the M119 SL500s.
I quickly learned why the 1995-and-earlier SL500s were especially cheap: among other comparative shortcomings, they had an old-school hydraulic four-speed transmission. I've yet to drive one of those as of this writing, so I can't comment, but the relatively positive reviews of the new transmission for 1996, an electronically controlled five-speed automatic that stayed with the SL500 till its demise in 2002 (and is the same basic transmission that for years tamed the AMG biturbo V12's 738 lb-ft of torque), convinced me to put a floor under the 1996 model year as I started my search.
But I still couldn't figure out why the 1996-1998 SL500s, the ones with the correct engine and transmission, were so cheap.
So I located athat silver '98 for $8,995 on Craigslist and headed to Santa Monica to see what was what.
Uncharacteristically sparing you the details without even requiring you to trigger a function, I'll just say that this 110,000-mile car was basically destroyed. No reasonable person would have bought it. That was apparent from when I first sat down—the cabin reeked of previous-owner neglect.
But I did glean two important facts from the test drive:
1. By present-day standards, the R129 is not a large car. It's no Miata, but it feels completely manageable, aided by fine visibility in all directions and an incredibly tight turning circle. Going in, I knew about the hilarious 4,100-pound curb weight, and I was expecting that to result in a nautical driving experience. Going out, I was thinking "German Mustang."
2. Even this palpably neglected example hauled the mail. The midrange acceleration was like (I assume) having a syringe of endorphins injected into my brain. Fast? By the numbers, and by current standards, not remotely; the best zero-to-60 time I'd seen was 6.3 seconds, putting the SL500 roughly on par with a modern V6 Camry. But from the driver's seat, it felt like a bullet train above 3,000 rpm, all that mass sucking to the pavement as the torque surged the car forward with the sort of hand-of-God sensation that I typically associate with turbodiesels. So I had to correct my previous impression that the SL500 was a boulevard queen. Okay, it still kind of looked like something I bought new for my wife back when the drug money was flowing, but in fact, this was a little German muscle car. A Mustang in spirit as well as size (actually, the R129 is about 13 inches shorter than a 2013 Mustang), except with a massively nicer interior and an engine that, even after 110,000 presumably arduous miles, sent fewer vibrations through the steering wheel than my Prelude's 2.2-liter four.
Time to take a step back. What had I unearthed here? A top-of-the-line German luxury roadster, originally $90,000 or so, with a storied history dating back to the iconic Gullwing 300SL, an evidently awesome 315-horsepower V8, a surprisingly maneuverable feel, and oh yeah, the first fully automated power top in the business, a removable hardtop, and a standard Bose stereo with a subwoofer? All for the cost of a new base-model Nissan Versa?
"Okay," I said to no one in particular. "I'm in."
From there on out, things happened pretty quickly.
First I drove a couple of the later M113-engined cars, and I know there's a raging debate about this on the forums that will never be settled, but you can add me to the M119 camp—I just didn't get the same visceral thrill from the M113, even though it's supposedly a titch quicker off the line because its torque arrives earlier.
Then I found a demure little ad on AutoTrader—didn't even have a photo—for a black three-owner 1998 SL500 in Orange County with 67,000 miles. Clean title, California car all its life, no accidents, but also no service records. Asking price: $15,000. That seemed delusional, but I happened to be in the area anyway, so I stopped by to check it out.
The car was parked under a blanket of dust in a gated storage-facility lot in Tustin. The seller, an older IT guy originally from India, told me he rents the lot for his car collection, which on that day was highlighted by an NSX, a 996 GT3, and an R230 SL500 (powered, like the later R129s, by the M113 V8). He had bought the R129 at an auction in October 2011 and barely driven it since. First impression: Someone took care of this interior. Aside from a little nick on the dash, it was in good shape; even the outboard bolster on the driver's seat, a common wear point, showed little degradation. Plus, I think the R129's metal looks best in black, so that was worth something to me. This one didn't have the sexy 18-inch AMG "monoblock" wheels, but I'd heard the ride was better with the standard 16s, so I could live with that.
Then I drove it, and aside from a vibration at highway speeds that felt like a wheel-balance issue, I saw that it was good.
I asked about the price, and we negotiated down to $14,000 pending the outcome of a pre-purchase inspection, which the seller agreed to have performed at an independent Benz shop a few blocks from my place in Hollywood. That meant he'd have to drive the car up from the OC—50 miles each way—so the momentum was definitely in favor of a sale. But I managed to get another $800 knocked off after the mechanic put the car on a lift and, gesturing toward a shadowy corner of the engine, claimed he'd found a small oil leak that would cost $1,700 to fix. I couldn't see it, and given that the dipstick readings haven't budged since I bought the car, I've sometimes wondered if he was just trying to help me out, and maybe pick up a new customer in the process. In any case, $13,200 was as low as the seller would go, and hey, the car ticked most of the boxes for me. I was concerned about the lack of records, but the mechanic had taken me aside during the inspection and whispered, "The car is very good." So I figured, yeah, I'd be breaking my $12,000 ceiling, and no, it wasn't a price to brag about...but what the hell.
"You got yourself a deal."
And that, friends, is what I was thinking.
I'd be remiss not to add a few words on the role of my golfing buddy Mercedes Mark, who was probably singlehandedly responsible for moving me to consider a Benz in the first place.
Here's Mark's latest find, a 1999 CL500 with a just-plain-silly 30-something thousand miles on it. I'm going to get him to write a post about it someday.
For as long as I've known Mark, he's been driving interesting old Benzes. The first one I met was a turbodiesel S-Class from around 1980, followed by an early-'90s 300E, a 190E of the same vintage, and a 240D with a manual transmission from the mid-'70s. I think there was another diesel in there as well. All in exceptionally good shape.
A big part of that is Mark's phenomenally high standards. If there's one person I'd trust in the world to buy a car for me without my involvement, he's the man. (There's exactly one other person in the world who could be entrusted with such a weighty task, by the way, and that's me.)
But there are a lot of old cars on the market. Yet, with one intriguing exception—a recently acquired Porsche 914—Mark only buys Benzes.
I now believe that this is because, for a run of many decades that arguably continued until the DaimlerChrysler era, no automaker built cars like Benz. But back when I was mulling my options, I wasn't there yet; I simply reasoned that if old Benzes were good enough for Mark, they merited consideration by me, notwithstanding my aforementioned leeriness of German reliability. I doubt I would have reached that conclusion otherwise.
Finally, you might be wondering what's going on with this site's name and/or slogan. Forgive me. As a lifelong connoisseur of most things hiphop, I forget sometimes that the phrases "500 Benz" and "free like O.J., all day" can be confuzzling to the uninitiated.
An undeniably significant factor in my decision-making here was my belated discovery—I didn't put it all together till I started shopping for SL500s—that when 2Pac opens his iconic song "Picture Me Rollin'" with the line "Picture me rollin' in my 500 Benz," he's specifically referring to the R129 SL500.
I know this for two principal reasons:
1. The photo above. That's a still shot from the video for a different song, "To Live and Die in LA," and unfortunately there was never a video for "Picture Me Rollin'," but come on. That's gotta be his 500 Benz.
Guess how many 5.0-liter Benzes in the 1990s had a convertible top.
As for "free like O.J., all day"...well, you'll just have to listen to the song and find out.
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