Culture Magazine

On Acquiring a New Mercedes When Pushing 70. Late-life Crisis Or Common Sense?

By Colin Randall @salutsunderland


Nine-and-a-half years ago, I wrote at a rarely updated and rarely read offshoot of this site, Salut! North, about the various cars I had owned or leased. There have been a few more since then so maybe an update is overdue.

Bill Taylor, a great friend of mine and of the little Salut! group of sites, has just made a new acquisition to provide for those days he doesn't or cannot rely on Toronto's public transport system. And it really is new, a Merc no less. If you like what you read, check back on his superb series of life as an Englishman in New York ...

Time being the fire in which we burn, I’m only six flaming months away from my eighth decade.

If you’re working it out on your fingers, as I had to, that means I’m 69, going on 70.

A little late to be having a mid-life crisis. But how else to explain the brand-new Mercedes sitting in my garage?
I prefer to regard it as early-onset maturity, given that when I look in the mirror, I see the world’s oldest boy wonder. An appreciation at last of the finer things in life. Finer than I’m used to, anyway.

I’m an unreconstructed gearhead with the soul, if not the know-how, of a hot-rodder. You’re more likely to find me hanging around the pit area of a back-country stock-car oval than the paddock at a Grand Prix.

I wrote about cars for years, getting my start in that branch of journalism by illegal drag-racing on the streets of small-town Pennsylvania in my wife’s (she was my girlfriend then) souped-up Oldsmobile. Total culture-shock for a small-town Englishman.

I turned it into a story and, after a couple of rejection slips, took Colin’s advice (he wasn't Monsieur Salut then, but was visiting) and sent it on freak value to a British magazine so uppity it called itself simply Car. I was their North American columnist for the next seven years.

This isn’t my first Mercedes. I had a 2008 model that I bought when it was three years old. I went to watch dirt-track races in it and even drove it on a quarter-mile dragstrip. Legally.

Used cars have always been a way of life for me and used Mercs can be surprisingly reasonable in price.

So what am I doing with a new one when I’d planned to trade up to a 2013?

Credit/blame goes to the financial whizz who takes care of my meagre investments. He happened to phone at exactly the right/wrong moment and mentioned that he’d just leased a new Lexus, using his old car as a deposit.

I’d never thought of leasing – a 45-month contract with payments lower than if I were buying a used model; full warranty coverage to take care of maintenance; and a 24/7 roadside-assistance package that means if I run into problems anywhere in Canada or the U.S, the nearest Mercedes dealer will come to my rescue.

It made enough sense for me to say, “Where do I sign?”

Yes, at the end of the contract, I have to hand the car back. But I could always lease another.

Or maybe by then I’ll have decided I don’t have to own a car. I live in downtown Toronto where relentless traffic makes public transit a wiser choice. If I needed a car to go outside the city, I could rent one.

Do I need a car now? Maybe not, but I do want one, a nice one, and “want” should always transcend “need”.

Let the time-burning future take care of itself. For now, I’m still coming to terms with the Merc. (I have friends who see referring to it that way as lèse-majesté. They call it a Benz.)

Its mental acuity puts mine to shame. The owner’s manual has the heft of a King James edition Bible. Until I bought my first American car in 1977, I’d never owned one with a radio, let alone a bank of computers.

It has four driving modes, from “eco” to “sports plus”, which turns it into a high-revving, road-hugging beast. It can even park itself, though, as the salesman admitted: “That’s something you’ll show off to your friends once and then probably never use again.”

When I brought it home, it shook cyber-hands with my iPhone and now I can talk to anyone on my contact list or play my music app simply by telling the car to make it so.

That’s in theory, anyway. Several functions can be voice-controlled but learning the ins and outs of the command technique has been tricky.

Purely as an exercise, I would tell the navigation system to find the route to a friend’s house and instead the phone sprang into action. Shouting “cancel” was as effective as yelling “sit” at a rabid wolf. So then I’d have to explain that, nothing personal, I didn’t actually have anything to say.

But things are slowly becoming clearer as the Merc and I talk our way through our problems.

When all else fails, I can simply keep my mouth shut, head for the hinterland, flick the transmission into “sports plus” and try to suppress the notion that this would make a terrific street-racer.

No one’s buying that story any more, more’s the pity.

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