Monday, November 28, 2011

Future Aero-Trailer by Mercedes-Benz Cheats the Wind

Mercedes-Benz heavy trucks have long played an integral role in the financial successes of Daimler, without which, the coffers of the passenger car side would likely not be as full. Americans are becoming more familiar with the Sprinter, originally pitched on our shores as a Dodge/Freightliner product and now recognized widely as the vehicle of choice for the "American Picker's" boys, but the tractor trailer combo piloted by the Actros has been a roadway staple in Europe for ages. Now, with the Aero Trailer high efficiency hauler, Mercedes promises an improvement of 18% in drag reduction, which equates to about 530 gallons of fuel saved and a five-ton reduction in emissions for the driver who averages 95,000 miles on the road annually.

The Aero Trailer maintains the standard cargo box capacity and is only altered on the outside, which so happens to extend the length by about 4-feet. The Kammback addition, paired with lower, smoother side panels, give the trailer a futuristic style for the big back boxes that have remained relatively unchanged for generations.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

JC Unit One: On the Road In Johnny Cash's Custom Tour Bus

“I have a home that takes me anywhere I need to go, that cradles me and comforts me, that lets me nod off in the mountains and wake up in the plains."

Such are the words Johnny Cash wrote about his beloved home away from home, a majestic tour bus, specifically a customized MCI motorcoach upgraded with powertrain and suspension boosts, sound deadening, and other specialized equipment to the tune of over $500,000... in 1979 dollars. The silver, grey and black bus would come to be known as the most visible symbol of the extravagance and grandeur of a Johnny Cash show, with rumors spreading in each town along the route as excited fans spotted the fabled "JC Unit One" on local roadways and news spread that Johnny Cash had arrived in town.

Cash was not only a very private man, but one who enjoyed his personal freedoms. He chose to buy and build his own road cruiser rather than follow the usual rock star routine of renting a bus, because he wanted his to have all the personal touches and features of home paired with a sense of stability that familiar settings year after year would provide. Seeing that Cash toured with his young son, John Jr., and that his wife June Carter was an integral part of the stage show, it was necessary that the family be comfortable for those fleeting moments of private time while touring North America, tho it is said the bus did make at least one European appearance. In 1991, as tour support for Cash's side music project The Highwaymen, he used the bus to shuttle band-mates Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings.

Cash sold the coach just after his wife of thirty-five years, June, died in 2003, and the Man In Black himself succumbed just four short months later from complications of diabetes, or as many who knew him believe is more likely, he died of a broken heart. The bus was sold by Cash to a ministry and then purchased by a car dealer who eventually sold it via eBay to an experienced collector in North Carolina, Dave Wright. Wright valued the bus for it's place in American music history and made a personal vow to return it to it's original condition by having a road worthy restoration completed at the original facilities.

"We call it Unit One. I love my bus. It really is my home too.  When I make it off another plane through another airport, the sight of that big black MCI waiting by the curb sends waves of relief through me – Aah! – safety, familiarity, solitude.  Peace at last. My cocoon.”

At the time, I was fortunate enough to be guiding Johnny Cash's original band, the Tennessee Three, as their Personal Manager and my duties were guiding them on what the they should do now that The Man himself was gone. We all agreed that the best thing they could do was keep the unique sound they created together alive by continuing to tour and play out in public to audiences who still needed their fix. We worked hard to get the band back on the road after John's death, a band that still included two of the original three members. The drummer, WS "Fluke" Holland, is also the first drummer in rock and roll music, featured on the original Carl Perkins version of Blue Suede Shoes. Holland was also key to creating Elvis Presley's early image, albeit unwittingly, by providing the poor southern singer with clothing for his various appearances on TV and concert, all of which were sized too big for the eventual "King of Rock and Roll." These oversized jackets would quickly become a trademark of Elvis' and are still in the personal collection of Holland in his Jackson, Tennessee home.

Bob Wootton played guitar, taking over for Luther Perkins who died in 1968, but also sang vocals with Cash, acted as his body double for TV and film work, and served as Cash's bodyguard on the road. After Cash's death Wootton took over lead vocals for the live act and recordings, and they continue to tour the US and Europe to this day. One evening, I got a message from Bob's wife, Vicky, telling me how someone had contacted her to buy the original license plates that Bob (also the bus driver at times) had ordered but never got a chance to put on before it was sold. She told me that Dave Wright owned the JC Unit One and wanted the plates to complete the restoration he was planning. After a long conversation trading stories, Wright agreed to allow the Tennessee Three full use of the bus for touring, stating that it was the right thing to do, getting it back on the open road with the band who made it all possible.

We used the bus for some time, making appearances to support the release of the biopic about Cash's life "Walk the Line." The JC Unit One was as big a celebrity as the band as it loomed always near as a welcomed respite on a moment's notice from genuine, but exuberant, crowds.  It delivered the band to the red carpet screening in Hollywood where they were reunited with old friends like Jane Seymour (Cash once appeared on Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman), during in-store appearances at Tower Records, touring the backlot of Paramount Pictures, and even served as the Green Room for us during the band's Oscar-night appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live. Fellow guest Johnny Knoxville was left like a starry-eyed fan as he waited patiently outside the bus door for Wootton and Holland to exit. He spoke briefly with the men, who had no idea who he was but were very courteous nonetheless, telling them how he had purchased Cash's small mountaintop cabin, before allowing the guys to head off to sound check, all the while smiling like a star-struck teenager. You see, it's not just meeting the band members that's so special to people like Knoxville, once they are invited on board the bus and witness the personalized touches and begin to hear the stories, that they are transported back to a time and place that is unique to each individual, perhaps it was the first time they saw Johnny Cash on television or heard the unforgettable line "I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die."

Band members arriving for Oscar Night performance on Jimmy Kimmel Live.
I loved telling people the stories of how Cash, not wanting to be told he couldn't export a rare wood from his Cinnamon Hill farm in Jamaica to his Tennessee estate, decied to make packing crates out of the wood for some furniture pieces he was shipping back to the States. Once the crates arrived in Tennessee, he simply disassembled them and used the wood for JC Unit One's stateroom. His room featured the expected black leather, dark burl wood and gold fittings. He chose powder blue suede and fabric to drape every inch of June's room; her favorite color and one he dubbed "June Blue". The two keeping separate sleeping quarters because of John's tendency to always be too hot while June was always complaining of how cold she was, so each unit had it's own climate controls. Always the country boy, there is a small brass plaque affixed to the entry door to June's cabin that reads "Queen's Box." When Cash was playing a show for the Queen of England at the Royal Albert Concert Hall, he wandered around the venue between sound checks, and promptly stole liberated the plaque from the entry to the Queen's private viewing box with his pocket knife. Cash also enjoyed embellishment for the sake of a good story, such as bragging to guests that the alligator hide lining the bathroom door was from a beast he shot himself in a near life or death struggle, when in actuality it was off-the-shelf vinyl with an embossed lizard print. (I already know I'm getting an ass-whoopin' in the afterlife for revealing that one.)

Eventually the bus was returned to Dave Wright, who then donated it to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum in Cleveland, Ohio where it still remains on display in the outside plaza during the warm months. Visitors to the museum can take a tour of the interior of the bus, and see for themselves all the things I've described above to help personalize the man behind the legend. I only knew Cash from stories told by those who spent literally decades by his side, until I was able to sit in his chair, sleep in his bed and drink at his table. While on the bus I sometimes caught myself slipping in and out of a dream-like state, the flashes of street lights upon my face, or strangers giving us a thumbs-up on anonymous roadways, transported me like a time machine as I began to understand, by seeing what he saw and feeling what he felt, how this elegant yet simple coach would become a touchstone for the Cash family for the last half of John's life. Even in death, John R. Cash was an intimidating personality, but one you felt entirely welcomed by at the same time. The same duality that followed him and became his trademark was still tangible. Maybe he somehow knew we were bringing his much-loved JC Unit One out on the road for one last tour, one last trip over the Rockies, one last deadhead streak across the grey ribbons of asphalt in a rolling five-star hotel that he came to know as "home."

Friday, November 18, 2011

The King of Coupes That Never Was (Until Now)

Deep in the rural Wisconsin countryside lies a modest shop run by Karl Middelhauve, known to Mercedes-Benz enthusiasts as the only doctor to call when your 600 Pullman is sick. While Karl built a reputation on restoring and maintaining the eponymous 600 sedans and Pullman limos, seen wafting the world's Dictatorial elite from one African village to the next and even sporting a starring role as Satan's own ride in "The Witches of Eastwick", he is also regarded as a bit of a tinkerer. Sure, you and I may attempt to fix a broken stopwatch, or a garden tool that needs a new handle, but tinkering has a whole other meaning in Karl's world. You see, Karl is not just an enthusiast, but he also has a close relationship with the original designer of the 600, Paul Bracq, which affords him a special ability to bring unrealized designs from the annals of Mercedes-Benz history. Bracq is also revered as the design mastermind behind the Pagoda SL, the W111 Coupe, and the concept predecessor to the BMW M1 as well.

Early projects included the Benzomino and El Benzo, both El Camino styled variations of the 600, as originally envisioned by Bracq. Karl formed such a good relationship with Bracq on these designs that they collaborated again in 2010 to create the 2002 Grand Mercedes SL600 Silver Arrow. The Silver Arrow concept is based on a new design provided by Bracq on Karl's request for a coupe version of the 600. It is known that a handful of 600 coupes were indeed designed and delivered as gifts to high ranking friends of the factory, but they more closely resembled a shortened sedan than a bespoke coupe suited to the trendy tastes of stylish buyers. Starting with a 2002 R129 Silver Arrow special edition, the Wisconsin team set about stripping the body panels from the SL then re-fitting panels from a donor 600 with great care and attention to detail. The location of everything from axles to hood hinges had to be carefully considered and test fit over and over, to be sure this car would meet the expectations of all who would see, and envy, her when completed.

The design was finalized in winter 2009 with initial construction beginning in February 2010 and completed just a few short months later in July. The final car rather successfully pairs the bold fenders and hood of the 600 with the extra sleek lines of the panoramic roof. The front hinged hood is a novel addition that works well with the original body cut lines. Overall the profile has some resemblance to the Rolls-Royce Camargue, another uniquely penned vehicle with designer genes. The V-12 engine is surely an upgrade in performance and we are left with no doubt that Karl and his wife will enjoy until the next secret 600 project is ready for the road, and we're told there are several ideas vying for their chance to become more than just a passing thought or a few lines on a napkin, but another real and authentic addition to the history of bespoke Mercedes motoring.

Be sure to see all the construction and finished product photos here at Karl's site:

Photo copyright

Photo copyright

Thursday, November 17, 2011

MotoArigato Project Car Part 2: MBI Motors for the Win

In the interest of journalistic integrity, I would like to disclose that I have no material connection with MBI other than the fact that I give them money to make me and my car happy, not the other way around. They have no affiliation with this blog or influence upon it, and the views presented here are my own opinions.

As I drive the MotoArigato Project Car around town, fault finding, I continue to fall deeper in love with the "Ivory Zeppelin" as she has tentatively become known. The good folks at MBI Motors really worked some miracles on this baby with the addition of a re-cored radiator and addressing lots of minor, but necessary issues, but most importantly, making adjustments to the tempermental mechanical fuel injection system. Mind you, this Bosch system evolved from one originally designed for the Daimler V12 aircraft engines that were beating the hell out of Allied forces in WWII by allowing Luftwaffe planes to climb and maneuver without stalling, so they are literally a "battle proven" system. This was such a revolutionary design at the time, that had it occurred earlier in the war, we would all be reading Mein Kampf in grade school. The downside is that unless you have a brain like a computer and the requisite experience to handle one of these systems, you may find yourself falling victim to computer-desk mechanics who will advise you to swap it out for traditional carbs. This is a mistake you will regret every cold morning you actually want to go somewhere in your vintage Benz.

So what's the solution? Bring your car to MBI. Those of you in the Pacific Northwest are already well-familiar with Corbin, Sig and the rest of the crew, but you don't have to live in Oregon to take advantage of their expertise. On my most recent visit, I was fortunate enough to enjoy the visage that is a perfectly restored W113 280SL roadster in a deep chocolate brown (I used to have a Jaguar this color, so I am a bit biased). The owner had shipped the vehicle from Texas specifically so that MBI's Master Technician, Rich, could adjust it's fuel injection system. If that's not a Texas-sized testimonial, then I don't know what is. The employees at MBI speak of Rich in revered tones, clearly appreciating the magic he brings to the vehicles he presides over.

Last night, while tooling around town in the 220SE Project Car, the shift linkage came off at the transmission. It was just out of reach unless I was on my back and maybe 4-inches thinner, but being located on the traffic side of the car, and me having a silly fondness for keeping all of my body parts, my only option was to flat-bed it to MBI. The car showed up at 4:30 pm, yet within minutes it was up on a rack and was returned to me by closing time at a total cost of... $13. This isn't a typical scenario of course, but just an example of their willingness to do what's necessary to get a customer back on the road.

The true reason for my cult-like devotion to MBI is that they have become the default Mercedes-Benz dealer for Portland in terms of parts, repair and maintenance work. Each time I go in, from my very first visit until today, I have been treated exactly the way I always expected to be treated by MB dealerships but seldom were. I would gladly trade those puffy chairs and free cappucino's at Beverly Hills for a service adviser who would actually listen to my full explanation of the problem before driving my car away, or the local dealer who cost me several hundreds of dollars to have their "repairs" fixed right at MBI, all on my dime of course. Try getting a return phone call from a dealer, even to let you know your car is ready. We have all been there, the corporate systems focus the dealer teams on up-sells and quick, but less than stellar, work. MBI has been in business since 1969 and you don't turn your customers into friends by dicking them around or talking down to them. Ever been given the opportunity to see your car while it's on the lift? Ever been greeted by name by three different people when you walk in? Ever been handed an invoice that is less than the original quote? Spoil yourself, try MBI Motors in Portland, Oregon.

The MotoArigato Project Car: 1962 220SE W111 Coupe

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

MotoArigato Project Car; 1962 Mercedes-Benz 220SE Coupe

We will be documenting the gradual process of improving this long lost automotive gemstone from barn tender to daily driver. That's right, this will not be a show car or a trailer queen, no 100-point restoration is in her future, that will be for the next owner, nay, this car will be brought back bit by bit to roadworthy status, so she can once again serve in exactly the capacity she was intended, as a family sport tourer with suave "Mad Men" and "Pan Am" era looks in spades. Sinatra couldn't have made a better choice for his arrivals at the Stardust Casino!

Photo courtesy
Model Overview
The W111 Coupe' that Mercedes-Benz brought to the pampered masses in 1961 was the first car from the company to carry all the hallmarks of the modern vehicle age. In most cases, these innovations actually first appeared on this model, the world's first S-class coupe. Replacing the earlier "Pontons" as the barrel-sided but outdated cars were lovingly nicknamed, the 220SE "Fintail" or "Heckflosse" in the native tongue, was the first of this new breed to appear on American shores.

Rocket-age safety advancements and performance features made the car so far ahead of it's time that contemporary observers would have to be forgiven for assuming it was reverse engineered from alien technology. Front and rear crumple zones, padded steering wheel and dash, front disc brakes, mechanical fuel injection, dual zone heating and air conditioning were but a few of these advancements that gave the car it's price tag that was 2-1/2 times that of the typical American car. A top speed in excess of 115mph with the ability to handle the twisties thrown in for good measure ensured the popularity of this elegant motorcar.

The Score
We found this 1962 220SE Coupe for sale locally at a premium used car dealership Luxe Autohaus who's inventory we've been watching for several years, noting uncommon examples of interesting European metal. We knew enough about these W111 coupes to know that you have to pry much deeper than skin deep if you don't want any nasty surprises, considering that unnoticed damage, rust or failed components can quickly put you upside down on one of these cars, since many parts are unique only to this one model. We originally expressed interest and scheduled an inspection, but the day before an international buyer called and put a deposit on the car. We moved on and began our search anew when a few days later we were told the buyer never finalized the deal and the car was ours again if we were interested. We drove her home that day.

Needs vs Wants
One of the first steps was to take inventory of what was there and what needed fixed right away. This car is going to be driven from day one, so getting the basic mechanicals sorted is an excellent place to start. All the body trim, interior and exterior is there, without it we would have passed on this car and kept searching. The front glass is cracked but the rest is intact. All the weather seals are toast and need replaced, costly so be prepared for that, these aren't your regular JC Whitney sourced seals. Wood is all cracked and peeling, veneer is intact so a simple strip and re-varnish will work wonders... one day. The maroon interior is a mix of old leather that was never conditioned and is now cracked and split including the seating surfaces, and vinyl that has aged surprisingly well and will largely remain as original in this car, which includes the door cards and side trim, headliner, etc. The Parchment paint is not original and has started flaking off in several areas. There is minimal rust to speak of, almost more surface rust than anything eating through or structural.

The engine bay presented it's own challenges. With oil and transmission fluid spray everywhere, leaving a thin greasy layer settled over every surface, we knew we were going to have to spend some time in this area. After a quick but thorough inspection by our friends at MBI Motors we discovered that the rear differential had a cracked boot leaking all it's fluid, transmission seals were all dry and leaking, power steering hose and box had leaks, coolant was leaking at the radiator, and the choke was causing starting problems because of the other relevant issues. We OK'd all the work aside from the power steering and transmission leaks, figuring we can attend to topping those off regularly, and also to give both units the opportunity to reseal themselves now that the car was going to be driven regularly again. OK, we know only British cars spontaneously repair themselves, but it's worth a shot, and we're broke, and we're anxious to get this thing on the road. We will report back when the car comes home from it's first round of repairs and let you all know what's next.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Fix It Again Bertone; Italian Suit on an English Body

Poking around the internet looking for nothing in particular is usually how we stumble across the coolest stuff. Take this Bertone bodied Jaguar originally designed for the 1966 Geneva Motor Show, rare as a cop having a good day, this is a truly special vehicle for the collector who has everything.

We can't say that the looks of the Jaguar 420 donor car were improved by all the panel beating, but it does have a certain appeal just like the Rolls-Royce Camargue, which eschews traditional styling in exchange for some exceptionally horizontal lines so popular with 1960's Italian design houses.

The best part? The car is for sale... but as the ad states, it's "not cheap, but a very good investment."
See all the pics and ad here: Jaguar F.T. Bertone Coachbuilt for the 1966 Geneva Motor Show

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