Doing hard time can change a man. Things you thought were true on the outside become less clear as time on the inside accrues. I did time—four years, in fact. I would be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy a lot of that time, at least the part that wasn’t spent in chemistry. You see, I was sentenced to four years of “learning” at Fremd High School in Palatine, Illinois. My crime? Finishing eighth grade.
One thing I learned was that though you can lock a man up and hand him a German II textbook, you can’t stop him from thinking about cars. And think about them I did. It was during this period that the magic triumvirate of working at a gas station, reading Car and Driver, and living someplace rural enough to attempt crazy things in cars came together to reshape my worldview. Well, my automotive worldview at least.
I learned a few important things. From the gas station, I learned that American-made cars produced in the late ’70s and early ’80s were largely laughably crummy. The build quality was embarrassing, performance dull, and reliability distressing.
From Car and Driver, I learned that the antidote to flaccid American iron was German metal. Being German, I latched onto this fact with vigor. Somehow, though I couldn’t imagine ever owning one, knowing that Mercedes-Benz cars were so good that people were willing to pay $40,000 (at the time) for one made me feel better about the world.
And from doing stupid things in cars in rural settings—well, I learned the value of handling, the value of good insurance, and the fragility of life itself. I also learned not to trust other young men with cars.
I recently posted my “5 Coolest Vehicles of 1979.” We see here how much my take on the car world changed in four short years. Sure, I still want that Trans-Am, but as a senior I wanted an S-Class much, much more.
I realize that this flies in the face of my rant about reliability, but come on; this car had two chrome fuel-filler latches on opposite sides of the trunk. How cool is that? Additionally, I still believe the Series III XJ6 to be the best-looking sedan of the last 50 years. In dark green, nothing else comes close. I pumped a lot of full-service gas into these fine-looking “saloons,” and I well recall a customer instructing me, “Just fill the right tank; I’m in a bit of a hurry.” Just the right tank? Too cool.
This car remains the only 12-cylinder vehicle of which I’ve ever checked the oil. In the limited sphere of 1983 Palatine, Illinois, the XJS was serious exotica, and I wanted badly to drive one. Alas, pumping gas into a few of these gorgeous Brits was as close as I came to time behind the wheel. I will grant you that this big coupe lacks the refined subtlety of the J6 sedan, but did I mention that it has a V12?
Mercedes-Benz 380 SEL
I never wanted anything legal more than I wanted an S-Class Mercedes. So convinced was I (am I) of this car’s flawless excellence that I often spoke of little else for days on end. My first man crush was a car (the SEL was not a woman). When this generation S-Class was launched, Car and Driver proclaimed, “The best car in the world can be had for half the price of a Rolls-Royce.”
Time spent pumping gas into these magnificent machines proved to me that the hype was justified. There was simply no comparison to the Cadillacs and Lincolns that then waddled through the gas-station lot. The paint, welds, trim alignment—even the freaking fuel-filler caps—of the Mercedes were finished with such meticulous care that any comparison to other cars was to insult the S-Class. Toss in this Mercedes’ stately, sleek-gothic styling and you have a vehicle of unassailable perfection. I still mean to own one, and it will be black.
Mercedes-Benz 380 SEC
Are you serious, a coupe version of the greatest car ever built? Somehow, I always felt that the S-Class’ brawny-sleek profile was compromised somewhat by the loss of two doors, but nothing trumped the cool factor of an S-Class coupe. We had a regular customer at the gas station who owned a white SEC. He was a 30-something entrepreneur with a great-looking wife, cool sunglasses, and a big Mercedes coupe. At 17 years of age, it was very hard to imagine greater success.
By 1983, I had yet to buy into the Porsche 911 mystique. I still placed great value in cylinder counts of at least eight, and the whole rear-engine thing really didn’t impress me much. But this crazy-looking car had my attention. A German Corvette of sorts, the 928 promised Mercedes-Benz engineering and muscle-car-like thrust. Of course, as a Car and Driver reader, I was aware that stability at high speed was part of the 928’s résumé, and that upped its desirability factor exponentially. Who, in 1983, ever talked about how a Corvette behaved at over 130 mph? Sadly, unlike the other cars on this list, 928s never seemed to visit the gas station I worked at. Still, more or less sight unseen, I wanted one.