Cars and grills

Having fled Louisville for Tampa in the last blog, I was hoping to regale you with fantastic adventures in Florida.  But the virus I was given somewhere along the way came with me, and settled in for a nice long stay. So I’ve mostly seen the inside of Brett’s apartment while I do the usual sniffle-cough-ahem routine.

But we did get out on Friday for a nice roadtrip in Brett’s 1974 Mercedes SL450.  Those of you who are car geeks will recognize it as the R107 chassis, a long-lived and nearly iconic car for anyone who was around in the 1970s and 1980s.  I had seriously considered buying of these myself.  Because of the massive quantity that was made, they are very reasonable in good condition (running $5-10k) and they are a real joy to drive.  The ride defines “grand touring,” while the beefy V-8 propels the car like a dream, and best of all you can take the top down on a sunny Florida day in December, as we did.

We took the SL across Florida to Titusville, sticking primarily to the lesser-traveled highways, and ended up at Pierre Hedary’s shop.  Pierre is a character in the Mercedes world, a tall bear of a man with crazy hair and an encyclopedic memory for every mechanical bit of every pre-1993 Mercedes car.  He writes a regular column on maintenance for Star magazine (published by Mercedes Benz Club of America) and we’ve crossed paths at a few car events.  Brett and I felt it was well worth the 150-mile drive to have Pierre take a look at the car and help sort out some of the bugs.

The photo at left was taken at Starfest 2011 in Winchester VA. Pierre is overwhelming the passenger seat of a nice 280SL, a generation prior to the 450SL we drove.

We ended up at the shop for most of the day, and left with the car feeling considerably happier than when it arrived.  When you buy an old car, there’s a process of “sorting out” in which you try to rectify the errors of prior owners and get everything back up to optimal condition.  You have to pace yourself during this process, otherwise in your eagerness to get it all worked out you can find yourself broke and/or overinvested in a car that may not deserve it.  Brett has been slowly sorting this car for the past year or so.

In this service, Pierre replaced black and dead transmission fluid, a Jurassic-era fuel filter, some shift linkage bushings, a vacuum hose and a few minor bits.  The car’s fuel pump was tested and a few potential issues were ruled out after careful inspection.

There’s still a considerable list of issues to resolve but with every step it becomes a better car to drive and there’s immense personal satisfaction when you feel the difference in a Mercedes after repairs.  I’ve sorted out old Hondas and old Mercedes and old Volkswagens.  With a Honda or a Volkswagen, after fixing everything you end up with a good reliable car.  Not bad.  With a Mercedes, you end up with, well, a Mercedes.  When it drives like new, the ride and handling are extraordinarily pleasurable.  The delta between “before” and “after” with an old Merc is just astonishing.  It makes the steep cost of the parts feel like they were worth it.  This is why I really enjoyed my 300D, and hope to get another one in a couple of years.

We took turns driving the SL back across Florida that night, with a quick stop for fried chicken on a picnic table next to some highway.  It made for a fine roadtrip.  Given that my brain has turned to mush from the virus, I can’t think of a better way to have spent the day.

Our other minor task this weekend has been to pick up a trio of custom-made grills over in St Petersburg.  Last year at Alumapalooza we started a program called “open grill,” where everyone was invited to share a big charcoal grill with whatever they wanted to cook.  We had Alex K light the grills theatrically by breathing fire on them, and the Fire Department showed up to demonstrate their Jaws of Life machine by chewing up a car while we chewed our dinners.

Last year’s grills were borrowed, but now we have our own set.  Brett specified what we needed and a local fabricating shop built them.  We checked them out at the fabrication shop yesterday (photo), and they look perfect. The cooking surfaces are 3 feet x 3 feet, with 4″ of space below the grill surface for a bed of charcoal.  The legs unbolt for easy transport.  We’ve got three of these, which can easily accommodate 8-10 simultaneous users each.  If they prove extremely popular we’ll have more made for the 2013 event.  Open Grill will be held on three nights at the 2012 Alumapalooza.  Our plan is to try out one of the new grills this week while I’m here.

Plenty of time for that.   My original plan was to fly out on Monday but with this cold I can’t equalize my ears, so I re-scheduled for Thursday.  That little change cost $264 extra, which did not make me happy but it beats the alternative.  I’ve had too many flights with ear pain in the past.  I’m hoping to be completely recovered by Tuesday so we can have a little fun running around the Tampa area before I go.

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Editor & Publisher of Airstream Life magazine