Gather 'round, kiddies, because it's time for a feature I've decided to call Story Time With Uncle Doug. Here's how it works: first, I spend hours writing an excellent, brilliantly researched story of great personal interest, possibly related to Land Rover. Then, you read the first few paragraphs and think: "Hmm… I wonder if Tavarish has posted anything today."
But today's episode is far from boring, because it's about the time I scammed a FIAT dealer out of eight grand. This one has it all: deceit. Betrayal. A classic Mercedes-Benz. A clueless car dealer. A startling discovery. And one of the single worst automotive trades of all time; even worse than the time Volkswagen approached Chrysler and said "We hear you're making an outdated, unpopular minivan. We want to get in on that."
It all started on a warm summer morning in Atlanta. Or perhaps it was a cold winter day. Uncle Doug sometimes forgets these things, because his brain is filled with boundless levels of questionable Land Rover knowledge. (For example: the transmission in a Land Rover Freelander lasts 14 percent longer than grocery store bananas.) For all I remember, this whole story might revolve around an elderly woman selling a classic BMW, and she only gave me a good deal because I threatened her with gun violence.
Ha ha! Uncle Doug is just kidding, of course. In fact, this story begins in September 2011, when I was playing around at work on AutoTrader.com. This was my usual activity, when I was at work. Some guys were good with Excel. Some guys were good with Powerpoint. Some guys gave good speeches; other guys were good motivators. Me, I spent most of the workday on AutoTrader.com, thus proving the old office adage: you probably won't get fired unless you kill someone, or steal something, or say the n-word.
So I'm sitting there, browsing along one day, and I see it: a 1993 Mercedes-Benz 500E with just 72,000 miles, newly listed at a dealership called FIAT of South Atlanta.
For those of you who don't know anything about the 500E, allow me to explain: this was a Mercedes-Benz built by Porsche. What happened was, in the early 1990s, Porsche had hit desperate times, largely because their only three products – the 911, the 944, and the 928 – were older than most forms of limestone. So things were rough, and Porsche was on the verge of bankruptcy, and the executives started calling local businesses in Stuttgart and asking if they could come in on the weekends and sweep the floors for a little extra cash.
So anyway, Mercedes-Benz felt bad for Porsche, and also they wanted a high-performance sedan to compete with the BMW M5. The only problem was, Mercedes' largest V8 — from its SL-Class convertible — didn't fit in the engine bay of the E-Class sedan. So they sent the SL-Class engine and the E-Class body over to Porsche and told them to "figure it out." Well, Porsche did figure it out: they widened the fenders, they changed the suspension, and eventually Porsche built several thousand 500E units at its Stuttgart factory, just feet from where they made the 911.
Of course, the 500E is now very rare and desirable, so I was surprised when it popped up at FIAT of South Atlanta. Usually they're at private sellers, or collector car dealerships, where they're presented with 57 high-color photographs and a price tag roughly equivalent to the entire annual budget of the United States Department of Agriculture, or best offer.
So I called up the FIAT dealer to verify its existence, and I spoke to a saleswoman whose name I've forgotten. I'll go with Tammy.
"Is this a 500E?" I asked.
"Yes!" Tammy replied. "A 500E."
"A five hundred E?" I said.
"Uh, yes, sir," she insisted. "A five-hundred E."
"So when you look on the back, and you see the numbers," I said. "They say five, zero, zero, E."
"Are you a complete idiot?" Tammy asked.
I leveled with her.
"Tammy," I said. "Are you aware that the air suspension in a Land Rover Discovery lasts 9 percent longer than milk left out on the counter?"
With the car's 500E status confirmed, I was ecstatic. In fact, I could barely contain myself all day at work. A 500E! With low miles! A true German super sedan! A Porsche-built Mercedes! Right here in my backyard! I couldn't wait to check it out. So at the end of the work day, I picked up two of my friends, Andrew and Ally, and I drove down to FIAT of South Atlanta – home of giant neon window writing, day-old donuts, and 99-dollar lease deals – to look at the rarest German super sedan manufactured in the last 30 years.
As I recall, there were two especially unusual elements of the test drive. Number one, they let us go out alone, which is always fun because you don't have to awkwardly praise the car to avoid offending the salesperson. ("Boy, this Hyundai Tiburon sure has nice… windows.") And number two: at some point, after about 10 minutes of driving around, I looked down and discovered the car was either completely out of fuel, or the gas gauge was broken. I decided there was only one way to find out for sure – and that's when, for the first time in the entire history of automotive test drives, I pulled up to a gas station and pumped my own gas, with my own money, on my own test drive, into a car I didn't own.
And guess what? The fuel gauge shot right up.
When we eventually returned to the dealer, it quickly became clear they had no idea what this car was. Where these things were usually selling for $14,000 in rough shape or $30,000 with low miles and all records, the FIAT dealer wanted $10,500 – for a fully original, 72,000-mile 500E that drove like it had been perfectly maintained by a fastidious West German mechanic named Dieter who would occasionally write letters to the town council when he discovered a street sign was getting worn out. It was that level of perfect.
Admittedly, it didn't have any records – but that didn't deter me. I offered the dealer "eleven grand, out the door," which I later realized was a $400 discount. Years later, I negotiated more than $4,000 off my CTS-V wagon from another Atlanta-area dealer – and here I was, asking for a discount that couldn't even buy me a stolen MacBook on Craigslist. Tammy didn't even go in to check with her sales manager. She shook my hand on the spot and told me that we had a deal.
When I went in to sign the paperwork, it became clear that the only thing crazier than the dealer was the previous owner. I mean, yeah, sure, the dealer had its own issues with sanity: the sales manager told me that since they listed the car the previous afternoon, they had received calls "from all over the country" asking about it. And yet this didn't prompt them to do any checking into the car's history, or its value, or its rarity. They just stuck it on the lot and waited for the first guy to show up with a checkbook and a couple gallons of gas.
But the previous owner really must've been nuts.
"How did you even get this car?" I asked, curious how a 500E winds up at a dealer that primarily sells budget-priced hatchbacks that move with the same sense of urgency as an elderly grocery store customer paying by check.
"A guy traded it in yesterday," said the sales manager. "Yeah, he sold us this car and a boat, and he bought a MINI Countryman."
My jaw dropped. Folks: a guy brought in a seaworthy, oceangoing, pleasure-inducing boat and a rare, desirable, low-mileage, high-performance Mercedes 500E … and he drove off the lot with a MINI COUNTRYMAN. I mean no disrespect to the Countryman here, but this is an awful trade. In fact, in the world history of awful trades, I believe this one ranks fourth, following right behind the time the Boston Red Sox traded Babe Ruth to the Yankees for a series of little-known, mediocre players, the time the Native Americans traded Babe Ruth to the Dutch for Manhattan, and the time the Colonists traded Babe Ruth to Napoleon for the Louisiana Territory.
But the deal was done, and the paperwork was filled out, and the car was sold, and I was headed home, where I figured this entire ordeal would now come to an end. Little did I know, two more interesting occurrences were still left to take place.
Number one: after I got home, I started checking out the car, and I noticed something in the back seat. There, stuck inside a manila folder wedged below the seat, were dozens of service records. Fluid changes. Brake jobs. Belt replacements. The previous owner had even saved oil box tops from his do-it-yourself oil changes – and he had carefully written the date and mileage of each oil change, going back years, to an age before it was socially acceptable to wear a beard like an unkempt bird's nest.
Number two: eventually, I posted news of my purchase on the 500E forums, which primarily consist of about 19 guys who sit around and discuss how their car values are going up. Almost immediately, someone came on and replied that I was a thief: he had made a deal with the FIAT dealer earlier that afternoon over the phone for just eighty five hundred bucks, and he planned to come collect the car a few days later. And I swooped in and GRABBED IT! Quickly, the 500E forum turned on me in the way that only a forum full of 65-year-old men can: with rampant misuse of the "QUOTE" function. I stopped posting almost immediately.
In the end, I decided to flip the car – and I sold it within a couple months to a guy in Ohio for nearly double what I had paid. It was a sad event, and I was disappointed to see the super sedan go – but as it was getting loaded on to the trailer for its trip north, one nagging thought kept me from getting depressed. At least I wasn't trading it for a MINI Countryman.
@DougDeMuro is the author of Plays With Cars. He owned an E63 AMG wagon and once tried to evade police at the Tail of the Dragon using a pontoon boat. (It didn't work.) He worked as a manager for Porsche Cars North America before quitting to become a writer, largely because it meant he no longer had to wear pants. Also, he wrote this entire bio himself in the third person.