Posted by: Jerry Garrett | October 23, 2019

Driving My Mercedes To Italy – The End Of The Road

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My classic Mercedes-Benz 450SL in Italy

VENTIMIGLIA, Italy

Two years ago, I shipped my 1973 Mercedes-Benz 450SL from Las Vegas to Italy. The whole process took months – almost five weeks longer than I expected. I chronicled the journey daily in a series of more than 30 blog posts (starting here).

The original idea had been for it to arrive by late May for the Monaco Grand Prix, the ultimate place to show and shine. It didn’t show up until mid-June. I stopped writing about it, after picking it up at the port of Genoa and driving it 110 miles home. It ran flawlessly.

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Sitting at the port of Genoa customs depot

So then what happened? (Thanks for asking!)

Plan B was just to drive it around the Italian and French Rivieras and enjoy it as much as possible, even though the original motivation (i.e., Monaco posing) for going through this rather expensive and laborious process was gone. In the back of my mind, I had been hoping I could sell it to some rich racing fan or Monagasque millionaire.

The car was perfect for a Riviera poseur; it was a flashy bright red, with black leather interior and in very nice shape for its age. It evoked scenes in my mind of Cary Grant and Grace Kelly driving around the same roads in 1954 in a Sunbeam Alpine convertible for the movie “To Catch A Thief”.

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Screen grab: My Riviera dream, like Grace Kelly & Cary Grant

But my fairy tale was not as enduring.

Ventimiglia is only eight miles down the beach from Monaco. I was worried about the corrosive damage of salt air. So, I rented a space in a two-place garage in the basement of the building where I was living. The property manager assured me that the other space in that garage belonged to a neighbor who “only comes once a year, in August, for a few days.” (Beware of Italians who exaggerate – which is all of them!)

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Space Invaders?

Of course, as it turned out the neighbor was around much more than that. All summer, in fact. And he complained – in an anguished note left on my windshield – that my little Mercedes was “troppo largo”. Compared to say a Fiat 500, okay, the Mercedes is rather huge.

Although I moved my car as close to the wall as I could, and worked with the property manager to paint a blue line down the middle of the garage to delineate our respective spaces, that was not good enough for the neighbor. He (or she) continued to complain to the manager, even though I never saw him (or her) or their car.

I didn’t know what else I could do. I tried ignoring the unpleasant situation.

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On my side of the blue line

A short while later, the Mercedes started running oddly. Black or brown smoke trailed from it, at times. It became harder and harder to start, until it finally wouldn’t. The garage was too cold and too dark to do any work on the car. Getting a battery charger to it was a chore. I tried pushing it out of the garage to the street, but it was a nightmare negotiating such a heavy car (with no power steering) out of the tight basement and up the ramp. Outside, it was almost impossible to work on, parked on the street. Street parking is vigilantly regulated, and now it was also exposed to the dreaded elements.

Knowing something about cars mechanically, I nevertheless tried to troubleshoot it. With only a few tools, I cleaned the fuel lines, and ordered a new fuel pump and fuel filter online – because it didn’t seem like fuel was getting from the tank to the engine. All that helped me get it started long enough to get it around the corner, into a parking spot, off the street. But it went no farther.

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“Il motore è morto”

In Italy, if there’s an off-street parking spot, you can bet somebody claims to own it. And someone did. It took quite a bit of negotiating, and several translators to get the owner (who didn’t actually even own a car) to agree to let me leave the car until I could find a mechanic to help me get it running again.

That proved to be a tough task. First, this was Italy, not Germany, and virtually no one works on Mercedes in Italy. (Mercedes parts are equally tough to find, especially for classics). Second, good luck finding anyone still active as a mechanic who works on 45-year-old cars of any kind; vintage cars are a very rare luxury in Italy. Third, if you could find a mechanic – which I did! – the logistics of getting it there would prove too much.

The mechanic had a shop in Monaco. Although only eight miles away, it would take three tow trucks, stopping, unloading and loading with a carefully choreographed rendevous at each border to get it there. Plus, there are language barriers as formible as the physical ones. And, anything that involves Monaco is going to be a big-ticket tab.

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“Nessun parcheggio qui”

I explored the idea of just shipping it back home; but, surprise, surprise, the cost of shipping it back was three times what it cost to ship to Italy in the first place.

“There is a lot more stuff coming from Italy to the U.S. than vice versa,” said the shipping supervisor. “We can bring cargo back much more cheaply, because the U.S. doesn’t ship as much out of the country anymore.” (Thanks Trump?)

With my year in Italy rapidly coming to a close, and no solution in sight, I was becoming desperate. I was about ready to leave the keys in it, with the doors unlocked and a note on the windshield, “Free to a good home.” (Insurance fraud was suggested to me, but I couldn’t go through with such a thing!) I was leaving for America in a matter of days.

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Ready to be abandoned, under the parasol pines

But then a friend in the classic car auction business came to my rescue. He lived in northern Italy, near Milan.

“I will send someone to pick it up,” he said. “We will get it running, and offer it for sale at one of our auctions, and give your proceeds to you after we take out our commission, and the cost of any repairs.”

Of course, I gratefully said, “Si, grazie mille!”

I left the keys with my property manager and departed.

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Last look: Farewell, My Lovely

The problems were not solved. Weeks passed before anyone could pick it up. I wondered if it was still there. My friend finally contacted me with quite a bit of complicated paperwork that needed to be completed before he could sell it. More time passed.

“We cannot make the car run,” he notified me, some months later. “Do you have any idea what has happened to it?”

My hunch had always been that the neighbor had done something to it. But there was no evidence; I couldn’t prove anything.

“Maybe someone has put something in the gas tank?” I suggested.

“Sabbotaggio?” he answered incredulously. I told him the story, and he said he would check.

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Heading to an uncertain fate

More months went by, and finally the friend contacted me and said the car still could not be started. But he had found a buyer. The man was from Germany and he thought he could fix it; he had spare parts that he could try – including a new gas tank, which he figured was the culprit.

Good news, all things considered, but the bad news was the amount of money I would gain was basically the price of my beloved classic rendered as scrap.

This was a better deal than abandoning it, for sure. So I took the money. The story ends.

Lesson learned? Ship only myself to Italy from now on!

(P.S. I never heard if the car ever got running again.)

Jerry Garrett

October 22, 2019

 


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