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    Jay Leno
    Jay Leno joined the group Porsche 959
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    Why do I suddenly like cars that I used to detest? This question occurred to me recently when, for some inexplicable reason, I bought a low-mileage two-door #1957-Imperial . To the uninitiated, Imperial was a luxury brand built by Chrysler to compete with Lincoln and Cadillac. Virgil Exner was the designer who turned Chrysler around when he joined the company in 1949. KT Keller was the president and chairman of the board at the time and, prior to Exner joining the company, Chrysler’s styling was stodgy, to say the least.

    / #1958-Imperial-Convertible / #1958 / #Imperial-Convertible / #Virgil-Exner / #Chrysler / #392ci-Hemi / #Hemi

    For example, Keller liked a higher roofline on his cars because he believed men should always wear a hat while driving. Exner had other ideas and by 1955 he was able to introduce them, starting with the Forward Look. By #1957 , at the height of his powers, he had designed the Imperial.

    By that time Imperial was its own brand with no Chrysler reference anywhere on the car. It was also Imperial’s best year because the Styling was so fresh and new. It even had a great slogan: ‘Suddenly It’s 1960!’ It gave everyone the impression that Imperial was three years ahead in the industry.

    These cars were built at a time of unbridled optimism. Gas was 25 cents a gallon, the interstate network was opening up, the space race was starting, climate change and cigarettes causing cancer were all so far in the future that nobody even thought about them.

    They were huge, too, built like tanks. I remember Imperials being banned at Demolition Derbies because Their massive frames, far stronger than anything else, were deemed an unfair advantage. Hot rodders in the ’60s cannibalised these cars for their 392ci Hemi engines. When I was a young man, these cars represented everything we hated about American automobiles. They weighed two-and-a-half tons, they got abysmal gas mileage, they couldn’t stop and could barely get around corners. While Jaguar had polished wood and Connolly leather, these American behemoths featured chrome put on with a trowel and an interior like Elvis’s coffin.

    ‘IT HAS A MASSIVE AIR-CONDITIONER, MORE LIKE A REFRIGERATION UNIT FROM A MEATPACKING PLANT’

    By the time I was able to drive, cars from this era were already over a decade old. They were built before steel was galvanised and they rusted almost immediately. By the time the ’70s and ’80s came around, gas prices had started to rise and most of the cars from this era looked like crippled-mastodons flailing around in some tar-pit. So why the attraction now? AmI trying to regain some part of my youth? Possibly. Or is it because it’s just so different from what we think of as an automobile today?

    First, let me tell you about the car I found. It’s all original and painted in Desert Sage, which is really just another name for pink. A man bought it new for his wife but it was too big for her to drive. It’s 19 feet long and it weighs just shy of 5000lb. She rarely drove the car, and it was parked sometime in 1964 with 64,000 miles on it. There it sat, indoors, for almost 55 years, so there is zero rust and the chrome is perfect. I drove it home on the tyres that were fitted in 1963.
    Modern cars have almost no exterior brightwork. In contrast the Imperial looks like a Wurlitzer juke box. There’s even a massive chrome strip that runs over the roof like some sort of roll bar. The steering wheel is enormous and the gauges are the size of dinner plates. If you have to wear glasses to see the speedometer, you should not be allowed to drive.
    It has push-button drive and all sorts of goofy switches; believe me, they couldn’t have cared less about ergonomics. Trying to figure out how to operate the turn signal took 10 minutes. It has a massive air-conditioner which looks more like a refrigeration unit from a meat-packing plant. You actually have to press down hard on the accelerator to compensate for the 25bhp needed to drive it.

    If you like buying cars by the pound, this is the way to go. Ferraris are about $1000 per pound and cars like this are about $5 per pound. When you hit somebody in a Ferrari the damage is life-altering. Hit somebody in this thing, and you don’t even know it till you get home and find the other car crushed up under your wheelarch. I don’t think I’ve ever had another car that stops traffic like this thing. In a town like LA, where Bentleys and McLarens barely get a second look, folks jump out at stop lights to ask me what it is. One guy in a hip part of town asked if he could buy my interior so he could make a suit out of the sparkly brown-material.

    It’s fun to jump between different automotive worlds. For example, last Saturday was the perfect day; I took the McLaren P1 out for a ride in the hills above LA and then took my wife out to dinner in the Imperial. After all, you need to have one sensible car to drive.
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    Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s I worked in a European car dealership called Foreign Motors. The name seems quaint now, but back then most people bought Detroit iron because it just seemed like you got more for your money. It seemed foolish to pay more for a six-cylinder Mercedes when you could get a Cadillac with an enormous V8 engine and automatic transmission for a whole lot less.

    / #Mercedes-Benz-300SEL-6.3-W109 / #Mercedes-Benz-300SEL-6.3 / #Mercedes-Benz-W109 / #Mercedes-Benz / #1967 / #1968

    Then in 1968 came the game changer: the #300-SEL-6.3 , the fastest four-door sedan in the world. It’s hard to convey the impact this vehicle had on the world when it was introduced. Horsepower and torque were something Americans understood. Even Hot Rod ran a feature on the Mercedes. Car & Driver had drag-racing superstar Don Garlits look it over in an article entitled Superman Meets Super Machine. I still have my copy from October 1969.

    I remember one particular detail in the engine compartment that seemed to stump Garlits, an inner fender panel switch. Then it dawned on him: it was there for safety reasons. It turned off the auxiliary cooling fans when you raised the hood, so you didn’t lose a finger. That was a small example of the level of engineering in this Q-ship.

    There’s no need to re-tell the story of how the car came about. Everyone knows that engineer Erich Waxenberger took the V8 from the Mercedes 600 and shoehorned it into the W108/W109 platform. Kind of like what John DeLorean did when he created the Pontiac GTO by putting the 389ci V8 into an intermediate-sized Le Mans body. Or ‘Le Manz’ as they say here.
    The impact the SEL 6.3 had on me as a 19-year-old was unbelievable. Sure, there were bigger American V8s, but they didn’t have overhead cams, fuel injection, air suspension and four-wheel disc brakes, as well as all the amenities American luxury cars had such as sunroof, air-conditioning, acres of wood trim and a leather interior.

    It took me 40 years, but I finally got one. Mine was a 1968 with over 300,000 miles on it. The previous owner had died and the son just wanted to get rid of the car. I offered him $5500 cash and he took it. That was over ten years ago. Since then, I’ve put another 25,000 miles on the Merc and have had relatively few problems.

    Then it started to go downhill. First off, the air suspension was starting to leak overnight and it was taking longer and longer for the air compressor to raise it back up. Another bad sign was that the warning light on the dash was staying on, indicating that the air compressor could not maintain normal driving pressure.

    I know these cars are supposed to be a nightmare to work on, but the good news is that it’s a mechanical nightmare and not an electronic one. First thing we did was to take off the engine-driven air compressor, thinking we could replace it with an electric one. Then we realised this wouldn’t work because it drives the power steering. We then proceeded to take apart the compressor, figuring we would replace the valves and the piston rings. That didn’t work either, because once we got the piston out we found there were no rings that were commercially available. Before admitting defeat, I then used the greatest tool in my #Mercedes -Benz tool box: the Classic Center.

    I often hear people complain about the prices of classic parts, but only before they start their search, not after. After nearly a week of calling breaker’s yards and various piston-ring manufacturers, trying to find something that worked for a car of which they made only 6526, I finally called the Classic Center.

    I said, I’ve got a 1968 Mercedes-Benz 300SEL 6.3 and I need an air compressor for the suspension. After I’d had seven days of hearing ‘Good luck finding one of those’, and ‘Yeah, right’, click, the voice on the other end said, ‘Do you want rebuilt or new old stock?’ ‘New old stock’, I said. ‘Next day delivery OK?’ And I had it the next day. Was it expensive? Yes. But not as expensive as a lost week, searching high and low.

    ‘THE SWITCH TURNED OFF THE AUXILIARY COOLING FANS WHEN YOU RAISED THE HOOD, SO YOU DIDN’T LOSE A FINGER’

    I then realised I could make my 50-year-old car not quite brand new but pretty damn close. I ordered new rubber bladders for the suspension plus bushes, kingpins and everything else to make it last another 50 years. If this sounds like an ad for Mercedes, it’s not. Jaguar, Lamborghini, Ferrari and other such brands are now all doing the same thing. I’ve had too many close calls caused by using replacement parts made by someone other than the original manufacturer. Most recently a front tyre on a 4500lb Duesenberg blew out at 70mph, when the replacement inner tube disintegrated with less than 300 miles on it. The box it came in looked identical to those I had purchased for years from a brand-name manufacturer, except these ones were made – well, you can guess where.
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    Jay Leno
    Jay Leno joined the group Mercedes-Benz W108 and W109 Club
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