To start with, I would like to say in my defense that the first time I saw "IT", I was running late. I'd just run out of gas, and I really didn't have time to go sight-seeing through some farmer's foul smelling, dark and gloomy barn.
Okay, for those of you that must know, "IT" was the rear end of an old, big, black Mercedes. The key point was that's all you could see in the darkened stall, just a big ol' rusty black trunk! However, the way my friend Dan acted you'd have thought he'd found the Holy Grail, or something of equal value.
Perhaps it would be good if I gave a bit of an explanation here, why I was in a farmer's barn, trying to beg, borrow, or buy some gas.
When I arrived at my Army duty station in the mid 60's in Fulda, West Germany, the first thing I knew was that I wanted a car. I wanted to explore the countryside and have the extra mobility that you can only obtain with your own car. Riding a train is fun, and Die Deutsche Bundesbahn (the German train system) is phenomenal, but nothing compares to having your own ride!
The major problem was I was in the military. Before you can buy a car, it is necessary for you to have an International Driver's License. The only way to obtain that license was you first had to have a military license. My problem? I didn't have either one. I signed up for the necessary classes for the military license, and after a week of schooling, I earned my military license. Once I had that, I then immediately applied for my International License. Two or three months later, I had all my licenses so I started my search for a car. Eventually, I settled on a nice, used 1952 VW bug, which had a whopping 25 HP. In the end, I purchased a 1962 with a sunroof, and then I was a very happy camper.
My MOS, (Military Occupation Specialty) in the Army was Bandsman. More precisely, I was a piano player; and yes, for those of you that are skeptical, there is such a MOS as a piano player in the United States Army. When the band marched, I would play the drums, and for sit-down big-band work, I played the piano. From early April every year until Christmas and even New Year's Eve, we played constantly. We played at various towns around the German countryside for all sorts of fests and concerts and for various military jobs. One of the benefits of having a car is occasionally they allowed me to drive it to the gig, which then left me the freedom to return to base at my leisure.
Back to the stinky, dark, farmer's barn; a friend of mine, Dan Lichen and I were on our way to a civilian parade followed by a concert and then the stage band was going to play some tunes for dancing when I ran out of gas. Anybody who is familiar with the old VW's knows that originally those cars didn't come with a gas gauge. There was a lever on the floor, so when you ran out of fuel, when you flipped the lever down, that offered you a gas reserve which provided around 20 to 25 miles before things turned critical. The problem was, the last time I had flipped the lever I forgot to put the lever back on the main tank, so when the car ran out of gas, it was really out of gas.
As luck would have it, I managed to coast into a farmer's courtyard when my car stopped running. At the time, I was dating a German girl, and because her parents didn't speak a word of English, I was working on learning their language. In my best German, I explained my problem to the farmer, so he graciously sold me enough gas to drive to the next town where we were playing. The three of us started to walk back into the darkness of the old barn to fetch the gas. Sticking out of one of the stalls was the big hump of a large, black trunk with a tarnished silver Mercedes-Benz star, barely attached to it.
There was straw and various farm implements covering the car. The implements were either leaning against it, or were lying on the vehicle. From the way the old car tilted to one side, it was obvious it had sat there for a very long time. Dan pestered me to ask the farmer about the car, so when I asked, the farmer told me he found it after the war, and used it until the car died about 10 years ago. After that time, he'd just pushed it into the stall, and the car hadn't moved since.
To this day, I don't know what it was about that car that spoke to Dan. I can't blame him since I've had cars I fell in love with over the years, but in my defense I saw a lot more of my cars than a filthy trunk sticking out of a barn stall before I got all fired up about them. Dan wanted to climb into the stall right then, but I reminded him that we were both late, and he had on his dress-green monkey suit. With great reluctance, he got back in my car so we could speed off to make the concert.
After that day, it seemed to me not a day went by that Dan didn't bug me about going back and looking at the old car. In one way I was lucky, it was during our "high season." We had a job almost every day, and we didn't have the time to go back to the farm. And the few days we had a day off, I was not going to go and look at some dead old hulk of a car in a stinky barn. Friendship only goes so far! Dan would not give it up. He wanted to go and see the car; he wanted it pulled out of the stall so he could look at it.
Finally, I relented, partly to shut him up and partly to see for myself just what the old car looked like. In the brief moments when I was getting the gas and putting it in my car, the farmer had said the car was very old. He said this was one made before the war. (That was WWII by the way) I will admit I was curious to see what the old hulk looked like, but I was afraid Dan was getting his hopes way out of line.
When we showed up, the farmer looked surprised to see us return. He smiled at me, and as he extended his hand he asked, "Ist Ihnen das Benzin wieder ausgegangen?" (Did you run out of gas again?) We laughed, I told him it was okay, and that this time I had a full tank. During our last visit, I'd noticed that he smoked. So I had brought a couple of cartons of American Cigarettes as a gift for being kind enough to let us have some gas. When I presented him with the two cartons, he looked very pleased. He wanted to open a pack and share a cigarette with us. Dan and I, as politely as we could, explained to him we didn't smoke so they were all for him.
With me translating, Dan explained he wanted to see the old car. I could see the way he looked at Dan the farmer felt my friend was a few cards short of a full deck. But for some reason he seemed to like the two of us, so he agreed to hook up his tractor and pull the car out.
As I recall, the farmers name was Neiderhausen. After he picked up a chain from the barn he brought his tractor around. Herr Neiderhausen explained how after the war he and two other farmers had found the car abandoned and no one wanted it. Most civilians didn't care if anyone took a car during those times. Vehicles often changed ownership, and it usually happened without proper documentation. The local police told the three farmers they could use the car, and after that, they never said anything again. It just happened Herr Neiderhausen was using the vehicle the day it gave up the ghost, so it ended up in his barn in one of his stalls. After the war, it was next to impossible to obtain a truck, or any kind or new vehicle. Herr Neiderhausen told me, because of the way they designed the car, it was perfect for hauling hay and cans of milk in the back of the automobile. That piece of information piqued my curiosity.
Using my poor German and many hand gestures on his part, the farmer demonstrated how the driver sat out in the weather, and they built the back of the car enclosed. When I relayed that information to Dan, I thought he was going to have a stroke. He wanted the car drug out; NOW!
When I use the work "drug," I literally mean we drug that car out of the stall. All four tires were so flat that they were not going to roll, no matter what we tried to do. Finally, after a huge effort we moved the car out of the stall. As the old car slid out, it was truly a sight. Once it was clear of the stall, the three of us started the monumental task of pulling years and years of hay out of the trunk, and the front and back of the old car as well as moving a multitude of farm implements, which he had stored in and on the car.
It turned out that the old car was a Mercedes-Benz "Grosser Mercedes" Cabriolet 770K. The driver sat out in the open while passengers sat in an enclosed area surrounding the back seat. The old car was incredibly massive! However, that old car sitting in the middle of the barn was still a work of art. Yes, it was massive, but it was amazingly sensual.
As I said, all the tires were completely flat, the two tires that would fit into the front fenders were missing, and there were a couple of the broken windows on the back enclosure. But still, the car was sexy as hell. The front fender rose from the front of the car to swoop down, then formed the running board, and then went on to form the rear wheel fender. The car was large, and the lines just seemed to accentuate and enhanced the size of the automobile.
I also noticed that a lot of the chrome was missing, it had a torn front driver's seat with springs sticking out, and the tan burlap stuffing exposed. The rear seat had fared better with time, so wasn't quite as bad, but even now, it had a rat's nest in one corner.
Dan still wanted the car. At that point, I am sure the farmer was wondering about both of us. He asked me why Dan wanted an old car that hadn't run for years, and looked even worse. I shrugged my shoulder and told the farmer I just didn't know.
Herr Neiderhausen was willing to give the old car to us, but Dan wanted to give him something for it. I don't remember now if they settled on 20 marks or 20 dollars. (At that time, the exchange rate was four marks were worth one dollar) I just remember how pleased the farmer was to move the car out of his barn and to receive some money from it.
Like I said, the farmers name was Neiderhausen, and I'm sure I heard his first name, but unless you shared what the Germans called a "friendship drink," you never called a man by his first name. So over time I've forgotten his first name. It was always Herr Neiderhausen.
Herr Neiderhausen was kind enough to use his tractor to lift up the front and then the rear end, so Dan and I could remove the wheels. The rust on the lug nuts was terrible. They were just totally encased. Today, I'll admit that I was a bit ashamed of some of the things I called him, when my hand smacked down on to the rim, when the lug-wrench slipped off the old rusty nuts. With all the rubber totally rotted away, we had to find four new tires. So we left knowing that if we were going to do something with this car, we needed new tires.
Lucky for Dan we weren't too far from a post, and he purchased the tires at discounted prices. A couple of days later we returned to put the new tires on. In the back compartment, we found several of the missing chrome pieces. Dan was very grateful since his plans were to restore the car.
We found somebody who could tow the car back to our post and we parked it next to the band's billets. Dan bought a tarp, covered the car, and there it sat for several months. At some point, the Commanding Officer of the post learned of the car. Shortly after that, Dan received a letter ordering him to move the car off post within the next 14 days ... or else! No if's, and or's or buts' about it, the car had to either go immediately through inspection, or he had to move it off post. Well, since passing inspection was not an option; that meant we had to deal with moving the car once more.
Several days later we found another sucker, I mean another kind soul. He helped us haul the car to town to the MB dealership. Dan wanted to find out just how bad off the car was, and was it possible to return the car to running condition.
When we rolled onto the dealership parking lot, the way people came out of the building was like lemmings preparing to jump in the sea. Finally, one man stepped up dressed in a vest, but without his suit coat on. As he stepped up to me, he extended his hand. He was the managing director of the dealership, and he wanted to know about the car. In my halting German, I explained how we found it in the farmer's barn and then purchased it. While we were talking, several mechanics had pulled away the hood, and they were in the process of inspecting the motor. From what I could make out it sounded like the crankshaft had snapped, and something had punched a hole in the block. I didn't understand many of the words that they used. However, I understood one word; it was "Supercharger." At the end of the discussion, the director told me the car was extremely rare.
The service advisor advised that it would take a few days to develop an estimate. When they were ready, he would contact us, so we could return to the dealership. At that time, we could discuss the various plans on how to repair the car, so we could return it back to running condition. About three days later, I received a phone call that told me that the managing director wanted Dan and I in his office tomorrow at 10 AM; could we please be there. Luckily, there was no job that day, so we were free.
Dan and I showed up at 9:45 wearing our nice civilian clothes. For this, I was glad, because when they showed us into the office, there were four men in suits. Next, they made introductions all around and honestly, neither Dan nor I paid much attention to their names. We were a bit overwhelmed to find so many people were present just to discuss the car. We all sat down at a large table. The four suits were lawyers up from Stuttgart, and all of them worked for MB corporate.
Once we sat at the table, the tone of the first question from one of the suits really pissed me off. "Wo hat der Bauer das Auto gestohlen?" (Where did the farmer steal the car?) From my perspective, that was not the way to start a meeting. I looked at Dan and translated. I could see by the look on his face he was as upset as I was about the start of the meeting. There was no need for any discussion between us, Dan just nodded his head, and we both stood up. I looked at the group and said, "Wir gehen." (We're going!) The same suit now addressed us in English, "Where are you going?"
Now I was terribly displeased. This jerk was playing games with us. Why didn't he speak to us in English to start? Was this some type of game? Were they playing a game of one up-man-ship to see how much German the stupid American spoke and understood?
"Oh, you can speak English?" I asked rather snidely. The suit nodded his head. "Well, if you didn't understand it in German, here it is in English; we are leaving."
"Why?" The suit was still using English.