Nobody asked me, but . . .
I know you’ve been wondering about the whereabouts of that S550 4Matic Merc you and your bride Jill dropped off with the valet at your hotel at LAX prior to your honeymoon flight to Germany. You remember, Palladium Silver with designo® Deep-SeaBue/Beige Exclusive Nappa Leather interior, the one Mercedes loaned to me to shuttle you and your bride-to-be around Palm Springs before and after the wedding? Jill loved the Air Balance Package featuring a cabin-air purification system with ionizer and dual-activated charcoal filters and that fragrance atomizer with LED-backlit vial in the glovebox. And you both gave five stars to the Warmth and Comfort Package with a heated steering wheel, heated and active ventilated, power outboard rear seats with memory and detachable headrest pillows, plus heated front/rear center armrests and heated door armrests, which you said were perfect for those chilly evenings I chauffeured you around palm Springs. I showed you the Monroney sticker: $123,995 without destination and delivery of $925, which you said was more than you paid for that beater Corolla you had when you lived in Hoboken.
Eight months after that car disappeared it has been found. And the circumstances surrounding how it was discovered prove once again that truth is stranger than fiction.
You could start by asking how a car as visible as a Mercedes-Benz S550 4Matic could be that difficult to find, especially with it listed on every hot sheet of stolen cars in every police precinct around the country. But after about four months and no leads, I was told that the car was probably in a container on a flight out of LAX to South America an hour after that “valet” had taken your keys.
So to learn last week that the car had turned up in San Francisco was a surprise beyond all surprises. It had been visible all the time. Driven daily. And that’s where the story takes a bizarre left turn.
The thief turned out to the grandson of a stylist who worked for Chrysler in the ‘50s, ’60s and ‘70s. His father was an engineer at Chrysler who lost his job when Chrysler and Mercedes-Benz parted company in 2007. The thief never forgave M-B for the physical and emotional anguish that the family suffered after their father was terminated. He couldn’t find a new job, and the depression of 2008 ultimately caused his family to lose everything, including a home that had been in the family for more than a century. And the son vowed revenge.
When the valet thief drove off with the Merc, he headed to Fresno, not LAX. There, in an auto customizing shop owned by two friends, he stripped the S550 of every exterior body panel and painstakingly replaced them with the panels from a 1959 Chrysler Imperial Crown Southampton Hardtop Sedan similar to the one in the photos shown here. Working virtually non stop, pausing only for brief naps on the shop floor, copious cans of Mountain Dew and an occasional Jack-in-the Box burger supplied by his friends, the thief completed the task in three days.
The beauty of this diabolical cross dressing is that the ’59 Imperial already had historic vehicle plates, and being older than a 1975 model it is exempt from the once-every two-year regular smog checks during California registration.
So the thief was driving a stolen, brand new M-B S550 with impunity and with little chance he would ever get caught.
But here’s where an ironic twist of fate stepped in.
You’ve met my English twin, also named John, who, like me, is in the car biz. A couple of months ago the other John was in San Francisco researching an article on Uber. During the course of his four days in the city, John used his Uber.com app seven times to gain experience with the company, its cars and its drivers. Uber offers a variety of rides, starting with uberX (Everyday cars for everyday use.) all the way to LUX (The finest cars with prices to match.). And John sampled vehicles from each of the five Uber categories. When his LUX car arrived, guess what it was? If you surmised “a 1959 Chrysler Imperial Crown Southampton Hardtop Sedan,” pass Go and collect a $123,995 bonus.
John couldn’t have been more astonished when his chauffeur opened the right rear passenger door and beckoned John inside. The ’59 Southampton Hardtop had a thoroughly modern interior. All M-B identifying logos and markings had been cleverly and thoughtfully removed from all interior appointments, but John had no problem identifying the familiar Mercedes accouterments. John remembers the M-B’s Comand® System with Navigation was not turned on. Instead, the driver had a Garmin nav unit suction-cupped to the windshield, which he said was more accurate around the SF area than the built-in system. When queried about the modern interior, the driver matter-of-factly explained that the Imperial had been customized by a shop in Fresno California and that his customers loved the dramatic contrast between the vintage exterior and the luxurious interior. And, by the way, word-of-mouth and repeat business had enriched his bank account to the tune of more than $64,000 in less than six months of Ubering. Wow!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
I ran into John at the Fabulous Fords gathering at Knott’s Berry Farm in April. Over lunch we were catching up on events in our lives when I casually mentioned the disappearance of the S550. In a flash, the cup of soda John was holding dropped onto his plate, which was filled with fried chicken and a piece of Knott’s berry pie. John leaped out of his chair, his pants escaping most of the damage from that spilled soda and shouted in his thoroughly British accent: “Dinkel, I have found your car!”
The rest, as they say, is history. The SF police easily tracked the thief from his Uber info and he was arrested. But M-B is not pressing charges. In a plot seemingly out of a John Clancy novel, M-B execs in Stuttgart, Germany are handling this like a hacker being caught by the FBI who is then hired by the FBI to hunt down other hackers. Mercedes-Benz designers and engineers were so taken by the craftsmanship exhibited by the thief that they have hired him into their design studio to teach other M-B designers the techniques he employed in converting the S550 into an Imperial. Mercedes believes this presents the company with opportunities for re-skinning current M-Bs for owners who would be interested in cars with retro Mercedes styling. Go figure . . .
Photos by Cooper Carras and the author.