A few steps below the lobby at the Amangani Lodge in Jackson Hole, one of the finest hotels in the world, several car writers sat around a massive wooden table, eating Caesar salads and Kobe beef burgers, the snow-capped Tetons framed behind us as though Mercedes-Benz had installed them for our pleasure alone. "Goddamn it, I told them not to put tomatoes on my club sandwich!" a large man bellowed. There's a term on the circuit for guys like this who live for their frequent-flier miles and luxury perks. They're called "Frank Bacon." And they're always around.
It was a slow week for new-car launches, with the Geneva Motor Show coming up soon. In such fallow hours, manufacturers get creative when they're seeking a little easy press. Therefore, 25 car writers had been flown to Jackson Hole for a "winter driving workshop" featuring the Mercedes 4Matic all-wheel-drive system. The 4Matic originally evolved for tractors, or trucks plowing through the jungle. Now Benz had installed the system into its relatively compact C350 and E350 coupes. It was our job to bear witness in high style.
The car-promotion racket encompasses a constant parade of foie gras-laden luxury "experiences," but no one throws them like Mercedes, whose trips simply manifest decadence. Other guys had told me Mercedes stories about when the Oaxaca federales mysteriously disappeared and 120 mph suddenly became the norm on the highway, of the band and fireworks in Tennessee, of the time in Montana where it rained and they danced in the barn all night long, or of that Maine lobster roast where the waitresses and writers jumped naked together into the pool at 1 am. It all sounded somewhat appealing, and enticingly free.
Geoff Day, Mercedes' U.S. director of communications and a living legend, presides over the glitterbomb. Once the press representative to Margaret Thatcher and later Princess Diana, Day sets the standard to which all auto flacks hope to aspire. "I need to get out the message that it's not just about the cars, it's about the lifestyle that the people who buy our cars enjoy," he said in a New York Post profile of him last year. "It's about selling the experience that goes along with owning a Mercedes-Benz."
“It's about selling the experience that goes along with owning a Mercedes-Benz”
Car writers are either moderately well off older guys for whom this is a retirement kick or starving young dudes trying to make a mark. Occasionally a middle-class, middle-aged schmo like me will stumble in and attempt to support his family. But nearly everyone, no matter their status, finds themselves susceptible to the unsubtle charms of Geoff Day-styled luxury automoting. So as the large man ordered the waitress to "tell that goddamn hillbilly in the kitchen to get it right this time!", I didn't feel superior. True, I was polite to the staff, but I'd still traveled to this elite location, which I could never have afforded on my own, via the Mercedes nickel.
When it comes to car writing, we're all a little bit Frank Bacon.
In the morning, Mercedes held a brief 4Matic press conference about "mechanical locking differentials," "45/55 front-rear torque distribution," and "a constant refinement heading to the perfect balance between driving dynamics, traction, and overall ride comfort." One of my colleagues asked, "Is there a difference between ride heights and spring and damper tuning between the 4Matic and the two-liter?"
Then we drove.
My partner, a capable young Detroit-based straight shooter from Automobile magazine, took first shift. He chose a jet-black C350 coupe, and we headed out into the winter. The coupe dragged us through the Teton Pass in a near whiteout. There was a quarter-inch ice pack on the road, with snow piled on the edge several feet high. We could barely see in front of us. Most of the other cars on the two-lane road were trucks or four-wheel-drive SUVs. By comparison, we were an ant, but the little coupe handled the conditions as well as any F-150 or Outback would. Any time my partner made a mistake, slipping even slightly, the coupe's stability control straightened us out. It was a remarkable performance by the car.
When we came out of the pass, the snows tapered and the roads grew less slick. I took the wheel and headed for a clear segment. Signs indicating "FROST HEAVES" made me a little nervous. But nothing appeared to be heaving at the moment. Traffic was light. I opened up the coupe. We crossed into Idaho. She hummed like a hive. The mountain-pass speed limits in Wyoming, 45-50 mph, seemed pretty high considering how tough the roads were. It really tested what the C350 could do. The car hugged the curves easy, passing slower vehicles on the straightaway. There were no hitches. When we took it up to 90 mph, the C350 floated like it was on pontoons.
We spent a half-hour steadily cruising not far from the banks of the Snake River. While it squalled outside, inside the Mercedes, everything was warm and pleasant. If I had about $50,000, I thought, and I was looking to blow it on an all-wheel-drive luxury car, this C350 is definitely one I'd consider. Of course, the Audi A4 Quattro and the BMW 5 Series are also good. They'll do a competitive death-tango through the snow until the world runs out of oil.
We stopped at a gas station to take a whiz and buy some beef jerky. Two guys with a gun-racked pickup pulled up alongside us.
"Sure are a lotta Benzes around here," said one of them.
After a sumptuous catered lunch at a private home, during which someone asked "how's the bison pepperoni?", my partner and I drove the C350 to an ice track. Mercedes had spent many loving hours producing an elaborate and detailed one in a field. The track contained many dangerous turns and divots. Other joy-riding writers had been pounding it flat all day, so we needed to take care.
The Mercedes people had some advice for us: Watch the "whoop-de-doos," they said; this was ice-track speak for "bumps." If you start catching speed, ride the threshold brakes. Make sure you slow down the car enough on the straightaway so you can feel the 4Matic pull you through the corners.
A Hobie Cat plowed the track in front of us. My partner again chose the C350 as our ride. I'd learned to drive in Arizona and had spent most of my car time in California and Texas. He was from Michigan and he knew from ice. I let him go first.
"You've got to have all your senses available," he said. "It's very exhausting. You go to your limits."
He went around the track pretty fast, getting up to 30 mph at some points. The car skidded plenty. Its tail jerked like a whip. But it always straightened out before disaster struck. "That system saved my ass," my partner said, repeatedly.
I took the next run and went slow and steady, a good strategy for an ice drive. I didn't bottom out the car, steer off the track, or get flustered by the whoop-de-doos. The 4MATIC system worked great. It felt like a victory.
James Bond on skis couldn't have kept up with us.
We tried out some other cars. The S550 boasted a lacquered solid oak steering wheel. It was a big luxury boat that could survive the apocalypse, with a driver's seat that automatically adjusted itself around my butt based on my relative position, giving a whole new meaning to "squeezing through turns." That machine had no problem moving around what my partner and I termed the "divots of death," three rather long trenches that had, by late afternoon, begun to dominate the track in a rather obvious way.
We also tried the CL550, which costs in the neighborhood of $115,000. I described it in my notebook as a "sporty little lady," which I later crossed out because I thought that sounded sexist. It wailed around the ice track like it had been shot from a crossbow. James Bond on skis couldn't have kept up with us. What a car. Finally, we took an E350, which felt like a comedown by comparison, slightly less agile than the C, less luxurious than the S, and nowhere near the CL. We drove it around the track once, but by then the ice had pitted and turned to divots, like a college hockey rink after a tournament.
To round out the afternoon, my partner and I took the E350 out to Teton National Park, which was as empty as the rest of Wyoming, and hit the gas. The E had seemed heavy and sluggish on the ice track, but on a well-salted straightaway national park road, it hit 100 mph without blinking. I was fast, free, and happy.
That night, we gathered at a glamorous private lodge for a six-course dinner passed out hors d'ouevres-style, plus a pasta bar, plus a raw bar, plus antipasto, plus chocolates, plus all the booze we could possibly drink. This level of extravagance meant that the legendary Geoff Day had finally appeared. He'd been in L.A. for the Oscars, and then in New Jersey emceeing a corporate event. Suddenly there was no one else in the room, and not just because he was at least four inches taller than the next tallest guy. Wearing a multi-colored argyle sweater, Day raised a glass.
Tonight, he said, to celebrate the 4Matic system, Mercedes, "the world's number one luxury brand," had taken control of this glamorous private home, which the owners only lived in one month a year. "We are the one percent!" he exclaimed sardonically, raising a glass, and we all toasted together.
Later, Day came over to where I was sitting.
"I had to say something, I had to," he said. "It makes me sick."
Day had thrown an absolute boondoggle of wretched excess, and yet he simultaneously mocked the process. No wonder everyone loved him. At that moment, I realized why he was the master.
He told us that his job--and ours--is to tell regular people what it's like to drive the car, not be a race car driver.
"Its not a hobby," he said. "It's a business."
"Is it hard putting on the Geoff Day show every day?" asked my drive partner.
"You have to," Day said.
"You just look in the mirror and suck it up."
"Honey, if I could do that," Day said, "I'd never leave the room."
Laughter erupted. Day went on to the next group.
Outside on the patio, someone had constructed an ice bar with the Mercedes-Benz logo inside it. Day arranged for the bartender to make a signature drink: Take a hefty shot of Sambuca, light it on fire, add Blue Curacao and Kahlua, and drink it through a straw. Day called this the "Flaming Mercedes."
He challenged an automotive writer to a drinking contest. Whoever could slurp up the Flaming Mercedes faster would win. Suddenly the party was on. Within minutes, PR people and journalists were in the middle of the living room, singing "Living on a Prayer" and "Don't Stop Believing" very loudly. Day danced among them all, leading the good times. I looked around and realized that he'd replaced the family photos in the house with photos of him and his PR staff, and even some photos of automotive journalists.
"It's the Mercedes family," he said.
One Mercedes guy pulled me aside and told me how much he loved Day. "He's got our backs," he said. "He'll go to the wall for us."
Everyone was sated. Day stomped around happily, knowing that he had a couple dozen Frank Bacons right where he wanted them.
"Look at me," he said. "I'm the fucking pied piper."