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My morning run takes me past what I affectionately call the “Mercedes House”. The cars change occasionally, but are usually clean, 1980s vintage Mercedes-Benz of various types. This morning, I was greeted by a 420SL in fantastic condition. You could feel the values it represented with its simple lines and robust structure. From the creamy beige paint to the rich leather interior, everything about the car told you that the owner knew the value of their dollars and certainly had more than a few of them in the bank. The car radiated the quintessential vibe of old money. I spent the rest of my run pondering old money and wondering where it all went.
Twenty-five years ago, any Mercedes-Benz was a symbol of old money. In fact, it was a nearly given fact that you needed to be born rich to aspire to such a vehicle. A 300TD was the province of the truly rich – not only a symbol of wealth – but a symbol of the landed gentry who had the wherewithal to pilot a diesel on our American roads and pump the stinky fuel with their own hands. These were very plainly styled, exceptionally appointed vehicles that only drew attention if you happened to actually notice them. The truly rich had no need to display their wealth openly, and among certain circles new cars were openly shunned.
Therein lies the difference between old money and new money – visibility and substance. As new money became de rigeur in the 1980s, the traditional European auto manufacturers began to court this new and distinctly American market with smaller, flashier cars. The E Class became the new calling card of the nouveau riche, with the 5 Series close behind. As the money percolated through the ranks, the once ultra-rare S Class became a common sight in many cities.
The strange entity that is the American popular music culture also had a serious impact. Glorification of bling meant that the S Class was no longer enough – it had to be an AMG S Class, or an 8 Series, et cetera. Nothing is sacred any more; nothing is out of reach when you are armed with a cheap lease.
One can only wonder what the old money drive any more. With the G-wagen out in the open, Daimler has no options. The 8 Series remains a rare beast, but lacks the quiet, understated practicality of the old Benzes. Italian supercars are too loud and obnoxious, and Porsches have never been about money. No one on this side of the pond would actually trust a Maserati, so they are out of the question. The new Cadillacs are a possibility – their lines are strong and bold without being obscene. The Rolls-Royce and Bentley options remain too ostentatious for old school sensibilities. But none of these cars comes close to the pure simplicity of the old money Benz.
So what do they drive now?
At this point, I was in the home stretch of my run, the last three-quarter mile or so. It takes me along the north-south half-mile road (Detroit is laid out in mile squares bordered by mile roads such as 8 Mile) nearest my house. I live in an upper-middle class subdivision outside of Detroit that is populated largely by Big 3 middle managers and other professionals. I am usually passed by a cohort of Pacificas and Lexi, with a few Azteks (they gave them all to GM employees) thrown in. Volkswagens are rare – I think we own half the non-Touareg VWs in our ‘hood. I was not prepared for what happened next.
As a runner, you develop a pretty good sense of what you can’t see behind you as well as what you can see in front of you. You learn to anticipate being passed, and the effect the passing vehicle will have on you. You know how far to go to the side of the road, how far to lean over, and when to run like hell to escape the idiot about to run you over. It’s a defense mechanism.
Most cars have a particular signature to the car enthusiast/runner. You can grasp the general identity of what is about to run you off the road by listening carefully. The engine note, the rolling sounds of the tires, the creakiness of the unitbodies as the cars turn into corners, the air rushing under the front end. Something was coming up behind me, and I couldn’t place it. This one was different, with a sound that I hadn’t heard before; a quiet, solid presence – something large but almost invisible at the same time. As it swooshed – and I do mean swooshed – by me, I was quite shocked to see what it was.
Something about the engine note, maybe, or more realistically the complete lack of noise, told me it was definitely not something I had felt behind me before. It was quieter, more deeply stealthy, and not black. Much to my surprise, it was a silver Volkswagen Phaeton.
In shock, I almost stopped running. Not because I was passed by a Volkswagen, but due to the presence that I felt as it came up behind. I’ve seen the Phaeton. I sat in one at the NAIAS. It is an impressive car. I have seen a couple of them touring on I75 (the way to VWoA). But I hadn’t any idea of the impact it would have when moving close by. Quietly elegant, it was like watching a movie play out around me.
As I turned onto my street, it finally clicked: If I was old money, I would be driving a Phaeton now. In a weird sort of way, the very fact that it is a Volkswagen almost precludes the blingy, new money, in-your-face ideal that surrounds us now. The Phaeton shares the simple, elegant esthetic radiated by the 420SL I encountered at the Mercedes House. True to Volkswagen, it is clean and utilitarian, if in a fox-and-hounds sort of way. It is simply there.
I still wonder what VW was thinking when they elected to build the Phaeton. But I think I have a much clearer view of the proper market for it now. I hope that old money will recognize their new champion and come out to claim it. But without telling anyone about it, of course.
Video: Roll snapshots of varied VW owners wearing t-shirts that say “been there, done that” and their Volkswagens, starting with Beetles and Buses and working up to modern Passats…
Voiceover: Volkswagen owners are some of the most creative and driven people out there. Our owners around the world have taken their Volkswagens nearly everywhere there is to go, and done nearly everything there is to do with them. Eventually, however, there comes a time when you are ready for something new, for the next level, and the engineers at VW have built our new Phaeton just for that moment.
CG: owners walking off snapshots into frame with Phaeton
VO: technical details of Phaeton
CG: Owners dissolve and Phaeton rotates to frontal view
VO: When you’ve been there and done that, your next Volkswagen will be waiting for you. The Phaeton, from Volkswagen.
CG: Image of Phaeton dissolves to VW logo
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