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Classic Velocity Blog

Chasing Claude

Classic Velocity

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250SL Engine BayMy friend Ron just bought a Mercedes 380SL, and it brought back memories of the SL that I had owned some years ago, a 1964 230SL. This is yet another vehicle that I should never have sold, but if I had a dime for every vehicle that I should not have sold, I'd have...oh...say... 50 cents by now. The SL provided for several distinguishing characteristics and experiences. For instance, it has what I consider to be the largest and most complex fuel injection pump known to man. When restored, the combination of aluminum and brass make the pump a beautiful piece of craftsmanship under the hood, but I think it is larger than the entire motor in the Fiat 500. The SL was also responsible for the only time that I have used a roadside assistance plan (versus the honey come get me plan). It left me stranded a mere 5 miles from home, and in a relatively unsafe spot around a blind corner. There was no pushing this car because it is very heavy, and besides we were facing uphill. I got it home safely, and got it fixed, but that concentric circle test ended in failure. However, the really distinguishing experience was the sale of the car.

I advertised the car, and there was a flurry of tire kickers and lowballers. Then one evening, I get a call from a guy with a heavy french accent who sounds like he is on a speaker phone. He tells me that he is actually calling from France. I suspect a buddy is pulling a prank. He asks me two questions:

“Doez ze motor and ze chassis numberz goez togezzer?” He asked. “Yes they do” I replied.

“Iz ze kilometers on ze car correct?”. “I do not know for certain, but the condition of the car seems consistent with the miles or kilometers as you say.” I braced for the next question, still suspecting a prank.

“You will get a call from George (he pronounced it Jorje) by tomorrow. Iz zis ok?”. “Sure” I said almost laughing now.

Thirty minutes later, I get another call.

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“Hello, this is George. You spoke to Claude earlier today, and he asked me to give you a call about the 230SL.” He was all business, but I was still not falling for it. “How can I help you....Jorje” I said with my best Inspector Clouseau voice.

George ignored this and had two questions of his own:

“Is this an upright spare car?”. “Yes” I was less certain of the prank, but cautious.

“Are both tops in good condition?”. “Yes, the soft top is practically new”.

“We will pay your asking price if it is as advertised, and I will Fedex you a deposit and be there Friday to look at it. Is that ok?” This was now too good of a prank for those I suspected. “Ok” I said. I was expecting to hear next that the check was for more than the asking price, and that I just needed to give back the difference, but there was nothing. “See you Friday”. Said George.

The envelope arrived Fedex as promised with a bank check for $1000 drawn ironically on my own bank, which I deposited. I waited a few days and then checked again, but it was cleared. I asked the bank if there was any possibility that this could be reversed, and they assured me that it was good. On Thursday George called to confirm receipt and to confirm Friday. I told him so far so good. On Friday, George arrived in a roll-off with a 1970s Corvette on the bed. He walked around the car a few times, checked the vin numbers and then walked off to the side to make a phone call. When he returned, he handed me the phone. “It's Claude”.

“Hallo again, I would like to wire you ze fundz, and it will take about 3 dayz or a week to clear from France. When it iz clear for you, zen I will have Jorje to pickup ze car. Iz zis ok?”. Now this was just plain strange, and I was not at all comfortable, but there was really no risk to me. I decided to let things progress and seek counsel. “Ok”, do you have any other questions about the car?” I said. “Jorje will speak wiz you. Merci thank you very much.”. I gave the phone back to George who listened for 3 seconds and then said “Ok” and flipped the phone closed. “We are all set, just give me a call when things are cleared and I'll arrange a time for pickup.” Then he must have sensed my unease. “Don't worry, this is perfectly legit. You have a deposit, and the car, and the title. You don't call me until you are sure the funds are good and in your pocket. I gotta run and be in Baltimore before 6pm”.

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Be very afraid.I used a dormant account at another bank for the transaction. The funds arrived as agreed, and I spoke with someone in banking that I knew to find out if this was the latest version of the Nigerian bank scams. He could see nothing wrong, and advised that I wait 10 days. I heard nothing from Claude or George. On day 12 Claude called. He apologized for not calling to confirm receipt of the wire, and asked if everything was ok. I said yes, and he asked if I needed more time to be sure. Now I'm a fan of Clint Eastwood's spaghetti westerns. There are several classic scenes when Clint is surrounded by bandits with their hands on their guns, and he is standing in a poncho. Despite being in their own town, having him outnumbered 10 to 1, with even more guys on rooftops, and Clint not even having clear access to his gun, the bandits are nervous and scared. I was the bandits.....but I had no reason to delay things. “No, you can let George know I'm ready”. 30 minutes later George calls and arranges to come 4 days later on the weekend. I withdraw the funds and deposit cash in my regular account.

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The next day I call George and finally ask him how he knows Claude and whether he has done business like this before. He reveals that Claude is a very wealthy guy in France who likes cars, and is specifically interested in old Mercedes and Corvettes. George is an independent guy, but he is effectively in the full time employ of Claude driving around the US to look at or locate cars and bring them to Baltimore where they get put in a container. Once the container is full, it goes off to France and a new container is started. He says that my car won't be leaving for a few months, so they are in no hurry. They have a few more cars to pickup after mine, but the container is not full yet. He says that he met Claude once when he was over on business and needed a car picked up. He just got a call from the yellow pages and has been doing this now for about a year. Year round, all over the US, he chases Claude's cars. He jokes that he has become quite the expert on classic Mercedes and early Corvettes. He said that like mine, the cars are not usually pristine, just original, and that the Mercedes in particular are relatively rare in Europe since most of them came here. We continued to talk, and while he never talked about it, I get the sense that George is compensated well for his services.

On pickup day, George and I talk more. He has personally bought a car or two that did not meet Claude's criteria, and has picked up a car for a friend of Claude who referred him. It is clear that he has a fantastic gig and as he drives off with the car on the Roll-off I think to myself, I need to find my Claude.