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RUMBLE SEAT DAN NEIL

Limo ready for takeoff

L.A. to San Francisco may take longer aboard Benz's Maybach 62 than by air, but when you're surrounded by such luxury, time flies.

November 26, 2003|DAN NEIL

It's the beginning of the Thanksgiving holiday. For those about to fly, I salute you.

I've logged about 2 million air miles in my career, bathed in the cabin-borne aromatics and aerosols of my fellow travelers. Not unlike Prufrock have I measured out my life with plastic coffee spoons, waiting for the pretzels to arrive.

Flying was miserable before 9/11. Now the entire flying public has to be frisked to ensure they aren't carrying anything more threatening than sharply worded memos.

If Angelenos absolutely, positively have to be in New York or Tokyo, well, flying is their lot. But what if they have to be in Las Vegas, San Francisco or Phoenix? Destinations within a 400-mile perimeter constitute a kind of zone of exasperation, in which it might actually be faster to drive than to fly. For example, from the downtown offices of the Los Angeles Times, it can take an hour to get to LAX. Another hour to check in and get to the plane. Plus, an hour-and-a-quarter gate to gate. And -- in this example, which you will see is not so theoretical -- another hour from SFO to the Fairmont Hotel in downtown San Francisco. Or 4 hours and 15 minutes of scrambling, bag-lugging misery in the company of icky and odiferous strangers. Present company excepted, of course.

Enter the Maybach 62, DaimlerChrysler's $358,000 super-limousine.

This car, 20 feet long, 3 tons, 550 turbocharged horsepower, is designed for high-speed, low-altitude, intra-nodal transit. It is essentially a four-wheeled corporate jet.

To appreciate how the Maybach compares with air travel, I arranged for the car to transport me and a passenger -- my sweetheart, Tina Larsen, in the role of the inappropriately affectionate secretary -- from the Times offices to San Francisco's Fairmont Hotel. Starting time: 9:15 a.m. on a recent Monday. Our chauffeur was Geno Effler, a DaimlerChrysler executive based in Costa Mesa. For our experiment, Effler consented to be called "James" -- as in, "Home, James," or, "Damn you, James, we're out of Cristal!"

9:15 a.m. Like most car geeks, I always drive -- if I could take over for cab drivers I would. So it takes awhile for me to settle into the passivity of being chauffeured.

And yet as Effler expertly fillets slower traffic on the I-5 with the mighty Maybach, and I watch idly from behind the enormous, acoustically silenced, infrared-shielded side windows, a silly happiness overtakes me: This is fun. Don't spare the horses!

First, Tina and I play with the gadgets. We deploy the folding tables, fiddle with the 600-watt stereo system with its cordless Bose headphones, run through the TV channels, watching on the seatback-mounted LCD screens. As usual, Tina is better at figuring out the complexities of the remote control.

One of the most fascinating devices onboard is the panoramic roof that switches from transparent to a kind of milky opaque at the touch of a button. Also, the panoramic roof has a kind of inner eyelid that, once closed, glows with electro-luminescent ambient light.

But I am disappointed. The car's sterling silver champagne flutes engraved with the "MM" (Maybach Motoren) are missing. It crosses my mind to have Effler flogged.

Tina asks me what "Maybach" means. The name belongs to Wilhelm Maybach and his son Karl. The former was the partner of Gottlieb Daimler, with whom he essentially invented the modern automobile in the form of the famous Jellinek Mercedes, circa 1900. Karl built high-output engines for the Graf Zeppelin airship company, which was a splendid business until the end of World War I, when the Treaty of Versailles banned Germany from the aviation business.

In response, Karl, with his father advising, threw his efforts into autos. The Maybach company became the Rolls-Royce of Germany, famed for its precision, unsurpassed quality and technical achievement. Based on the shores of beautiful Lake Constance, the firm also built high-output diesel engines for trains and tracked vehicles and was a key supplier to the Nazi war machine.

After the war, Maybach Motoren staggered on, building heavy-duty engines for international customers. In 1960, Daimler-Benz acquired a majority stake in Maybach Motoren. In 1969, the firm's name was changed to MTU (Motoren und Turbinen-Union). MTU continues to build world-class power plants for industrial and nautical applications. Meanwhile, Daimler-Benz put the Maybach name in its vest pocket.

In the late 1990s when the DaimlerChrysler board decided to build a super-luxury saloon car, it resurrected the name. According to the company, a small percentage of elite Mercedes customers wanted something more exclusive than the three-pointed star, found on everything from industrial trucks to European minicars. Few marques could be more exclusive than Maybach. Or obscure.

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