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California and the West

Rare Roadster Hugs the Road, for Good

A dealer claims the $1.7-million car is a dud and wants his money back. Mercedes USA denies culpability.

June 15, 2006|Ronald D. White | Times Staff Writer

It was a sweet ride turned sour: a $1.7-million Mercedes-Benz roadster that died after cruising 10 blocks.

That works out to $170,000 a block -- perhaps the most expensive test drive on record.

On Wednesday, a high-end Los Angeles automobile dealer sued Mercedes-Benz and DaimlerChrysler, saying they sold him a silver, two-door lemon.

"It's the mother of all lemons," said Mark Johnston, co-owner of Grand Prix Motors. Nearby, in the small Mar Vista showroom, rested his handmade Mercedes AMG CLK-GTR roadster.

Designed to safely travel at nearly 200 miles per hour, the 12-cylinder, 612-horsepower beast was out for its first spin with a prospective buyer in 2004 when the oil light came on, the gears wouldn't shift properly and the car shuddered so violently that the windows came unglued, Johnston said.

Subsequent appeals to Mercedes-Benz and affiliate HWA produced a mechanic who examined the vehicle. He took oil samples and parts back to Germany, never to return, according to the complaint filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court, which claims breach of contract and negligence, among other things.

Next came a trip to a Mercedes repair facility in Florida, where technicians determined that a new engine was required; Mercedes and HWA wouldn't pay for it, the suit says.

Mercedes-Benz USA in Montvale, N.J., denied responsibility.

"The customer bought the vehicle directly from Germany. He imported it himself. It's not certified for sale here. It's a race car, period," Mercedes spokeswoman Donna Boland said. "We don't import it and we don't have the ability or the parts or the training to service it."

Despite its alleged misadventures, the car was buffed to perfection Wednesday as it starred in a news conference flanked by lemon trees, numerous examples of the sour fruit and an attorney from New York law firm Fulbright & Jaworski. Attendees sipped lemonade.

The roadster, with a ground hugging clearance so tight that it couldn't clear a pizza delivery box, was one of only six produced since 2002.

The vehicle's wide body sweeps back at a rakish angle and sits on low-profile tires wider than a child's 12-inch ruler. The driver must first remove the steering wheel to have enough room to climb inside.

The suit could face a tough fight. Even the lawsuit described the purchase agreement Johnston signed as a "nonintegrated and highly ambiguous written agreement" with HWA, which has collaborated on the building and design of several Mercedes race cars.

Johnston had hoped to sell the car for more than $2.5 million. Now, the 45-year-old car dealer wants a refund of the purchase price, plus $300,000 in related costs.

In addition to DaimlerChrysler and Mercedes-Benz USA, he is suing HWA and Mercedes-AMG.

"It's still a piece of art," Johnston said. "It's just a piece of art that doesn't run."

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