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|A Conversation with Peter Fonda|
|Written by Martin Buckley|
|Thursday, 25 September 2008 08:41|
Peter talks about his life-long love affair with big-block Mercedes-Benz sedans.
I was offered a Mercedes 600 for two grand the other day. Sadly it was not the imposing air-suspended original but the bloated V12 car from the early 90s. In time perhaps this brutal car will enjoy some kudos but I'm not there yet on that one. I love my lemons, my barges, my lost causes, but even by my standards it just seemed a redundant, out-of-fashion dinosaur although I might have enjoyed telling people--for a couple of weeks anyway--that it cost its first owner £100,000 new.
Quite how the original 600 transcended that dinosaur period I'm not quite sure but somehow it never seemed remotely frivolous or throw away; dignity, technology and a sense of occasion were at the heart of what the car was about, what it is still about. Even if you saw a 600 today you'd be looking for the motorcycle out riders and the flags on the wings.
It seems inconceivable that some people simply used the "normal" version as transport, not so much your despots and heads of state but merely very-well-off tycoons and many actors, mainly American ones. William Holden actually drove his for fun on rallies, not rallies as in Nuremberg (although the car would have felt at home, no question) but in actual competitions.
Another new name I discovered recently as a former 600 owner was Peter Fonda. I was interviewing him for my Facel Vega book--he owned a HK500 for a while--but he revealed himself as a committed fan of the M100-engined Benz who is also addicted to road trips. When he wants to drive from his ranch in Montana to L.A the 66 year-old will not be climbing apologetically behind the wheel of a Prius but slipping into the leather-clad embrace of the trusty and much-loved Mercedes Benz 450SEL 6.9 he bought new in 1978.
Growing up in the forties and fifties Fonda became enamoured with Grand Prix racing and got to meet his hero Fangio. Ever the professional I read his memoir Don't Tell Dad after the interview and found it to be punctuated with tales of epic drives across America, crashing Ferraris with Roger Vadim (the French director who married his sister, Jane).
This was followed by hallucinating on LSD behind the wheel of his Buick Riviera in Beverley Hills--and that before you get anywhere near the Easy Rider anecdotes. He told me his first car was a VW beetle which he swapped for an MG TC ('the electrics on that car were fucked…') and how, after a win at the tables in Monte Carlo at the age of 17 he bought an Aurelia Spider. "That was a beautiful little car. I shipped it over to America, drove it around for a while and then sold it to a guy who was a total Aurelia freak. He made me an offer and it was too cool. Also I never wanted to explain how I got the Aurelia. I didn't want to explain to my father that I'd been gambling!"
He rues the day he swapped his second-hand 300SL for a Riviera in the mid-sixties but the purchase of a 600 helped him get over it. "The 600 was one of the greatest cars ever built' he says 'It was just fabulous…but you didn't want to have your arm out of the window when you put it up, it was instant: you could drag a cop for 500 yards if he got his hand caught…"
He liked his 300SEL 6.3 even better. He collected it in Stuttgart in 1971 while on a promotional tour for his new film The Hired Hand, accompanied by his co-star and buddy Warren Oates. The scene was set for adventure as the pair blasted across Europe in a cloud of marijuana smoke. In Zurich, while Fonda was embracing one of his many European conquests in a passionate farewell, Oates, keen to hit the road, reversed the 6.3 over his friend. Fonda and his squeeze only escaped when Oates raised the air suspension four inches.
Fonda lost the 6.3 in the divorce from his first wife (although it is now back in the family, his daughter Bridget having bought it from her mother) so he replaced it with the 6.9. "I bought the 6.9 because I knew it was the last year they were going to build the hot one, 1977-79. I bought one that was built in March 12th of 1978. It's magnetite blue. Incredible paint! It was so deep when you looked down the side it was almost purple. I still have it today and its still great paint." Comparing the 6.9 with the earlier car Fonda says. "The 6.3 was faster coming out of the gate because it was a lighter car and wasn't as big a car but the 6.9 is more comfortable for cruising."
One thing he does miss is the dual tone horns of the 6.3. "So I might do a bargain with my daughter who never knew that there was a different 'country' horn on the 6.3. If you're not going to use it let me have it! It gives it a big noise--PHAARP!--out on the highway rather than this 'peep'."
Fonda has done a fair bit of work on the 6.9 himself.
"I took all the re-breathing shit off it so it's back to the 'autobahn package' as I call it. It's a 28-year-old car with 112,000 miles on it and it still runs like a top. I just remanufactured the hydraulic hoses from tractor ones which will take a lot more pressure than the Mercedes ones did. At the moment I'm replacing the heater servo and the air conditioning servo motor because I found an aftermarket one on-line that is just so much better."
Tracking him down via emails for this interview he mapped out a punishing motoring schedule; Montana to L.A then L.A (where he has an office) to Austin Texas, then Canada to shoot some scenes for a new film; from there packing up a house in Arizona, back to L.A and then a return to base in Montana, then back and fourth to L.A a few more times.
Much of that mileage will be consumed by the 28-year-old Mercedes. I asked if there were enough gas stations between Los Angeles and Montana to keep the notoriously thirsty 6.9 fed?
"If I don't do 100+ I get 14 MPG on the highway…if I do what the car was meant to do all day long without ever overheating I watch the gas gauge and the speedo climb in a conspicuous decadent synch…"