27 July 2016

Party Favour

The day the silver 1960 Mercedes-Benz 300SL rolled up to

24 Sussex Drive, a Victorian mansion traditionally used as the home of Canada's Prime Minister, Canada found herself suddenly hip. She has always been a cold country, her northern wastes vast and snowy, but now she was cool as well. It was 1968, and the stuffy vestiges of colonial Britain were about to be blown out the door, the curtains flung aside and the light of the 20th century let in through open windows.

The slim little silver car with the big-hearted straight-six carried little in the way of luggage but featured big aspirations. In its driver’s seat sat a trim little man with a face like a ferret and dancing eyes. While no mention is made of what Pierre Elliot Trudeau wore that first day on the job, you just know it was fashionable. The man had style, he had wit and he drove one of the most elegant cars ever made.

Several decades later, Pierre's eldest son, Justin, stands at a podium. When asked why the newly elected Prime Minister’s cabinet is an equal mix of men and women, his quip comes back, “Because it’s 2015.”

It's the kind of thing his father might have said, a quote fired off with a little heat on it. But Trudeau junior is not like his father. Ask him and he'll tell you that he's not the same man, doesn't quite have the razor wit, voracious appetite for the fairer sex, nor a rose in his buttonhole. He does, however, have a certain amount of style. They are father and son, alike but different, and they've got at least two things in common: politics and a very special Mercedes-Benz 300SL.

The 300SL coupe is perhaps the most beautiful car to ever come out of Germany. Certainly it was one of the world's great road-going supercars, a machine capable of racetrack speed but made for the street. Midwifed along by importer Max Hoffman, the 300SL was presented at the 1954 New York Auto Show to instant acclaim. The three-liter straight-six gave the car excellent performance when it was whipped up past 4,000 rpm, at which point it bellowed like a Wagnerian Valkyrie and leapt forward like a startled gazelle. Mechanical fuel injection provided by Bosch helped raise output to 215 horsepower — excellent for the time and respectable even now.

While the coupe is the performance favorite, the roadster is both the more forgiving car and the more elemental. Added in 1957, the roadster is softer, with a single-pivot trailing arm rather than the coupe’s dual pivot system. It is thus a more neutral-handling car and less prone to oversteer.

It is, however, still perfectly capable of going like hell and making life miserable for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) security detail trying to keep up. Pierre entered into the office of Prime Minister as a committed bachelor with a youth spent roaming the outdoors. He came from money — it's how he was able to afford a car that cost significantly more than a contemporary Jaguar — and had lost his father at an early age. No slave to most vices, Trudeau smoked and drank little, but he loved his freedom, and the fussy velvet ropes of polite Ottawa society were soon brushed aside.

He also enjoyed the mechanics of his car. When it needed servicing, he'd ring up Joseph Beric, who owned a nearby shop called Motor Medics. When the call would come in, Beric would close his shop early for privacy before Trudeau drove over.

“He would come in with the car, followed by his chauffeur in another car and his bodyguards. The bodyguards would hang around, but Mr. Trudeau would take off his jacket and work with me.”

“Trudeaumania,” as pundits called the national phenomenon that swept Pierre into power in the late 1960s, would soon fade. Running the country was a serious business, particularly in a time of national crisis. Relations with the United States were occasionally tense. The French-speaking province of Quebec was restless for independence. The energy crisis loomed, and ordinary Canadians worried about their jobs.

While Trudeau wrestled with these problems, pleasing few and angering many, he always had his escapes to the wilderness, and into the arms of any number of beguiling women. He dated movie stars and singers, including Barbara Streisand and Margot Kidder, gallivanting about town in his svelte German drop top with a beauty many years his junior in the passenger's seat. He could be coldly indifferent at times, but to women he was nearly always charming and charismatic, with twinkling eyes and a sparkling wit.

Eventually, he met and married Margaret Joan Sinclair. At the time, Trudeau was in his early 50s and she was just 22. The eldest of their three sons, Justin, was born on Christmas Day 1971. He arrived nine months after the wedding, and jokesters took to calling the little boy “Justin Time.”

There are family photos of Pierre with his three boys in the 300SL. It's the type of thing you couldn't do with today's safety standards, the three lads crammed into the passenger seat as the sun shines down. Pierre is smiling, perhaps at some private joke shared with his sons. Justin and his younger brothers Sacha and Michel laugh and jostle for position. It's a perfect moment.

It wouldn't last. Pierre and Margaret would separate in 1977 and divorce in 1984, the same year Pierre's political career came to an end. And family tragedy would strike in 1998, when youngest brother Michel was caught in an avalanche while skiing in BC's backcountry. His body was never found.

Pierre Trudeau wasn’t the same after Michel’s death, and he died on September 28, 2000, lying in state on Parliament Hill shortly after while mourners trooped past.

His 300SL remained. A few years after he died, a cousin of the Trudeaus approached Rudi Koniczek in Victoria. An experienced 300SL restorer, Koniczek has pieced together more than a hundred of these beautiful machines.

Koniczeck agreed to take on the restoration project. “It was an honor,” he says. In ordinary circumstances, it takes a year or more to complete a full restoration of a car, and Pierre’s 300SL was well used and somewhat tired.

Both Sacha and Justin visited to check on the work, and one day Rudi found himself sitting in the evening with the young man who would soon follow in his father's footsteps. “I'm getting married soon,” Justin said, “and I'd love my dad's car to be at my wedding.” When was the wedding? In six months’ time.

Rudi's response is unprintable.

And yet, somehow it happened. The crew at Rudi & Company worked around the clock. They carefully photographed and catalogued the disassembly of the car, preserving as much as they could. “There was an energy around that car,” Rudi says. “We all felt it.”

Justin Trudeau married Sophie Grégoire on May 29, 2005. They now have three children of their own, though it seems unlikely that they'll move into the house where Justin grew up at 24 Sussex Drive.

On the day they were married, Rudi Koniczek found a note on his seat at the reception. It read: “Thank you for making it possible for my father to come to my wedding.” Pierre's 300SL took the newlyweds away from the church and to the reception.

It is now a glittering jewel, brought back to a level of perfection it might have once seen when new. The pace of Justin’s political life means it rarely gets driven, however, and the days of making the RCMP sweat to keep up are long over.

But if this car was once a father's escape, it is now a son's connection to his father. Justin can sit where his father once did, hear the echoes of long-ago laughter, smell the leather and remember the rose in the lapel.

The press makes much of the value of this inherited 300SL. The dollar value is staggering, they say, evidence of a privileged life, of a silver spoon upbringing.

That's missing the point. This glittering silver roadster is the embodiment of a man who loomed large in the lives of all Canadians. To his son, the wheel and gearshift are like Pierre's handshake. That straight-six is like the sound of his voice. It is a small car, but this 300SL carries the heart and soul of a great man, for his country, for his people, for his sons.

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