It was built in Brazil, and sold new in Mexico. It was imported to the United States by the husband of a diplomat. When his wife left her consulate job, he had to let it go – along with a few bags of spare parts, a California title, and a strongly worded legal document stating that the buyer assumes all risk for getting it registered.
And that's the story of how Jalopnik reader Aaron Moreau-Cook found himself heading home from Los Angeles on the 101 freeway in a 2001 Mercedes A160, unsure of whether he would ever be able to legally drive it on public roads.
Or at least, that's the short version.
The long version begins with the US Code of Federal Regulations, Title 49, Section 591.5, which states, and I am paraphrasing here: No vehicle under the age of 25 shall be imported to the United States, or else the importer will face death at the hands of large, angry grizzly bears. However, any vehicle over the age of 25 can be imported, regardless of whether it has airbags, seat belts, headlights, or tactical nuclear weapons mounted on the front that could wipe out an entire metropolitan area.
Most car enthusiasts know this code as the "25 year rule," which prohibits many cool cars from entering the US until they're so old that we've practically forgotten about them. But it makes an exception for diplomats, and that's how this A160 first made its way to the US: an embassy employee's car enthusiast husband, whose other vehicles included a Ferrari 348 and a Land Rover Defender, shipped it from Mexico to LA and drove it around for years on diplomatic plates. But when his wife left her job, the plates left the car – and that meant he had no way to legally keep it. To eBay it went.
And that's where Aaron, a San Francisco Bay Area resident, discovered the A-Class in all its wedge-shaped glory: a front-wheel drive, compact Mercedes; one of over a million built from 1997 to 2004; a car that wouldn't turn a head in Europe, or Asia, or Latin America. But here it was on American eBay, located right here in California! He knew he wouldn't have another chance.
Stemming from what he calls an "unhealthy obsession" with the A-Class dating back to time he spent in London during the early 2000s, Aaron decided he had to have it. After settling on an $8,000 budget, he submitted a bid. Then another. Then another. When the auction ended, the final price was just over $9,000 – and Aaron wasn't the winning bidder.
But the winning bidder backed out, probably due to concerns about registration. So the seller contacted Aaron, and the two worked out a deal for $8,950. In other words: Aaron was paying nearly $1,000 more than his budget for a grey market used car he had never seen before. It came with no plates. There was no certain way of getting it registered. And no US mechanic had ever been trained to work on it.
He flew to LA and did the deal anyway.
If you're like me, you're probably especially curious about what happened next. After all, the federal government clearly prohibits importing cars under 25 years old unless a substantially similar vehicle was sold in the US – and there was no substantially similar vehicle to the A-Class. It has a unique shape compared to other US Mercedes models. It also has a unique engine, a unique interior, and a unique clutchless manual transmission. Nothing about the A-Class is substantially similar to any US-bound Mercedes, right down to the alloy wheels.
This point was made especially clear when the seller asked Aaron to sign a document written by the seller's attorney stating, in Aaron's words, "It's a grey market car, good luck getting it licensed, no returns, have a nice day." In other words: the car was being sold as-is, buyer beware, and the seller probably wouldn't be answering the phone if Aaron's name came up on the caller ID.
Aaron then began the five-hour drive home from LA to the Bay Area... in a strange-looking foreign car with no license plate and a now-defunct diplomatic registration. His only proof of ownership was a California title issued with the diplomatic plates and that legal document from the attorney saying that he was driving an unregistered grey market used car.
If he got pulled over, he probably wouldn't be showing that to the cops.
But he didn't get pulled over. The drive went flawlessly, and Aaron noted that "it was a great drive to spend with the car." He also told me that he was surprised at how well the unusual clutchless manual transmission behaved. More importantly, the car ran perfectly: the previous owner had babied it, completing every service on time, and the 11-year-old car had just 73,000 miles on the odometer. He made it back to San Francisco without an issue.
The next step was getting some plates. Registering in California was out of the question, largely because California has its own import laws that are – surprise, surprise – stricter than federal regulations. Fortunately, Aaron's parents live in Washington, one of the many states that shares a border with Canada. He decided to try his luck at registering the A160 there, reasoning that Washington probably deals with ex-Canadians bringing over imported cars all the time – and that meant they might not be so strict about registering the A-Class.
So, just a few days after driving from LA to San Francisco, he embarked on a second long trip: a pilgrimage to the Washington Department of Licensing.
But before he could drive to Washington, Aaron had to secure insurance – a process that he says was surprisingly easy. "I called Allstate, who I've had insurance with my entire adult life," Aaron told me. "They insured the car with a stated-value policy." Aaron said they didn't given him any trouble with the foreign VIN, and that insurance rates are about the same as his new Jeep Wrangler.
The uneventful drive to Washington took place overnight, and ended with Aaron – and the A160 – arriving the next morning at a privately-run Department of Licensing office in the Seattle area. Armed with his insurance documents, the California title, his Washington driver's license and a checkbook, Aaron walked into the office.
He emerged a few minutes later without plates.
Fortunately, it was just a small snag: before Washington would register the A-Class, they asked Aaron for a written estimate on the vehicle's value. So he drove to a local Mercedes dealership, which incited a reaction that would later repeat itself anytime he found himself near Mercedes aficionados: amazement. The entire sales staff – people who spend all day selling six-figure luxury cars – was astounded by an 11-year-old used car with a 100-horsepower 4-cylinder engine.
More importantly, the Mercedes dealer gave him the written estimate of value he needed – but only after telling him that they, personally, would never buy the car from him ("too much unknown," said the sales manager). Fifteen minutes later, Aaron was back at the Department of Licensing — and this time, he walked away with a shiny new pair of Washington license plates to put on his now-legally registered 2001 Mercedes-Benz A160.
But there's more to the story than how Aaron Moreau-Cook registered his A-Class. He also told me two other interesting stories about owning one of the most unique cars on the road in the United States. One relates to the process of servicing a grey market Mercedes here in America. And the other is about the time he got pulled over.
When it comes to servicing, Aaron tells me, nothing is easy. "Scheduling oil changes at the Mercedes dealership requires 30 to 45 days of lead time because Mercedes has a convoluted process to order special parts from out of the country," he says.
And what exactly is that process? Aaron explains in detail what happened when he went in for his "A" service:
I visited the local dealership and worked with the parts manager to get all the right parts ordered in for a Mercedes "A Service". He told me he didn't know how long it would take to get the parts in, he could not order via the computer system. He had to fax paperwork to Mercedes USA HQ in New Jersey where some person there had to manually approve the parts to be ordered via the computer system. This process took nearly a month to complete after which the dealer was able to order parts directly from the computer system, with one exception. Mercedes USA would not allow them to order new windshield wipers without a clear reason; we both assume it was because Mercedes A160 wipers were not DOT approved and they were concerned about liability.
The parts arrived a week after they were ordered, all sent overnight from Germany. I dropped the A160 off one morning and was given a 2013 C250 coupe loaner (awesome car). The service advisor told me that they were not sure how long they would need and in the end they took almost 1 1/2 days to complete the service. When I picked up the A160 they had completed the service except they didn't know how to install the air filter. They asked me if I wanted to keep the air filter or not and I opted to keep it.
That night I opened the A-Class Manual by J H Haynes I had bought on eBay months before and installed the filter myself. It was straight forward but you had to remove a considerable number of screws that seemed un-related.
One thing that they observed during the maintenance was that the timing belt was looking worn. They clearly didn't have a new belt in stock, so I opted for them to order a new one.
A few weeks later the new timing belt arrived and I dropped the A160 off for them to complete the work (and pick up another 2013 C250 loaner). The service advisor and I had talked about the air filter debacle and he asked that I bring the A-Class Manual by J H Haynes "in case" they need it for reference. The night before I read the section on replacing the timing belt, realized it was a complicated process (remove drivers-side wheel), so I bookmarked the page and handed it to my service advisor with a smile. He told me they used the guide as it was different then the documentation they had access to; which was incorrect.
So servicing can be a pain – but it's doable if you have a receptive dealership, a penchant for turning a wrench on your own, and, apparently, a Haynes manual. But what about the time Aaron got pulled over?
Headed home from work one night, he was caught by a California Highway Patrol officer doing 80-plus miles per hour in a 70 zone. Although he didn't mention it to me, Aaron must've been pretty scared: this would be the judgement day! If the officer believed the car was illegal, he could tow it – and it might never come back. But if he let it go, other officers probably wouldn't give it any more or less scrutiny, should a future traffic stop arise.
According to Aaron, the officer approached the A160 and immediately began asking questions. What is it? What kind of Mercedes? Where's it from? But the questions seemed to be more for the officer's personal interest than law enforcement purposes. Eventually, he walked back to the patrol car. After a while, he returned with a speeding ticket in hand – and a suggestion that Aaron should slow down in the future. He hasn't been pulled over since.
Aaron Moreau-Cook isn't sure how many other A-Classes are in the States, but he thinks it's probably only a few. He tells me people often notice it and point, or stare, or approach him at gas stations. He admits he will someday have trouble selling it, pointing me to an A-Class in Ohio that's been on eBay for the last few months, with no takers. He runs a blog documenting life with the car, though an extended road trip has recently pulled him away from it for a few months.
But I can tell that Aaron is eager to get back to his car. It may only have 100 horsepower. It may be a boring economy car in nearly any other country on earth. It may take six weeks to get an oil change. But it's still one of the most unique cars on the road. More importantly, in spite of Title 49 and that carefully worded letter from the seller's attorney, it's his unique car. And he has the title and registration to prove it.
@DougDeMuro is the author of Plays With Cars. He owned an E63 AMG wagon and once tried to evade police at the Tail of the Dragon using a pontoon boat. (It didn't work.) He worked as a manager for Porsche Cars North America before quitting to become a writer, largely because it meant he no longer had to wear pants. Also, he wrote this entire bio himself in the third person.