B-Klasse: Delivery turned into holiday

Brett Cornwell and Andrew Elphick collect a new car direct from the factory gates:

‘It started with a phone call from a friend: I’ve bought a new car – do you want to collect it with me? Oh and you’ll need your passport…’

Words and pictures: Andrew Elphick

Stuttgart to Essex on one tank… on Mercedes-Benz

MY FRIEND Brett had ordered a new Mercedes-Benz B-class from his local dealer – yes, someone out there is still putting their own money into new cars. Unusually, he decided that rather than picking it up from his local Mercedes-Benz dealer, he’d prefer to go to the factory to collect his new car – so, Brett ticked the seldom exercised ‘Personal collection’ box as his preferred method of delivery. Order a new Mercedes-Benz and you can collect from your nearest dealer or the factory that manufactured it, should it take your fancy. So why drive homeward 500 miles across Europe? Because you really should…

As with purchasing any manufacturer’s car, the exciting bits like choosing the colour, the trim, the extras you must have (and those you actually justify ordering) the part exchange bluffing contest and bartering, are carried out at desk opposite a be-suited sales person. The only difference is that within 28 days of your vehicle build date, you need to book your collection.

It’s quite straight forward: you pick a day, an airport, a suggested hotel and a return channel crossing date. In our case a Monday morning flight from Stansted airport to Karlsruhe-Baden in Germany, a Hotel in Baden-Baden that evening and a Eurotunnel crossing Tuesday evening. All this costs the same as a traditional dealership delivery. Drag a friend/wife/partner with you too and a small additional cost is added for accommodation and flights (in this case well under £200).

Certainly more interesting than going to your local dealer for your new car.

Surprise number one came in the Stansted departure lounge. Prestige vehicle manufacturer in Ryanair shocker! However, no matter whatever airline the delightful process of boarding an aircraft in the 21st century is still the same. However Ryanair did exactly what it said on the tin, efficiently and on time. Waiting for us at Karlsruhe-Baden was chauffeur Ahmed (in his spotless black E-class) to ferry us to our hotel. He didn’t say much, but his English far exceeded our schoolboy German. He dropped us at our hotel, the Merkur in Baden-Baden, and arranged to collect us the following morning. Our contact in the Personal collection department had recommended the hotel; a good choice and very smartly furnished.

Baden-Baden is a pleasant spa town, but with most of the day free we took the bus to the station (a few euros and every ten minutes) to head to Stuttgart. Fifteen euros lighter each and clasping a printed itinerary with train changes, platform numbers and a ticket we headed to Stuttgart. But not before we sampled the excellent station buffet – perfect for lunch. If you take the southern exit from Cathedral-like Stuttgart Haupt Bahnhof tourist information is just across the road, and very helpful – take the number 11 U-Bahn and travel to the end of the line (Daimler-Stadion is the stop) to find the Museum.

The plan had been to visit the Mercedes-Benz museum, however the tourist information receptionist had pointed out that most museums close on a Monday. However the Impressive showroom would be open, as would the beer festival next door… As you get off the U-Bahn you can see through the trees the rotating Mercedes star in the distance, atop the museum – about 5 minutes walk, past the stadiums. And yes it was closed. So we popped in the showroom, all three floors of it. Every model is on display, in multiple numbers; there are even two escalators and the Daimler bar! You could even buy a Youngtimer Mercedes-Benz models from the last 30 years fully refurbished in house. And the beer festival? Well you have to indulge an hour in the local customs don’t you…

Tuesday morning at 9.00, we were greeted by Ahmed for the trip to Rastatt, where the A- and B-Class production line is situated. As you approach, signs for Kundencenter appear – German for customer centre. Once dropped off you ascend through a tunnel of inspirational music (don’t ask) to the reception, where we were greeted by Ursula. Our luggage was discreetly portered away and the remaining paper work was completed. Our German export plates were procured along with our European five-day insurance cover note and build documents. Surprisingly the B-class remained the property of Mercedes-Benz until its return to England, and completion of a successful post delivery inspection. Apparently up to 200 new A- and B-Class models are handed over a day (to mainly German and French customers), with on average just one solitary English collection a week.

After a brief walk round the reception with its accessory store (which seemed more expensive than the English equivalent take note) we were shown the lounge and viewing platform. Here two rows of adjacent customer cars appeared through a workshop door and disappeared with smiling owners through another. Before we could get our hands on the keys we had the factory tour to undertake – though you don’t have too.

A brief video for the half a dozen of us in the auditorium psychologically prepared us for our bright new life of Mercedes-Benz ownership alongside the design and construction process. Next we joined our tour bus for brief drive round the edge of the factory (vital statistics: 5500 staff, up to a 1000 cars produced a day) before being dropped off at the A-class production line.

Once inside we were led up to an absolutely spotless walkway which crossed the entire assembly facility giving a bird’s eye view of production (bar the sheet metal and painting process). Completely unhurried we watched the freshly painted body shells gradually acquire more and more parts until they resembled an A-class. Our guide was quick to point out the home market preferred the sombre colours, Japan favoured white and the Brits ordered the most red cars! Several cutaway cars along the walkway let you have a closer look; a complete dash assembly was on show too – which surprisingly had the bulkhead, pedals and master cylinder attached to it. Looking down from the walkway, we watched as this complete assembly was bolted to the bare body shell in mere seconds. Further along, the marriage of bodyshell with drivetrain occurred.

At each step of vehicle assembly, unique bar-coded build sheets were checked by the line staff; these nondescript rows of lines indicated fuel, transmission, trim and accessory choices. Without realising we had perused the line for nearly an hour by the time we hopped back on the bus. It seemed to be one of those experiences that even if you had total indifference to the motoring world, it grabbed your attention.

Now off the bus and creeping towards midday, we strolled over to the customer lounge. Brett confirmed his collection and we paused for a quick coffee and a light lunch before we were summoned to the collection hall.

Original colour choice is not a personality trait associated with Mercedes-Benz owners.

A completely different set of cars we were now sat awaiting collection: some in unusual specifications to the UK market specification, but nearly all grey or silver. An extremely comprehensive handover broached the car’s features, impressively the assistant synchronised Brett’s mobile phone and iPod to the in-car entertainment. Nice touches like the remote windows and glazed roof opening demonstration and the recommendation to stick below 3000 revs were thoughtful – as was the brimmed tank of diesel.

And that was that – keys were swapped, a swift handshake (and keepsake photograph) and we drove off. Into the rain – Mercedes-Benz had even supplied our favourite British weather…

The plan was head homeward with a little deviation to Reims on the way. We connected up the sat-nav and input Gueux, the little town outside Reims that hosted motor racing up until 1970. But that was four hours away yet. Keeping an eye on the tachometer (3000 revs remember!) we cruised away along the faceless autoroute – yes it was boring, but in a new unfamiliar car we chickened out of the excitement of random trucks, tractors and Twingos on the routes nationales.

We were getting a feel for the car now – quiet and comfortable on the varying autoroute surfaces. However an annoying trait appeared upon hills. In sixth, speed tailed off as you encountered an incline (similar in effect to pulling away in fourth gear around town) necessitating a down shift. Bearing in mind the engine had negligible miles, and was still quite tight, this hopefully will disappear. Another idiosyncrasy of the B-Class is that while the speedometer is purely labelled in mph, a permanent digital km/h readout is on display between the dials – very useful on the Continent, but it might annoy you back on our side of the tarmac. In the damp wet weather however, the ventilation system behaved impeccably.

We arrived at the pleasantly decaying pits in Reims just over four hours and 245 miles later to sunshine bursting through the cloudy sky. If you’re passing through, the glorious remains are only a couple of miles off the autoroute and a great place to stretch your legs if you’re a petrolhead. Usefully this junction has a hypermarket (and petrol station too) ideal for grabbing a few bribes for your other half, and a snack.

Our sat-nav suggested we had 173 miles remaining until we met the channel tunnel. The night was drawing in and the automatic lighting switched itself on as I turned the key (how did we cope before I wondered?) by just after 9.00, we should be at the coast if we stayed out of traffic. And we were. Nothing remarkable happened, our fuel tank was still a quarter full and our pockets lightened to the tune of 51 euros for toll charges. Of course the curious customs officials waved us into their booth (So it belongs to Mercedes-Benz, it has German registration plates and its right hand drive sir?) where they admitted to have dealt with more than a few personal collections and only detained us a few minutes.

While we waited in the queue at Cocquelles for our shuttle I interrogated the trip computer. Seven hours twenty five minutes behind the wheel (including the handover). 418 miles in total at an average speed of 56mph. And the sixty four thousand dollar question? Average miles per gallon of 45.7.

The computer tells the story in digits…

Not as good as the official figures sure – but considering we encountered hills, rough weather and a fair few minutes idling at toll booths (all on a fresh engine not a laboratory rolling road) a pretty fair figure. With a few thousand miles under its belt, 50mpg should be the norm.

We caught a quick 40 winks before the PA announcement informed us we were on home soil, just 80 miles to home. As easily as we boarded the shuttle we left it, and headed home along the M20. Ten and a half hours, just under 500 miles, and on one tank of diesel we were home. The B-class had bedded itself in nicely and definitely had a livelier edge than earlier in the day, even if the poor thing was filthy now. We were a little tired, but far from exhausted – if you were travelling further across the UK. I would recommend staying maybe in Arras for the night before crossing the channel.

So was it worth it? Well factor in you need two or three spare days, a lift to the airport, maybe a little extra diesel and of course some spare euros for coffee and nibbles (though a meal is provided at your hotel) I would still say yes. To chose a car and collect it from the production line is an experience only supercar manufacturers normally offer.

It’s an adventure – maybe even a holiday if you stop off along the way. Two points of note however: One, floor mats; get your order to stipulate they are supplied at the factory, not when you return home – you don’t want wet feet on your new carpet now. Secondly, reflective vests; these are not supplied but a legal requirement for every occupant of the car in France, just worth noting if you cross an over-zealous Gendarme.

Of course you could just pop down to your local franchise in your pipe and slippers…

Keith Adams

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