Ethan had two rare Benzes—and a little problem with the police

I’m Ethan. Nice to meet you. I sold drugs and did various other crimes as a young adult, but I let it go so I could sell cars to North Carolina’s finest criminals. That S550 on Forgiatos in front of a housing project? I sold it. Your weed man just pulled up in a $60,000 QX80? Money in my pocket. That 7-Series blowing out blue smoke near a luxury shopping mall? It was me. This is a deep game—and the game is sold, not told.

Episode 4: A Tale Of Two Benzes

“This is the best deal we’re gonna see all year!” Gerald, our ever-so-slightly crooked partner at Best Coast Motorsports, was more than a little excited.

You see, he and his buddy Christos had found a 2009 Mercedes-Benz SL550 Silver Arrow Edition in Ohio. It had 70K miles, was a bit rough inside, and had worn motor mounts. But it was rare (one of 550), and fully equipped for a steal at the time ($16K). Not that the dealership had sixteen grand in cash—but Gerald got Christos to be a silent partner in the deal. A cheap Silver Arrow and a silent partner without murderous intent? This was too good to be true. In fact, when Gerald told me about it I asked about the Carfax and title repeatedly, just waiting for the bad news that in this case never came.

That’s how we got the first one of our Silver Arrows. Now for the second. From time to time we would take on consignments of different sorts, from Maseratis to salvage-titled Infinitis, mostly for Gerald’s friends. One night about a week after we bought the first Benz Gerald asked me to take a ride with him to Ballentyne, an affluent suburban area of Charlotte to take him to pick another car. When we arrived at the home, the garage door was wide open and there it sat: yet another bright silver SL550 Silver Arrow Edition. “We gotta consign this one,” he told me. “There’s still a note on it, with Mercedes-Benz Financial Services.”

So now we have two of these cars. One we have the title to and is probably the cheapest purchased one in the world, and another that we didn’t own and weren’t carrying the floorplan financing for. This is how you make money in our business. Get cars cheap, or get inventory free. It was a fine arrangement—until Gerald found a way to mess it up like everything else he did at Best Coast Motorsports.

About a week after we took in the consignment SL, I managed to sell it to a nice couple from Atlanta. It was easy enough. They sent over their high-800-beacon credit information to me, and I quickly got the deal approved. They drove up in their paid-for 2009 BMW 750i (I drove this car for quite a while) and after an hour and a half they were leaving in the Benz. Hell, they even bought a warranty and some GAP insurance. Customers like that are rarer than SL550 Silver Arrows… at least they are on our side of the street.

Now here’s where it gets tricky, so follow along. Our recourse arrangement with some of our “prime” banks stated that we had to get the customer’s new car registered before we would get paid. They did that to prevent a variety of highly profitable, and highly illegal, types of creative financing on the part of dealers. Remember Fargo, where Jerry was fudging the numbers so he could sell cars without paying off the bank that held his floorplan financing? Stuff like that happens all the time, and the banks have learned a lot of ways to stop it.

Most of the time it’s no trouble to do things the right way. We give the customer a title, we register the car, we get our money from the customer’s bank, and we pay off our bank. Simple as that.

In this case, however, we couldn’t register the car in the new owner’s name until we paid off Mercedes-Benz Financial, got the title from them, transferred it into our name, and finally transferred it into the customer’s name. So we can’t get paid until maybe fifteen days after we pay off Mercedes-Benz Financial. In this case, the payoff for the SL550 was a tidy $30,000.

Now, if you’re part of a 150-dealer mega-group, you have thirty grand sitting in petty cash. If you’re a mom-and-pop Ford shop selling ten units a month, you have a line of credit at your mom-and-pop local bank that you use for this stuff. You with me so far? Cause here’s the problem: at Best Coast Motorsports, Gerald had been secretly draining the liquidity we possessed for non-business purposes that probably rhymed with “snow-caine” and “slippers.” I thought we had way more than thirty grand sitting in our bank account. In fact, we had way less.

Mercedes-Benz SL550 Silver Arrow

Without that cash, we couldn’t register the car. So now we have a wealthy and quite distinguished couple with a 30-day tag that is about to expire and no paperwork that puts them in ownership of the car. I asked Gerald what he wanted me to do.

“Overnight them another 30-day tag.”

“Yo, man, that’s illegal.” Gerald shrugged. I mailed the tag.

The couple was satisfied for the time being, but then the woman we consigned the car for began to question if her car had been sold. Gerald called me into his office.

“We got a problem. The lady wants her car or her money. We don’t have either.”

“So what are you so nervous about?” I’d seen Gerald play worse games than this with too many people to count.

“Well, you see, she’s a detective for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police.” Well, now we got a problem. Crossing her wouldn’t exactly be a smart idea of any sort. “We can’t pay her, so we gotta make her think we still got the car.”

There was a real quiet moment where Gerald and I just sat and looked at each other. Then we both turned our heads to the dealership floor, where that sixteen-grand beater Benz sat. “You thinking what I’m thinking?”

“I can’t see how we think anything else.” Now, the differences in condition between the two cars were not trivial—but that’s why God made the Nokia cellphone camera, to obscure precisely those sorts of differences. All was well—but then the detective started detecting, so to speak. She said she wanted to see a picture of the VIN. Luckily, I took pictures of the VIN of every car we added to our inventory when we took possession of them to help satisfy our floorplan company when they would ask certain questions.

That bought us time, but any day now that lady was gonna show up with a badge, a pistol, and some tough questions. We just weren’t far enough away from her for this to go down any differently. And we didn’t have the money. Had no plan to get it. So Gerald did what every studio gangster does when times are rough: he went to his father and asked for $40K. Which bailed him out of this problem and a few others besides.

All was well—but now almost another month had passed and we had still not registered the car to the new owners. The same day we paid off the loan, I received an email them stating that if they didn’t get their license plate in a week they were going to the authorities in North Carolina.

It was time to ride like the wind, so to speak. We managed to expedite the title from Mercedes-Benz Financial. On the sixth day after our customer’s entirely legitimate demand we received the title and used Dealertrack’s RegUSA software to get all the proper paperwork put together. I called the couple and told them I’d overnight everything they would need to register their car. It was the end of the drama…

…but it was also the beginning of the end. Gerald knew he needed to make some moves to get that $40K paid back. Those moves, and their inevitable repercussions, would end up putting a lot of people within spitting distance of a prison toilet. And that’s a story for another day.

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