If, like this author, most of your time in the Midwest is spent in Michigan, you might come to think that the Buckeyes are a beastly, cultureless people, their native Ohio a fetid hellscape. After all, they managed to set a river on fire a few times, and that takes a measure of doing. Michiganders, basically, are a sound people. But as my only memorable experience with Ohio had been the actual fetid hellscape of the state’s turnpike, I thought it best to explore the place for myself.
The order of the day was a museum-to-museum run from the edge of Lake Erie down to the flats of Dayton. The museums in question? The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force. The Hall of Fame opens at 10 a.m., the Air Force museum closes at 5 p.m. Just over 200 miles separate them. If I were to see both—and do so in proper style—I’d need a steed to fit the mission. Something fast, glamorous, and a little preposterous—preferably with some semblance of aviation history. The Mercedes-AMG S65 cabriolet fit the bill nicely, a four-place convertible with a V-12 and a quarter-million-dollar price tag.
Rock ’n’ Roll Never Forgets
The Rock Hall, mostly, is a monument to its own desperate desire for importance. Sure, Cleveland’s Alan Freed was the first big DJ to spin rock ’n’ roll records, but Ohio’s best rock ’n’ roll came from the margins. Akron’s Chrissie Hynde, living as an expat in London, founded the Pretenders. One of America’s earliest hardcore bands, Maumee’s Necros, spawned the vital independent Touch and Go Records and contributed Andrew Wendler to the C/D staff. Rocket From the Tombs, from Cleveland, split up, resulting in both Pere Ubu and the Dead Boys. The latter’s “Sonic Reducer” was sampled by the Beastie Boys. If there was a monument to the late Stiv Bators in the Rock Hall, I missed it, but the Beasties at least got a little kiosk up in the rafters. Honestly, the best thing about the place was that Billy Gibbons’s Eliminator coupe was parked in the basement. A perfect execution of the early-1980s full-fender style before things got too pastel and smooth, the red ’33 Ford still commands respect. I snapped a photo of the coupe and headed for the door. I hadn’t seen everything, but I’d seen enough.
The second-coolest thing in the Rock Hall was the custom Hamer Special guitar that Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielsen gave to John Lennon not long before the Beatle’s death. Nielsen surreptitiously cribbed some measurements from Lennon’s Rickenbacker, sent them to Hamer’s Jol Dantzig, and had him gin up an instrument built to have a similar feel. According to Dantzig, “The whole thing happened pretty fast—it was always that way with Nielsen. ‘Oh, and I need it in 10 days,’ was usually the instruction.” The guitar featured DiMarzio pickups wound specially for Hamer, and a thinner neck than a production Hamer Special, so that it might play more like Lennon’s Rickenbacker. Nielsen came up with the “Rick N” truss-rod cover, making the headstock read “Rick N Hamer” if one squinted hard enough. Apologetically, car-enthusiast Dantzig noted, “Sorry I don’t have more interesting details and specific skidpad figures and zero-to-60 times, but I can tell you that the Special trail-braked well and fit into a Les Paul parking space.”
The S65, however, does not fit into a Les Paul–sized parking space. The dreadnought-class convertible is 198.6 inches long, about eight inches longer than a Bentley Continental GT convertible. Size, however, does not always correlate with perceived masculinity. Leaving the garage at the Rock Hall, the attendant commented, “Nice car!”
“Thanks! It’s not mine.”
“Oh. The wife’s?”
She had a point. While the S65 coupe is a pure shot of highly refined testosterone, the convertible roof adds a gender-bending quality. If Ziggy Stardust flew in today, they’d send one of these for him. If Lady Gaga doesn’t already own one, we’d be shocked if an S cab isn’t on order. Slade’s Dave Hill could drive this car, and nobody would bat an eye. Conversely, a half-dressed mook with a decent haircut could also look right at home, if he’s comfortable enduring derision for perpetrating a measure of affect. Plutocrats for a classless society, we’ve found your chariot. It’s got 621 horsepower, churns out 738 lb-ft of torque, bolts to 60 mph in 4.1 seconds, and clears the quarter-mile in 12.3 at 120 mph.
Putting the serenity and guts to use, I headed for Columbus, which I’d heard from friends is a pretty swell town. Notably, this praise comes from New Yorkers, not Michiganders. In my Californian ignorance, the only thing I know about Columbus is that Family Ties was set in its suburbs, and Alex P. Keaton really seems more like an E-class sedan sort of guy. I stayed just long enough to fill the tank (which the V-12 sucks dry to the tune of 16 mpg) and put my foot down for Dayton.
Birthplace of Aviation
The National Museum of the U.S. Air Force—which we covered extensively in this photo feature—sits on the Wright Field portion of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. Its runway services the final flights of aircraft inbound for display. JFK’s Air Force One made its last landing here, as did the C-141A “Hanoi Taxi,” the plane that brought American POWs home from Vietnam, then went on to serve through the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. There were planes in the place I’d waited practically my whole life to see: aircraft like the Bristol Beaufighter and the Focke-Wulf Fw 190. The place is stocked with aircraft that blew my mind as an aviation-obsessed elementary-school kid, like the YF-12A, the interim step between the CIA’s A-12 Oxcart and the aviation world’s equivalent of the Lamborghini Countach, the SR-71 Blackbird. The A-12 is basically an SR-71 armed with missiles. At the age of eight, you just knew that the only thing better than a Blackbird was an armed Blackbird.
While the Enola Gay resides in the Smithsonian, Bockscar, the Silverplate B-29 that bombed Nagasaki, is in some ways more significant. Uranium 238 is tough to extract. Plutonium 239 is an easier isotope to produce in quantity, but it requires a more convoluted, precisely engineered design to go boom. The Manhattan Project’s chiefs decided to drop the uranium-gun Little Boy because they knew the bomb’s design would work. The plutonium-implosion Fat Man was already en route by ship to the 509th Composite Bomb Group’s base on Tinian Island when Oppenheimer’s gang blew up the similarly constructed Gadget outside Alamogordo, New Mexico. If Hiroshima ushered in the Atomic Age, Nagasaki ensured rapid growth of the nuclear arsenal of any country that could figure out the implosion process required to reach critical mass. Throw in the fact that an implosion bomb serves as the triggering device for a hydrogen-fusion device and, fundamentally, Bockscar delivered the weapon that set the stage for two decades’ worth of nuclear-deterrent policy, until ICBMs rewrote the atomic-warfare rulebook.
I wandered on to the recently opened fourth hangar, a building containing hot-rod specials like the sole remaining XB-70 Valkyrie, the fastest of all the hypersonic X-15 rocket planes, and the utterly bizarre Avrocar, a flying saucer developed by Canadians with the support of the U.S. military. I wandered through SAM 26000, the first plane to wear Raymond Loewy’s classic Air Force One livery. The Boeing VC-137C was the craft on which Lyndon Baines Johnson was sworn in as its crew prepared to fly Jack Kennedy’s body back to Washington, D.C., and even now, with its seats glassed off from the aisles, forever enclosed in an Ohio hangar, the 707 derivative oozes portent.
Truer to its fundamental mission as VIP transport than to its hot-rod badge, the S65 cabriolet handles like an S-class. Which is to say that the AMG treatment does not imbue it with the violent, rip-roaring, and tetchy personality of the C63. Removing the roof from the coupe does, however, engender a bit more flexibility than one might expect from Stuttgart’s most famous manufacturer of bank vaults. We pulled 0.91 g on the skidpad, better than the 0.88 g we saw with an S550 cabriolet, although it doesn’t match the 0.94 g we got from the Dodge Charger Hellcat. Which, as you may remember, is—somewhere under all the posturing—related to a Mercedes from way back when.
After leaving the museum, I found myself trundling down a narrow road under a canopy of trees, following the signs to Huffman Prairie Flying Field. I’d read about the place in David McCullough’s The Wright Brothers. After Orville and Wilbur made history at Kitty Hawk, they returned to Dayton to further refine their flying machines, testing them in a large pasture owned by Torrence Huffman. The field was open and serene, impossibly lush in a way that California only really sees in March. Away from the somber aura that pervades the Air Force museum, Huffman Prairie holds the same sort of reverent hush that you find at the empty Bonneville Salt Flats, a fundamental quiet baked into its being despite having been shot through by mechanized history. It’s where two brothers clambered into the sky and made flight a viable thing. The Wrights’ work at Kill Devil Hills proved a hypothesis. Huffman Prairie was the spot where flying became something that people actually did.
As I hopped on I-75 and headed north for Detroit, the smooth hum of the 12-hole ingot under the S65’s hood thrust us ever forward, the sun dipping low off the port side. I dropped the top and the radio spun up the Psychedelic Furs’ “Pretty in Pink”—the superior original album version, not the overproduced, sax-laden rendition from the John Hughes movie soundtrack. Even with the wind whipping through the cabin—Mercedes’ Aircap anti-buffeting system doesn’t work as well here as it did on the E-class droptop—the hefty Burmester sound system reliably swirled the music up, around, and through me. A great song and an open road in an absolute highway star is a finer experience than all of the Rock Hall, to be sure. Special and yet somehow unpretentious, the big Benz goes about its business without fuss; the S65 cabriolet remains more automobile than bourgeois bauble.
Some say the V-8–powered S63 is car enough. To be sure, it’s a fine automobile, but you want the full V-12 effect. There’s no rational reason to spend the extra $77,195, but the additional four cylinders somehow complete the machine. At this spending level, the cash is academic; pointing out that one could purchase both an S63 cabriolet and a Porsche 718 Boxster S for less than the price of an S65 misses the point. After all, the big AMG still undercuts both the Rolls-Royce Dawn and the Bentley Continental GT Speed convertible. The “V12 Biturbo” badge sends parking valets into ecstatic apoplectic fits. Don’t make the mistake of taking the S65 cabriolet as a variant of a lesser car; it’s its own machine, one that stands on its own peculiar merits. And as for Ohio? It’s best not to believe the Buckeyes’ neighbors to the north. A place that gave us Art Arfons, Stiv Bators, LeBron James, and Longaberger baskets can hardly be hailed as a one-note void, and indeed, the state is worth a visit. Just give the Rock Hall a miss.