It was a copper 1980 Fleetwood Brougham d'Elegance, with a mere 00003 miles on the odometer. And as the shiny-suited salesmen would say, this baby was loaded.
Among its 27 options were a special $1,062 interior, a $170 gizmo that defogged the sideview mirror and a $172 thingamajig that helped aim the headlights.
Inside, the car was a concerto in pumpkin-colored crushed velvet. As for that extra touch of class, you had to do was to start the engine. The car reminded you to fasten your seat belt by chiming four times, not by buzzing.
The car had a bottom line that was straight out of Disneyland: $17,856.
And it will be delivered this weekend -- if all goes according to shipping schedules -- to a sheik in Kuwait.
I drove that car to port a couple of weeks ago.
In so doing, I became a small cog in the giant export business operated by Arabs who are buying goods in the Washington area to send home.
According to spokesmen at the larger Arab embassies and major local businesses, the buy-it-here send-it-there petrodollar trade will pump about $10 million into the Washington-area economy this year.
Perhaps as many as half of those dollars will go to buy luxury cars, the spokesmen estimate. Washers and dryers are in second place, followed by television sets, vacuum cleaners and radios, in that order, the spokesmen say.
My role as driver for a sheik came about because of a man named Willie.
He is a friend whose most enduring and endearing quality is that he knows a good thing when it jumps up and bites him.
The teeth marks first appeared about a year ago. A friend in the auto business put Willie in touch with a Kuwaiti who lives in Arlington and who procures top-of-the-line American cars for friends and acquaintances back home.
mr.Kuwaiti orders as many as 40 cars a week from dealers in the Washington-Baltimore area. It is cheapest and fastest to ship the cars to Kuwait from Wilmington, Del. It is also cheaper to have the new cars driven to Wilmington than to have them trucked there.
Enter Willie. Each day that Mr. Kuwaiti has cars he needs to "run" to Wilmington, Willie finds eight drivers.
For $30 per person per trip, the drivers -- who range from carefully coiffed housewives to professional cardplayers -- spend two hours piloting luscious new cars up Interstate 95 to a half mile-square parking lot beside the Wilmington docks. Then Willie, who follows in a station wagon, ferries the drivers back to Washington.
On good days, known as "double dips," Willie and Company make two roundtrips.And on most days, the cars being driven are Cadillacs or Oldsmobiles. The only time the sticker prices dip below five digits is on Chevrolet Caprice runs, and even they cost $9,400 apiece these days.
Neither Willie nor his drivers have informed the Internal Revenue Service of this car-running arrangement, to put it charitably. Salaries and reimbursements for gas and tolls are paid in crisp 20s, 50s, and 100s.
Among his regulars, Willie's missions are famous for mishaps. The day this rookie came along, things literally began with a bang.
One of Willie's drivers pulled a pearly-white new Cadillac out of Moore Cadillac in Tyson's Corner to start the trip north. He had gone all of two tenths of a mile on Leesburg Pike when he plowed into a Pontiac Trans-Am that was stopped at a red light.
No one was injured except the Cadillac. Its passenger-side door was peeled back, the paint was cracked and a sickening scratch ran much of the length of the car.
"My son," said a cardplayer-driver, as he surveyed the damage, "it would appear that you misevaluated your hand."
Another driver misevaluated her gas tank. It said empty and she didn't believe it. She found out the truth the hard way when she coasted to a stop on the Delaware Turnpike. It tooknearly two hours to get enough gas for the car to finish its journey.
"You say to yourself, 'It's only up and back, two hours each way. What can go wrong?" said one driver, as she waited for Ms. Out of Gas in a pouring rain beside 7,000 cars ready for shipment.
"Well, this is just the latest."
On one previous Willie run, a young man driving a motor home was arrested by the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel police. He had a license, but the home didn't.
Then there was the time the crew arrived at the docks just after half a dozen fully loaded trucks. Nominally, it's first-come-first-served at the docks. Usually, $10 in the proper palm can greatly improve your place in line.
Willie was just preparing to administer some cash to the right person when one driver loudly urged him to "lay the dust on the guy and hurry up." The man became concerned that someone might have overhead, and refused to accept Willie's money. Willie's crew thus spent two and a half hours cooling their heels and glaring at the loudest driver among them.
Nor is Willie the most organized person on earth. He once neglected to tell one driver that a day's run had been postponed. She waited for eight hours before giving up.
Even this neophyte got caught up in the Marx Brothers rhythm. He locked a set of keys inside a Caprice. It took 20 minutes for a dockworker to break in.
As the sun set in Wilmington, Willie's drivers were wet and hungry, and were whimpering about still being two hours from home on a Friday night. When one driver said she'd never do this again, a chorus of "amen" rolled across the parking lot.
Then Willie announced that Monday was a double-up Cadillac day. Seven drivers signed up in a large hurry.