German couple stranded in Shelbyville

Saturday, July 1, 2006
Shelbyville resident Wayne Hitchcock, left, met Greta and Dirk Bensinger of Rosenheim, Germany, while walking around the Shelbyville public square one evening last week. The vacationing couple was stranded because their car broke down. Dirk is a retired Daimler-Chrysler vehicle sales chief. While visiting America, he bought a Chevrolet Corvair. Go figure. (T-G Photo by Clint Confehr)

A German couple vacationing in America bought a Chevrolet Corvair to drive through these Southern states, but it broke down in Bedford County on their way to the Jack Daniel Distillery.

"The car gives me more headaches than the whiskey," said Dirk Bensinger, 64, of Rosenheim, a town 40 miles southeast of Munich and just four kilometers from the Autobahn, where he retired as a Daimler Chrysler sales executive.

While stranded in Shelbyville, Bensinger and his wife Greta took it all in stride. It was the fifth time the Corvair broke down in 10 days, but they saw it as another opportunity to meet people and get a unique view of America.

Tuesday evening, they took a walk around Shelbyville's public square where Wayne Hitchcock, a local insurance agent, was doing the same with his family. They said hello. Hitchcock realized they were from Germany. Hitchcock had lived in Germany both as a member of the U.S. military and a civilian; he is fluent in the language.

The two families ate Italian food together just off the square Wednesday night and Thursday and Hitchcock introduced Bensinger to Dwayne Pogue's body shop.

So, what does a retired Mercedes Benz sales chief think about the price of gasoline in America? And what about hybrid vehicles generating electricity to increase gas mileage?

"The price that Americans are paying for gasoline now is about half of what Germans pay for their vehicles' fuel," Bensinger said,

Turning to the question about hybrid vehicles -- powered by a combination of electric and internal combustion engines, "We have the buses in the big cities that work that way," Bensinger said.

"People who can afford a new car are buying low-consumption vehicles," Bensinger said, quickly noting one of the company's diesel cars gets 35 mpg.

But what about his affection for the Corvair, described by environmentalist and political gadfly Ralph Nader as "Unsafe at Any Speed" in his book of that title decades ago?

"It wasn't as bad as that," Bensinger replied about the allegation that the independent rear suspension was prone to rolling Corvairs sideways in sharp turns.

"Ralph Nader also took after the Volkswagen, and Germans loved the Beetle" since it was the "people's car" after World War II, he said. "It was a very solid car; not safe, but solid. You could replace parts and get them for nearly nothing."

Both the VW and the Corvair had rear engines and were rear-wheel drive vehicles.

"The VW had a higher consumption than the Corvair," Bensinger said, also criticizing the size of the VW's front trunk and small storage area behind the back seat.

His preference for backroads touring would appear to be an extension of his career. Bensinger led "world-wide sales," he said. His customers were tourists, the American, French and British military, their soldiers individually, and civilians touring Germany.

Two of Frank Sinatra's daughters bought Mercedes Benz cars from Bensinger, including Nancy Sinatra, who may be best known for the hit single "These Boots Are Made For Walking." In 1970, the sole of one of her boots pushed the gas pedal in a 250 SL that cost about $5,000.

At that price, the car's a bargain now, but all things being relative, Bensinger notes that the currency exchange rate is now about $1.25 per euro.

"Three years ago, it was 85 cents for one euro," a decline in the dollar's spending value overseas, Bensinger said.

Currency exchange rates made gas cheaper here for the German, who points out his government imposes a 75 percent sales tax on gasoline.

And, like Americans, he complains about the administration.

"They don't just take it for roads," while Tennessee's gas tax is dedicated to highway projects, Bensinger said. "They take it for whatever they get in their heads."

Meanwhile, Bensinger's changing attitude on Corvairs is exceeded by his admiration for the 1959 Chrysler-manufactured Imperial Southhampton. He owns one and says it "represents the best way of style of a big auto industry with lots of technical efforts." He likes the smooth-shifting automatic transmission controlled by dashboard pushbuttons.

The front swivel seats are nice too, he said. They help an overweight passenger turn to get out of the car.

Bensinger's father designed motors for Mercedes Benz and his son sells trucks that weigh more than 40 tons, he said.

So, he's steeped in the industry and his fascination with the Corvair -- despite its frailties -- caused him to stay in Shelbyville while Bill Cassady's Auto Works got the car back on the road.

Bensinger said he bought the car in Bridgeport, W.Va., for $7,500, plus another $500 for brake repair. During the five subsequent brake-downs, the distributor failed.

"You would have thought a tank fired its gun behind you," he said. "In Bowling Green, Ky., the engine started making noise like crazy."

The turquoise Corvair is the Bensingers' second. His wife liked their four-door model, but "Mercedes didn't like me to keep it and that's why I had to sell it," he said.

"Problems are to be expected from vintage cars," Bensinger said. "Besides, it gives us a chance to meet people and make friends."

While in Nashville, they went to the Good Guys Car Show, then visited friends in Franklin before they started to drive to Lynchburg to tour the distillery. During their tour of West Virginia, they went to a vintage car show and won the prize for being the visitor from the most distant location. The prize was free accommodations for five people at a motel between Charleston and Morgantown.

How could that be better than three nights at the Super 8 Motel on North Cannon Boulevard?