PHOENIX — David Schembri grew up in a blue-collar neighborhood that rubs shoulders with Detroit City Airport.

As a young man, he worked the midnight shift loading beer trucks at the old Stroh Brewery. His dad worked midnights maintaining assembly line equipment at the defunct Fisher Body plant nearby.

“We'd meet for ‘lunch’ at 2 a.m.,” recalls the son. “That was great.”

Schembri's automotive career has driven him far from Detroit's working-class east side. He's now a top marketing executive for one of the world's premier luxury car companies, Mercedes-Benz.

He graduated from the University of Detroit in 1975, and took an accounting internship at the old American Motors Corp. He once caddied for CEO Roy Chapin. He remembers telling Chapin, in a conversation about AMC's weak car sales, “Why don't you just sell Jeeps?”

Working at AMC offered more opportunities and job assignments than if the rookie Schembri started out at a big automaker.

“It was a good, small place to work,” he says. “You could learn a lot about the industry from the different jobs.”

He worked at AMC for four years, then went to Volkswagen of America along with more than 30 other AMC alumni.

Schembri spent 16 years at VW. With Mercedes-Benz USA since 1994, he's now its new marketing vice president.

Not born with a silver spoon in his mouth, he nevertheless seems at home moving Mercedes' precious metal.

That enthusiasm filled his colorful comments at a press preview of the fifth-generation Mercedes-Benz SL500 coupe, an exquisite new vehicle with an awesome base price of $86,655 and a 48-year heritage dating to the legendary “Gullwing” 300SL.

Schembri speaks so effusively of the new SL, he must occasionally remind himself not to overdo it. He says the SL is something Michelangelo might have created were he a modern car designer rather than a Renaissance sculptor.

Excerpts from Schembri's SL500 “observations”:

  • “This is the most exciting car introduced anywhere in the world.”

  • “The fifth-generation SL would be a good nominee for a classic work of art.”

  • “Do you remember the old ‘Dallas’ TV show? Well, Bobby Ewing drove an SL to the ranch in the opening shot of each episode!”

  • “Elvis gave away Cadillacs like chewing gum. What a lot of people don't know is that he kept his SL locked up in the garage, and wouldn't let anyone else drive it.”

  • “We didn't play it safe with this car. We emphasized the technology, such as the world's first electronic brake system in a production car. We wanted to be out there!”

  • “This is a car that would attract Formula One drivers.”

  • “Everyone tells me, ‘Quit overselling!’”

The 2003 SL500 just arrived at dealership showrooms — if not the Metropolitan Museum of Art; maybe that's later.

Its lithe aluminum body is capped by a retractable hardtop that folds down electronically, and leaves 7.3 cubic feet of cargo space with the roof in the trunk.

The new coupe is a technological wonder on wheels, what with that pioneer e-brake system (in which a microprocessor rather than hydraulics transmits brake force) and an active suspension system that smoothes out body roll in cornering, accelerating and braking.

A 5.0-liter V8 engine puts out 302 horsepower and ultra-low emission levels. Acceleration: 0 to 60 mph in 6.1 seconds.

This is the SL's first makeover in 12 years. The new car has a big mission. Mercedes-Benz wants it to keep loyal SL customers, reach more driving enthusiasts, showcase Mercedes' technological and cast a glow of glory on the entire product line.

Mercedes-Benz USA sold nearly 207,000 vehicles overall in 2001, the eighth consecutive year of growth. But it wasn't enough for Mercedes to retain its title as sales champion in the U.S. luxury-vehicle segment. Lexus took that with about 225,000 units. BMW took second, Mercedes third.

Annual SL sales have dropped since 1999 when 7,853 units were sold compared to 5,409 in 2000 and 4,217 in 2001.

Schembri predicts the new-generation SL will take sales to 10,000 this year and 11,000 in 2003.

Competitors include the Porsche 911 and the Jaguar XK8. “It's a narrow segment but it's ever growing,” says Schembri.

The U.S. is the biggest market for the SL, accounting for 70% of worldwide sales.

Dealers got a look at the new coupe at dealer meetings in Phoenix and Boca Raton, FL.

Dealership sales personnel will get extensive sales training so they'll be able to highlight all the SL features, especially the high-tech stuff.

“We want them to go through the car A to Z with customers,” says Schembri. “In today's competitive environment, you need to go through the product thoroughly during the sales presentation.”

The car hit dealerships in mid-March. The order bank is extensive. If demand outpaces supply, Schembri says he'll scramble for more inventory.

His predecessor as marketing vice president, Ken Enders, believed waiting lists enhanced a vehicle's mystic — as long as customers didn't grow too impatient and end up at a Lexus dealership.

“I'd rather be short one car than have one too many to sell,” Enders once said.

But Schembri says, “I come from a sales background, and I always say we'll find a way to meet demand. I'd run back to Germany and ask for more. We're trying to avoid long, long waiting lists. You can't do that in today's competitive environment.”