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Driving Mister Mercedes

I don't think I'm the Mercedes-Benz type, if there is such a thing. I was always happy in a Ford. But I've been driving a secondhand Mercedes for about 15 years now, and I feel sort of - categorized.

"There's the drummer with the Mercedes," says the guard at a museum where our jazz band plays.

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"Even the band is rich," says a student watching me pack drums in the trunk after a gala evening at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

At a summer wedding, I'm parked near the field where the bridal party plays a celebratory softball game. A fly ball lands on the car next to mine, and I hear shouts of "Get the Mercedes, get the Mercedes!"

I didn't know it would come to this in the early 1980s when a bargain 240D came along and I uneasily decided to relax and enjoy it. A gasoline shortage was lingering just as the family had to get a new car. Diesel fuel was relatively cheap and available. Here was this classic black 1976 diesel, only 60,000 miles on it, lovingly cared for by its one previous owner.

"Lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes-Benz," sang Janis Joplin, rhyming it with "I must make amends." I'm not making amends. I did feel slightly un-American buying an imported car. But, after all, a Massachusetts dealer was profiting from the transaction, providing employment and paying taxes. And the 240D has continued to provide considerable employment (replacing parts and paint) while the enduring four cylinders have clocked close to 190,000 miles. A company in Muncie, Ind., found my name and let me know it sells new, used, and rebuilt parts "for Mercedes-Benz automobiles only."

We're a later generation than a friend's father, who in his day went through a ritual of hailing any fellow Mercedes on the road. The exotic luxury car has become a bit more everyday. It's a getaway vehicle in the title role of a new novel, "A White Merc With Fins."

"Let me know if you ever want to sell," says the young woman running the service station, noting that she has two Mercedeses already.

"What year is it?" strangers ask when I'm waiting at a curb. Half the time the inquirer has or had an elder Mercedes, too, and often with more miles on it.

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A few days ago when I drew up to a traffic light, a smiling young couple pulled their car alongside and yelled, "We're thinking of getting a diesel!"

And a couple of nights later, when I was on the way to play for a dinner dance, three laughing young women on the corner circled their fingers in the A-OK sign for my black car and perhaps my black tie.

But once when we were far from home, the muffler gave out, and no one would touch it except a Mercedes dealer with several vehicles on display. There was a brief temptation to trade in the old Merced for a slightly younger one in brown, the color favored in Hollywood, according to comedians. Sometimes I hear about my failing to go for the brown when yet another thing has to be fixed on the incumbent.

On a trip South, we were reduced to one gear when a transmission fluid line broke. It was like discovering Christmas to find out about the Mercedes emergency service, almost like your own private AAA, which has a wonderful roadside manner even with a broken-down '76.

Speaking of gears, I've just read that the transmission of the new Mercedes E420 can adapt its shifting pattern to anybody's driving style after electronically "learning" it. Sometimes I think the old 240D has learned all about me without electronics. Certainly its squarish shape looks intelligent.

Almost immediately after we bought our non-gas-guzzler, the gasoline shortage turned into a glut, and sometimes diesel prices have topped gasoline's. We've had moments of suspense when the fuel-pump warning icon on the dashboard goes red, and the next three service stations carry only gasoline. Or the car stands out in the country cold for a couple of days, and the diesel fuel turns to jellied consomm. One time we were saved by a hair dryer on a long cord from the farmhouse we were staying in.

The dealer told us that the nice thing about a Mercedes is that you can always sell it for what you paid for it, assuming a certain amount of inflation. Be that as it may, the official value has declined so that we owe almost no yearly excise tax. When we pay for yet another repair, we reason that if we had a new car we'd be paying as much in excise taxes.

"Yes," said a sympathetic dealer, "but you'd have a new car."

Right now I don't think I'll ever want to change. But that's what I said about the Falcon.

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