A Mercedes With Tenure

Share with others:


Print Email Read Later

HOBOKEN, N.J. -- Though Naomi Harley's 1976 Mercedes-Benz 240D is not exactly the same shade of yellow as the taxis waiting for fares at the train terminal here, it blends in well enough that she can sneak into the line along Hudson Place and pick up a visitor. It's a useful perk of owning the squared-shouldered sedan, but the ruse has occasionally backfired -- when cab-seeking patrons have opened a door to get in.

Dr. Harley -- she earned a Ph.D. in radiological physics in 1971 and is a professor of environmental medicine at the New York University Langone Medical Center -- recalled the reason she and her husband chose the color when they bought the Mercedes in 1976.

"We'd read that yellow cars were in the least accidents, because they're the easiest to see," Dr. Harley said. John Harley, who was a renowned researcher and innovator in the field of environmental radioactivity, died in 1993.

The 240D was one of Mercedes-Benz's entry-level models in 1976, a midsize sedan with a 4-cylinder diesel engine and a 4-speed manual transmission. Dr. Harley's car has rolled up more than 250,000 miles, and she adds about 7,000 more each year. The car was repainted once, in the original color, which, she suggested, matches the hue of maple leaves in the fall.

Wearing a red windbreaker -- and a yellow wool cap that nearly matched the car -- Dr. Harley was taking a break from reviewing scientific manuscripts to show a reporter the car. She had been working from her apartment since the storm surge from Hurricane Sandy swamped the New York City area and inundated her research lab at the Langone complex in Manhattan, near the East River. Among her many research projects, Dr. Harley developed instruments to assess exposure at a former uranium processing facility in Ohio as part of a study of long-term health effects.

The Hoboken high-rise where Dr. Harley lives -- and where she parks the Mercedes -- is on higher ground a few blocks west of the Hudson River, so it was not flooded in the deluge that caused widespread damage and forced evacuations in this mile-square city. The building lost power, but her Mercedes stayed safe and dry.

A glance around the roomy interior of the 37-year-old car showed minimal wear, as well as an absence of the luxury features now associated with the brand. Several details served as reminders that this model was itself widely used in taxi service around the world, much as the Ford Crown Victorias parked nearby have been omnipresent in American cities.

The windows lower with a hand crank, and the outside mirrors are adjusted with short metal levers that extend into the car. Air-conditioning, a standard feature today even on low-price cars, was an extra-cost option on the 240D, one that Dr. Harley said she later regretted not ordering. A crank-operated steel sunroof provides some relief on hot days.

The seats, upholstered in a textured brown vinyl the carmaker called MB-Tex, still felt firm and supportive. She added aftermarket sheepskin covers in front. A stereo from a later-model Mercedes-Benz has been installed, protruding slightly from the dashboard.

Dr. Harley initiated the ritual of starting the 240D, turning the ignition key with her right hand and then grasping a knob marked Engine with her left.

"You pull this out a bit and then wait for the glow plugs," she said, referring to a device peculiar to older diesel engines that preheats the combustion chambers, helping to get ignition under way.

After a few seconds, a light under the speedometer turned red to signal the engine's readiness. She pulled the knob out the rest of the way, and the engine started with a judder that rocked the entire car before settling into the steady loud clatter emblematic of older diesels.

Working the clutch and shifter smoothly enough that gearshifts were barely noticeable, Dr. Harley eased the 240D over the gray Belgian blocks that still cap some Hoboken streets.

"I prefer the control of a manual," she said. "Otherwise, it doesn't feel like you're really driving."

She took an eastbound route toward Frank Sinatra Drive, named, of course, for the favorite son born here in 1915.

The under-hood cacophony belied the 240D's meager 62 horsepower -- about one-third the output of a modern 4-cylinder family sedan. But the car's lackadaisical acceleration did not seem to bother Dr. Harley (who also holds a private pilot's certificate and is working on a higher rating, she said). The relaxed pace felt appropriate for the impromptu tour, with the car's upright windshield and tall side windows offering an unobstructed view of the Manhattan skyline across the Hudson.

Riverfront luxury residential buildings, parks, restaurants and walking paths have replaced the docks and shipyards that gained infamy for organized crime and corruption in "On the Waterfront," the landmark 1954 film made here. Sinatra could well have ended up as the movie's pugilistic protagonist, Terry Malloy, had the film's producer, Sam Spiegel, not gotten the lead he really wanted: Marlon Brando, who would win an Academy Award for the role.

Dr. Harley, a longtime Hoboken resident, pointed out the sites where Maxwell House coffee, Lipton Tea and Bethlehem Steel factories once stood.

"They're all million-dollar condos now," she said.

Taking a curve without drama, she noted the agility of the firm-riding sedan and went on to praise the car's tight turning circle. "I could make a U-turn right here," she said. "In rental cars I've driven, I'd have to make a K-turn."

Fuel economy, not sporty handling, was the main reason the Harleys bought the 240D to replace their 1969 Mercedes 220, a similar model with a 4-cylinder gas engine.

"It still gets 30 miles per gallon, just what they promised," she said, recalling the original advertising claim.

They bought the 240D for about $9,500 from a Mercedes-Benz dealership in New Jersey, but took advantage of the company's European delivery program, picking up the car at the factory in Sindelfingen, Germany. From there, they drove to Vienna to attend the annual meeting of the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, where her husband gave a presentation.

In a curious twist, the port that Mercedes had arranged for shipping the car home was in a section of Antwerp, Belgium, called Hoboken. A badge indicating the car's European delivery, attached at the factory, can be seen on the grille.

The 240D's reputation for durability -- suggested by its role as a global taxicab -- was another attraction for the Harleys, whose professions depended on reliable, well-made equipment. Replacing the heater's blower assembly and the engine water pump were among the few major repairs the car has required. Dr. Harley credits an independent Mercedes-Benz service shop in Tenafly, N.J., Wolfgang's, with keeping the car in top condition.

"Even little things can cost a lot on this car," she said, citing the $300 estimate to replace a faulty clock. Her inexpensive solution: a small, battery-powered clock affixed to the dash. To its right sits a round stick-on thermometer, which on this sunny, mid-40s December day indicated about 62 degrees inside the car.

"If I see it down here in the morning," Dr. Harley said, pointing to the 20s on the dial, "then I know it might be tough to start."

At least buying fuel is no longer a major challenge.

"Diesel was hard to find in those days," she said of driving in the late 1970s. "We'd carry an extra couple of gallons in a gas can in the trunk. Today, it's everywhere."

Despite receiving frequent offers to buy the Mercedes, including one from a passer-by once while she was changing a flat tire in Jersey City, Dr. Harley said she had never considered replacing it.

"It's a marvelous piece of machinery, so uncomplicated," she said.

autonews

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

You have 2 remaining free articles this month

Try unlimited digital access

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here

You’ve reached the limit of free articles this month.

To continue unlimited reading

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here