Everyone here knows about the Mercedes Benz 300SL of the 1950s. It has taken its place as one of the few genuine icons of the Automotive Age, and for good reasons. It is the Duesenberg Model J of the post-WWII era, essentially, with few peers and inarguable credentials. But the "big" 300SL had a lesser-known "little brother" that accompanied it into the world of great automobiles, and that was the Mercedes Benz 190SL. The two cars shared little other than switchgear, some instrumentation, miscellaneous hardware, and a distinct family resemblance, especially in the "facial area". The 190SL did share, though, one very important trait with the 300SL, though, and that was the almost obsessive drive toward engineering and construction perfection that went along with every automobile that Mercedes Benz designed and built during this era. To examine a pristine example of these cars today is to see how workers in an automobile factory can produce self-propelled passenger machines that approach Swiss watchmaker-levels of quality and precision. We simply do not see these things today in contemporary automobiles; the cars of our time are of excellent quality, but it is of an automated, "cookie-cutter" nature, with little to none of the "human hands" nature of what these Mercedes Benzes represent. Following the clearing of the rubble of defeat that Germany suffered after WWII, German workers pulled themselves together in a remarkable way, very quickly, and soon established standards of quality in manufacturing that have become legendary to this day, and the 190SL is perhaps one of the most stunning examples of this success of all, IMO.
How do I know this? I never owned a 190SL, but my best friend since grade school owns two of them, a 1959 and a 1961 model. George bought his first, the '59, in 1972, for about $1,100, and used it as his daily driver for several years, until it finally broke into two pieces while bouncing over a grade crossing in Gary, Indiana in 1975, which then turned "Old Black" into a parts car for his second SL, the '61, which he finally restored to concours d'elegance completion several years ago. For many years, George and I, being typical zero-responsibility single-guy car freaks, LIVED for our cars, and I had the pleasure of riding thousands of miles in Old Black, and helping George work on her, and got to know the intricacies of 190SLs almost as well as if I owned one myself. That's why I have such deep respect for the machines, and feel that they should be recognized more widely than they are.
They are more "humble" than their 300SL brothers, being based upon the platform of the Mercedes Benz sedans of the time, and not of tubular frame construction like the 300. Plus, they have a much smaller and less powerful powertrain than the big 300SL's injected 3-liter six, that being the 1.9-liter four-cylinder from the sedans, although "souped up" with higher compression, big twin sidedraft carburetors, and a slightly more aggressive camshaft, which gives the 190SL 120 horsepower. So, with the four-speed transmission, and the car's fairly light weight, they are not "fast" like the bigger SL, but they are definitely "quick" in the more traditional sports/GT car idiom, and the smoothness of the engine's delivery makes them really fun to drive, along with the almost uncanny flatness of the car's cornering, due to the lowness and wideness of the design along with the excellent suspension system, which actually featured a better rear suspension than the Gullwing 300SL. The Gullwings had the "trick" pure swing-axle rear design, similar to a VW Beetle's, while the 190SL had the new and patented single-pivot swing-axle system just introduced by Mercedes Benz, and used for many years afterward on their products, including the later 300SL roadsters.
This is just a Sunday morning ramble about one of my favorite cars, and not a comprehensive history, so now...PICTURES! First off, the piece d'resistance, my friend George's 1961 Mercedes Benz 190SL as it appears today. This is very likely the world's most perfectly and authentically restored example of the model, btw. George studiously purchased literally hundreds of OEM Mercedes Benz parts for this car throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, during the time when such parts were still readily available over-the-counter at the local M-B dealership. The car was nearly rust-free, and with a brand-new factory longblock when he bought it in '74, so it not only looks like a brand-new 190SL, but drives like a new one as well. Simply beautiful:
The chassis of the 190SL was based on the "Ponton" sedans of the time, instead of the tubular space-frame used on the vastly more expensive 300SLs:
Mercedes Benz designers kept costs under some control by using off-the-shelf parts when possible on the 190SL, such as the taillamps from the Ponton sedans. But, they successfully avoided making it look like they were being "cheap about it". The taillamps are beautifully integrated into the classic 190SL's design:
Put a 300SL next to this 190SL, and you can see the "big and little brother" nature of the designs. It's virtually a pure 3/4-scale copy of the 300SL's face:
Interesting early promotional piece for the new 190SL, produced in 1954. This pictures the prototype of the actual production 190SL, which differed in many areas from the eventual production car. The hoodscoop, for example, didn't make it into production. You can see clearly that Mercedes Benz was aiming for the growing American market for luxurious-yet-sporty two-seaters, which the new Ford Thunderbird was opening up so successfully at the time:
Highly modified 190SL's engine compartment. This car has been supercharged, and has non-stock carbs. The 190SL was so elaborately "German engineered" that it had two completely separate heater systems, which can be seen at the top of the photograph, along the inner fender, and the second, passenger-side system, which can be partially seen by the hose at the bottom of the photo. This was unprecedented in a sportscar of that time to feature such comfort items:
The 1954 New York International Auto Show was the public debut of both the Mercedes Benz 300SL Gullwing, and the 190SL roadster in America. The famous Max Hoffman was the importer at the time, and he set-up this display at the show. Note the prototype 190SL is being shown:
The doors of the 190SL are a story unto themselves. They are all-aluminum, with aluminum used as the skin, and also the inner framing. The window is interesting in that it is curved glass, but not in the typical way. The glass is curved vertically, in that it bows outward slightly when looked at from above, in order to reflect light pleasingly. Attention to details...Mercedes Benz was the king of it back then:
Beautiful black-and-white factory photograph of a 190SL with the optional removable hardtop fitted. When the hardtop is on a 190SL, it is just like riding in a perfectly sealed and solid sedan. Amazing cars:
Another view of the 1954 New York International Auto Show. 'Anyone got a time-machine handy?
Nice beauty shot:
My good friend Rich Truesdell, one of the world's great automotive photographers, won't mind me "borrowing" one of his pictures, I'm sure:
They're not just for looking at. These cars are magnificent road machines:
Modified by vwlarry at 9:31 AM 1-31-2010