Half this story just sort of fell into my lap when I was researching my BMW piece. Then Paul’s callout for Convertible Week had me dusting off pics of this 190SL I’d caught in the mild autumn sun amid the congested Saturday morning Melbourne traffic.
So I went and did some more research, and… well… things got bigger…
Our story starts not at the beginning, but at its zenith.
The W196 Formula One ‘Type Monza’ body is perhaps the most beautiful Grand Prix car ever created. This particular body only appeared four times during two seasons, including twice at the fast Monza circuit where its streamlining could be used to full effect. It was not so popular with the team’s drivers because it obscured the corners of the car from their eye-line and the rest of the time a shorter open-wheeled body was used.
The W196 helped Juan Manuel Fangio win the World Championship for two years in a row; 1954 and 1955. This superb photo is by Louis Klemantaski. Note the complete passivity on Fangio’s face. Stirling Moss once said of his rival and sometime teammate; ‘The best classroom of all time was about two car lengths behind Juan Manuel Fangio.’
Moss, no slouch himself, was responsible for the single most iconic race win for Mercedes-Benz – breaking the time record at the 1955 Mille Miglia. 722 was a W196S 300SLR – essentially the same car as the 2.5 straight-eight Formula One racer but with a two-seater body to conform to sportscar racing regulations. Moss used this to his advantage; in the passenger seat during the race was bearded British motoring journalist Denis Jenkinson.
Legend has it that the Italian spectators believed Moss had won by Divine intervention.
Moss and Jenkinson had prepared for the 1000 mile race by traversing the entire road course five times beforehand. Notes were made of every hazard and full-throttle opportunity along the way, and transcribed to a scroll to be read by Jenkinson. With the unmuffled noise of the car precluding any talk, Moss and Jenkinson had an agreed set of hand gestures indicating the nature of the road directly ahead.
No-one had ever used navigation notes like this before. The spectators along the way saw a bearded man consulting a scroll and gesticulating with his hands, and apparently some thought Moss had brought along a priest who was reading from the scriptures and making signs of the cross.
The W196S was anticipated to be used in coupé form during the 1956 season, but after the tragedy at the 1955 Le Mans 24Hrs Mercedes-Benz withdrew from racing at the end of the year. Two coupés had already been built; both in silver but one with a blue tartan interior and one with red. After the race programme was cancelled, the red example was co-opted by racing head Rudi Uhlenhaut for his personal use. These two cars became known as the Uhlenhaut Coupés.
The Uhlenhaut Coupé was essentially a road-legal Formula One car. This magnesium alloy-skinned rocket weighed only 880 kg and was capable of a tested 170 mph. Uhlenhaut’s colleagues spoke of hearing his approach to work from 5 kilometres away. At some point, a muffler was deemed in order.
Rudolf Uhlenhaut, pictured with son Roger, was the father of the 300 sports racing programme. Since 1936 he had been in charge of the Mercedes-Benz racing department, and was responsible for the mighty W125 and W154 pre-war racers. An expert skier, he was also considered a more-than-capable driver, apparently beating Fangio’s own times in testing for the W196. His was a significant role in the Mercedes-Benz halo shining ever-so-bright.
But back to the beginnings.
In 1947, Uhlenhaut proposed a racer to the Board of Daimler-Benz and by 1952 he had prepared a Sports Leicht (Light) racing car around the 3 litre straight-six engine from the flagship of the road range. The engine was canted 50 degrees for a sleeker shape and a spaceframe used under the skin to save weight, but it created problems along the sides where a door might normally have been. This above example is one of the very early W194 300SL bodies; the driver entered over the bodyside via a hatch that included the side window and part of the roof. When the hatches were open they gave the impression of a car with gullwings.
From its first race, the W194 proved its mettle. It came second in the 1952 Mille Miglia in the hands of Karl Kling behind a Ferrari. The FIA were not happy with the entry hatches, and after the Mille Miglia Mercedes-Benz deepened the door openings into the body to about halfway down as the spaceframe still needed some height for its structural integrity. Soon after, it scored its first victory at Le Mans.
For the Nurburgring race, lighter-weight roadster versions of the W194 were used. The team snared the top four GT class places. Mercedes-Benz then pulled out of racing, apparently taken aback at the massive success garnered by these ‘parts-bin’ racers. Race team manager Alfred Neubauer had successfully argued with Uhlenhaut that a more powerful engine was needed, and development for the race-only 2.5 litre engine was to commence.
However, Mercedes-Benz were persuaded to enter the Carrera Panamerica in Mexico and fielded four cars. Despite Hermann Lang’s W194 sustaining frontal damage after striking a dog, and Kling’s windshield being shattered by a buzzard, the W194 team claimed first and second place in this gruelling event.
From seemingly out of nowhere, Mercedes-Benz had dominated the 1952 European sportcar racing calendar with these exotic-looking creatures. Across the sea Max Hoffman (right), seen here in New York with Ferry Porsche, was one man who understood the sales potential for these exciting new Mercedes-Benz coupés.
Hoffman was the son of a Austrian bicycle manufacturer, and had established a dealership of European cars in New York in the late 1940s. In his time he was to have Alfa Romeo, BMW, Fiat, Healey, Jaguar, MG, Porsche and Volkswagen cars sitting in his showrooms. By 1952, he was the US importer for Mercedes-Benz. When Frank Lloyd Wright designed his new showroom in 1955, Wright’s payment included two Mercedes-Benz cars as well as cash.
Like Luigi Chinetti Jr. with Ferrari, Hoffman’s vision contributed directly to the successes of Porsche, Mercedes-Benz and, later, BMW. He persuaded these manufacturers of the enormous potential of the US market, particularly in its growing appetite for sports cars. The BMW 507 and Porsche 356 Speedster were both created at his urging, and with Mercedes he proposed the building of two sports cars based on the 300SL.
Mercedes-Benz agreed to a point. One of the sportscars was to be a road-going version of the 300SL, and the other was to be a smaller open-topped roadster, the 190SL.
The prestigious styling brief for the W198 300SL road car was placed in the hands of Friedrich Geiger. The late 1953 sketch at top shows both wheelarches featuring the signature eyebrows, which in official parlance are water splash deflectors. I have lined up the greenhouses for these three stages to make it easier to gauge how the shape, wheel size and venting evolved.
The prototype was built around Lang’s damaged 1952 W194 sports racing car. It was taken to the Sindelfingen bodyworks to be dressed in Geiger’s suit.
Geiger’s roadcar shape was a masterpiece. As this photo demonstrates, the full volumes of the 1952 gullwing body were made increasingly spare as time went on. The bulbous contours of the 1952 W194 had been modified by Uhlenhaut for the single 1953 W194 (centre) which never competed. Known as the ‘carpenter’s plane’ for its chiselled nose contours, it was more aerodynamically efficient than its previous year’s siblings and established the tauter body language of the roadcar.
The 190SL roadster was based on more modest underpinnings. The platform from the W120 180 ‘Ponton’ saloon (above) was shortened, and a new 4 cyl engine derived from the 6 cyl 3 litre was to be used. This engine was also to power a saloon version of the W120 using essentially the same body, but confusingly designated W121 along with the anticipated roadster. I’ve seen the roadster also referenced as R121.
The cars differed greatly under the skin. The 300SL used a space frame that required high sills for the doors, and the 190SL used a platform-frame allowing full-depth doors.
The styling team responsible for the roadster under Walter Hacker included a young Paul Bracq. By late September 1953, these blueprints had been prepared. The visual proximity between this shape and its seniors is apparent, however the 190SL featured a separated rear-fender look. The bumpers were to be twin-bars connected at their extremities and the wheel arches did not feature the distinctive ‘eyebrow’ splash shields.
Two months later, the 190SL had undergone a little change. The bumpers were now solid affairs and a splash shield appeared over the front wheel arches.
The body built from the November 1953 plans became the 190SL prototype. Though not as graceful as its seniors, it was still a pleasing roadster shape.
With Hoffman having ordered 1000 units of the new sportscar, the 300SL coupe and 190SL roadster premiered at Herb Shriner’s Third Annual New York International Motor Sports Show in February 1954. Also on display were imports and exotica including the bizarre Packard Panther, the Touring-bodied Hudson Italia and a brace of Ferraris imported by Luigi Chinetti.
The star of the show was the 300SL with its racing provenance and distinctive cabin entrypoints translated almost exactly into a production model. The 190SL was also well-received, but could never be more than a sideshow to the main attraction.
The 190SL prototype had been rushed to completion, and after the New York showing it was shipped back to Germany where it was to undergo further development. While the prototype – seen here with Uhlenhaut and chief development engineer Fritz Nallinger – was taken to the road to identify and fettle its shortcomings, the shape of the model also needed rethinking.
By early August, the revised shape had been put to blueprint.
Walter Hacker, left, had added splash shields over the rear wheel arches as well the front.
Most of the shape’s evolution occurred at the front end of the car. The airscoop on the hood was replaced with a power bulge, and the contours around the grille were completely reworked.
The result was a much more pleasing design. The prototype’s awkward maw has been replaced with a nicer face. The top leading edge of the front clip was pulled up and forward as per the 300SL, and the grille set back into the body. The grille shape was also drawn directly from the senior coupe. While comparisons with the gullwing shape will always have the 190SL falling short, the styling team had improved substantially on the prototype.
Publicity stills were used to demonstrate the changes from the 1954 prototype. The interesting thing here is the scale model. While it features the airscoop and is lacking the splash shields, it has the forward front edge of the revised 190SL shape and seemingly flatter sides. It also has full radius wheelarches at the rear – a feature not seen on the blueprints. I wonder whether this model actually shows a transitionary phase between the prototype and the final shape.
Although its only a model, I find it the most attractive 190SL – a less embellished, tauter, sportier-looking body.
The revised W121 190SL was shown at the 1955 Geneva Motor Show and then released for sale. From 1955 to 1963, over 25,000 units were produced. Priced at roughly half the sticker of a gullwing, it offered almost the same amount of visual glamour.
The shape of the 190SL hardly changed during its eight year lifespan. A chrome strip was added to door tops and the taillights were enlarged in 1956. The most significant change was in 1959, when the rear window of the hardtop was enlarged.
Here it is on the magnificent Mercedes-Benz stand at the September 1955 Frankfurt Motor Show. By the end of that year, the Mercedes-Benz team had won the 1955 Formula One World Championship of Drivers – having also played a significant role in Fangio’s 1954 title – and the 1955 World Sportscar Championship.
Flush with their success, a W196 streamliner and 300SLR racer were suspended above the audience on tracks leading directly to the 300SL and 190SL road cars. Despite the Le Mans disaster and the fact that Mercedes-Benz had decided to pull out of racing at the end of the season, here was a stunning narrative display of the halo’s full effect.
The 190SL created a halo of its own. Here it matched with Grace Kelly’s radiance to woo Frank Sinatra into the passenger seat. While the 190SL was never going to be as sporting as the 300SL, it was still a lissome contender for the boulevardier stakes. What it did have over the 300SL was ease of access and open-air motoring.
Sometimes derided as a woman’s car, it was not necessarily so. As Paul Newman put it in this Harpers Bazaar spread; “Why do I love sports cars? Because – don’t laugh – the thrill of skimming along in a low slung speeder represents an important approach in life. A great many philosophers have said that the significance is the journey, not the destination – and sports car enthusiasts like going places, not getting places. My red Mercedes seems to sum it up perfectly.”
In its mother country, the 190SL’s halo was temporarily dimmed. In 1957, a courtesan named Rosemarie Nitribitt had been found murdered, and subsequent investigations led to the business and social elite of Germany. Nitribitt had been flaunting her scarlet-tinged money with a black 190SL, which earned for the model the moniker ‘whore’s taxi’.Total sales of the 190SL plunged from 4032 units in 1956 to 2722 units in 1958, the dip coming mostly from the European market due in no small part to the scandal. By 1959 sales had climbed back up to 3949.
With typical Mercedes-Benz attention to detail, the 190SL came with its own customised roadside assist truck.
Actually, no, that’s actually the legendary Renntransporter used to ferry the factory’s racing cars in a hurry. Using the same 6 cylinder engine as the 300SL, the Renntransporter was capable of speeds up to 105 mph. Which makes a great segue to the 190SL’s racing kit.
The Rennsport package (known as 190SLR) was a set of factory modifications to the roadster. Weight dropped to under 1000 kilos thanks to alloy doors, a smaller perspex windcsreen, no soft top, insulation, heat exchanger or production bumpers. When raced by importers, the 190SL scored a GT win at the Macao Sports Car Grand Prix ahead of a Ferrari Mondial and assorted Jaguars and Austin-Healeys, and a GT win at the Morocco Grand Prix of the same year.
With factory competition days behind them, Mercedes-Benz were relying on their two sporting roadcars to sustain the racier glow of their halo. The grille became emblematic of this halo. You’ll have noticed its evolution in this piece, the traditional upright grille had no place on the smooth sports racers and it was a while before the right shape was found for the aperture. There’s no generic descriptor for this shape, but it is an inspired piece of work. And the large three-pointed star was perfectly weighted as an element within.
The grille was seriously considered for even the lowliest Mercedes-Benz models. This is a styling proposal for the stillborn W122 series, a model planned to sit at the bottom of the saloon hierarchy. What’s remarkable is how naturally this grille sits with the conventional four-door body, and could quite conceivably been put to market in this form.
It’s taken Mercedes-Benz quite a few years to warm to the idea, and this type of grille arrangement can now be seen on some of the marque’s four and five door range – as well as their vans.
The 190SL came very close to shining its own halo back onto the 300SL.
A roadster had been on the cards for the W198 since quite early in its life. The gullwing doors, as distinctive and desirable though they were, were also a limiting factor for the W198. Not everyone enjoyed the adventure of literally climbing into the vehicle. A modified design for the space frame was formulated, and styling was briefed on the job.
Friedrich Geiger, who had done such a masterful job shaping the coupé, was tasked with the W198 update. These sketches, dated mid-1954, show rear-end treatments quite different to that on the coupe. The body in the middle shows a tail with rather pointed ‘ears’ similar to some Pinin Farina work on the Ferrari Superfast bodies. The large car appears to use a raised wingline with more rounded contours for the rear fender, a lot like that of the 190SL.
This was so seriously considered, it was taken to full-scale model stage. Whereas the 190SL’s rear lights sat at a bit of an inclined angle in body profile, the 300SL roadster was proposed with a more upright application.
From this view with taillights visible, the 190SL’s influence is more apparent. What’s even more interesting is the panel between the taillights that mirrored the grille shape upfront. It bears a marked similarity with the changes to the trunk of the Studebaker coupe body that became the 1956 Hawk series.
In 1957, dissatisfied with his attention to after-sales service, Mercedes-Benz ceased their arrangement for US imports with Max Hoffman. Studebaker-Packard, with its nationwide dealer network, was chosen in his place. But here, the coincidence of the two bodies predates the formal relationship.
Fortunately, saner heads prevailed and instead of a Duetto 300SL, the gorgeous rear end style of the gullwing was retained for the roadster. This is in many ways a prettier car than the gullwing. The bodyside carries more embellishment, but the chrome frame of the windscreen complements the curvature of this shape so well. It’s the new-style integrated headlight that becomes a keystone element of this shape, providing the perfect endcap to those flowing flanks.
As with the 190SL, a hardtop was to be offered for the 300SL roadster. This bizarre proposal made it to blueprint stage, but fortunately not to production.
Instead, this tidier shape was provided although I personally prefer the roadster topless.
And for those who wanted to extract the maximum performance from this machine, the 300SLS was available. I’d love one of those headlight blanks for my wall.
The 300SL roadster, known internally as the W198 II, replaced the gullwing at the top of the sportscar range and was produced between 1957 and 1963.
In 1957, the most significant change to the 190SL was considered. A 2.2 litre straight-six engine from the W180 220 saloon model was placed in four prototypes designated W127 and badged 220SL. This one appeared at Melbourne’s Motorclassica last year and is the only known example extant. It was never taken to production, primarily because of supply issues for the engine.
Instead, planning began on a single replacement for both the 300SL and 190SL.
As with the 300SL, the 190SL’s run ended in 1963. Today these are a much cherished – and relatively easily maintained – reminder of one of Mercedes-Benz brightest periods.