Curbside Classic: 1957 Mercedes-Benz 190SL (W121 B II) – Second Stradivarius

In February 1954, when Mercedes-Benz launched the legendary 300SL at the New York Auto Show, the new gull-winged supercar was flanked by a cute little drop-top companion. It was still a prototype, but within a year, the 190SL entered production. It was certainly made to look like the 300SL’s little cousin, but the similarities sort of ended there, skin-deep. Not that this was a bad thing.

The genesis of the 190SL was due, in large part, to Mercedes-Benz’s American importer, Max Hoffman – one of the most influential salesmen in automotive history. He was the driving force behind both the 300SL and the 190SL, but also the Porsche 356 Speedster, the BMW 507 and 2002, the Alfa Giulietta Spider and several smaller-run specials or one-offs on a variety of European chassis. The automotive world owes him a pretty substantial debt of gratitude, frankly.

Not that Mercedes-Benz were eternally grateful to the famous importer: by 1957, when our feature car was made, the German carmaker left Hoffman’s shop and signed a distribution deal with Studebaker-Packard. Nothing personal – just business.

Let’s go back to the beginning of the 190SL story proper. The prototype shown in early 1954 was deemed close enough to production-ready that M-B went to the trouble of printing a brochure. The 300SL was actually more mature and was produced first, leading Mercedes designers to revise the 190SL quite extensively before its real launch at the Geneva Motor Show in early 1955. For a thoroughly complete and lavishly illustrated account of this early period in the 190SL’s run, do please read Prof. Don Andreina’s essential post – there is nothing better out there.

They even translated that prototype brochure into English, apparently. Interesting to see the “racing” variant of the 190SL here. The baby SL was not reputed to be very Sport nor all that Leicht: it weighed close to 1200kg in standard trim – rather heavy for the “lively” 125hp gross (105hp DIN) under the hood. Perhaps the weight saved by the stripped-down version might enable a 190SL to reach the top speed claimed by this brochure?

It’s likelier that the initial brochure was a little over-ambitious with the V-max – this 1957 excerpt has a much more realistic (and somewhat vague) 170-180 kph number. The OHC straight-4 was a perfectly capable and very sturdy unit, but it was no Alfa twin cam. Nor did it ever claim to be. The whole point of the 190SL was to be an extremely well-built and reliable touring car, not a Mille Miglia contender, factory stripped-down “racing” version notwithstanding.

The confusion is related to the styling, more than anything. Because it looked like a 300SL, some folks might have been under the impression that it would behave like one. But the 300SL had a fuel-injected 3-litre 6-cyl. with twice the power of the 190SL’s engine. The two cars shared a certain aesthetic, a badge and a couple of letters, but little else.

And the aesthetic element is not uniform. For instance, from this angle, the 190SL looks like its own thing. Those small taillights, borrowed from the Pontoon saloon, and those muscly rear fenders are very 190SL. The 300’s more rounded butt, fully integrated fenders and low horizontal lights look nothing like this.

Inside though, the 190SL is a complete copycat of its big sister. No complaints there – everything in here is simply sublime. And labelled… Just one thing: why some people want A/C in a convertible will always baffle me. Yes, Tokyo summers are horribly hot and steamy, but why bother with adding air-con to a ‘50s convertible that was never designed for it in the first place? Just drive something else for three months. You can probably afford to if you have an SL.

Just over 25,000 of these beautiful cars were made until late 1962, with sales carrying on till the first half of 1963. Mercedes replaced both this and the 300SL by the Pagoda, so the 4-cyl. SL seemed to have been a short-lived experiment. However, the memory of the baby SL endured and was revived in the mid-‘90s with the SLK roadsters, reintroducing the smaller 4-cyl. drop-top concept to the range. Incidentally, the first SLK (the R170) featured the same 240cm wheelbase as the 190SL.

The idea of having two SLs made a lot of sense at the time, as it does nowadays. Perhaps Mercedes should have stuck with it, instead of forgetting about it for 30-plus years.

The 190SL will always play second fiddle to the mighty Gullwing. But when said fiddles are a pair of genuine Stradivarius, the term ceases to feel somewhat less than complimentary. Only in Mercedes-Benz’s range would the 190SL not been the range-topping halo car everyone yearned for.


Related posts:


Curbside Classic/Design History: Mercedes-Benz 190SL (W121) – Basking in the Glow of an Extremely Bright Halo, by Don Andreina

Vintage SCI Review: 1957 Mercedes 190SL – “A Sense of Security and Perfection”, by PN

Cohort Pic(k) of the Day: Mercedes 190 SL – A Gallery Of Seduction, by PN

Curtis Perry Outtake: Mercedes 190SL – Pretty in San Francisco, by PN