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

The Mercedes 190SL is the unfortunate victim of my stupidity. No, actually it’s the other way around; given that I passed on the opportunity to buy one for relative peanuts in the late ’70s. As much of a Mercedophile as I have been since forever, I stupidly allowed my father to forever color my perceptions of the 190SL.

On a walk in Innsbruck in 1959, we encountered one at the curb. My father said one word: damensportwagen (woman’s sports car). And that judgment clouded mine, until way to late, when I’ve finally come to give it its full propers. I’d made some serious headway on that, but this SCI review really brought the point home: in its early years, the 190SL was very much a real sports car, even if it wasn’t hard-riding, uncomfortable, crude or noisy. Who says perfection can’t be a quality of a sports car?

The 190SL had a hard act to follow: the 300SL Gullwing, simply the fastest and best sports car in the world in the 1950s. And prior to that 190SL encounter, I had already had an intimate encounter with a 300SL. My father’s med school buddy married the daughter of the owner of Mahle Pistons, and she gave him one for their wedding present. He rallied it and was a superb driver. He came to visit us in Innsbruck, and gave my father and older brother a ride they will never forget. And I’ll never forget that they didn’t squeeze me in too. But I did get to sit in it afterwards, also an unforgettable experience.

After his wild ride in the 300SL, I suppose I should forgive my father for his dismissive comment about the 190SL. But it really wasn’t warranted. In 1956, when the 190SL came on the scene, its performance was perfectly competitive, except perhaps in a dollar value. But then Mercedes never came cheap, until recent years.

Griff Borgeson, the author of this review, made the same mistake I and so many others did in relation to the 190SL: that it was a let-down. Well, in his case the point of reference was the mighty 300SL, which he describes as being “over-gunned” for the road. He says: “it corners more securely than the 300SL, it has the same excellent steering, a similar full-synchro gearbox, the same quality finish throughout, and a better rear suspension.” And then he says what he might not have said, for me, anyway: “’s a car you might not mind turning your wife loose with—something not many 300SL owners are doing, you can bet”.  Ah, the damensportwagen, at least occasionally.


Here’s the key takeaway: “For a sports-touring car—not a competition car—the 190SL is about as close an approach to perfection as any of us are likely to see, and for the connoisseur’s car it is, it’s not expensive. But if you want a car for winning Class E races, keep looking…

But it wasn’t perfect in one regard: its paint job. Hmm. Who would have thought.

The 190’s engine was of course its Achilles heel, or so it turned out to be. It was a high output version of the new M121 SOHC four as also found in so many sedans, vans and even the Unimog. It shared certain design features with the 300 six, and its output of 120 (gross) hp was quite impressive for a 1.9L four. But obviously for the price, the lack of a six is what made it come to seem less than what it might have been.

Had it had the 2.2L six from the W180, especially with fuel injection, it would have been a different story. presumably MB had difficulties in supplying adequate numbers of the M180 six to the pontoon sedans, hence the reason for using the M121 four.

But for 1956-1957, 120 hp was a good showing: “the engine is awfully strong...”.

Acceleration was competitive, although not for the money so much. The 11 seconds from 0-60 is what the TR-3 would do, although in a very different fashion, as it represented the opposite spectrum in terms of sophistication and refinement. And acceleration certainly isn’t everything.

It was the usual Mercedes qualities that really made it stand out, and worth the price: “road-holding and steering inspire a profound sense of security, as do its brakes”. Cornering manners were deemed superior to the 300SL, thanks to the now single-pivot rear swing axle suspension, the ultimate development of that oft-scorned system. All this “contributes to a more or less subtle psychological level of to a sense of security and perfection that grows on you every hour you drive the car”. Which is exactly what every classic Mercedes did; hence the reason why folks were willing to pay plenty for that experience.

Speaking of, in around 1978-1979, I used to spend a lot of time perusing the ads in the LA Times, and by then well-used 190SL at shockingly low prices (from today’s standpoint) made their presence noticeable. The idea had a certain appeal; part of me knew it would be a good investment long term. But then the damenwagen thing would pop in my head. As well as knowing that even then they weren’t going to be cheap to work on.

I ended up buying an MGB-GT that was in worse shape than I was willing to admit, and sat in my garage for several years until I finally fixed it, and then sold it. Now if only I had made the right choice…


Highly related further reading:

Don Andreina’s stellar CC/Design Analysis of the 190SL