The 190SL's designers had a challenge on their hands-to echo the 300SL's styling, but not copy it

Close your eyes and picture your local main drag on a Saturday afternoon. Parked outside the neighborhood coffee shop, what do you see? Likely one or two Mercedes SLs, 280s. 560s. 450s. 380s. They're a breeze to own and drive, good-looking cars that have always been popular, comfortable, and tasteful. On the used market, they're the everyman's German roadsters, and they all have as their progenitor the 190SL.
The 190SL's own heritage is distinguished, a melding of the 180 sedan's unibody genes and the supercar 300SL's styling. Its impetus came from the showrooms of Max Hoffman, Mercedes-Benz's New York importer in the 1950s. To Hoffman's way of thinking, the enthusiasm generated by the 300SL's 1952 victory in La Carrera Panamericana represented an opportunity to sell cars-lots of them-but the Gullwing's sticker of $8,000 was more than twice what most folks were willing or able to pay. Hoffman wanted a cheaper roadster to satisfy the American taste for open-top motoring, and Mercedes engineers decided to give him just that.
The 190SL's designers, Karl Wilfert and Walter Hackert, had a challenge on their hands-to echo the 300SL's styling, but not copy it, to link the new car to the 300SL in buyers' minds, without tarnishing that most famous Mercedes. A prototype was developed in time for the New York Auto Show of 1954, and it was very near the final production car, though this car only had the 190SL's famous "eyebrows" over the front fenders, not the rear, and it had a hood scoop.
After some refining, the 190SL became available to the public in 1955. Some have described its design as similar to Raymond Loewy's 1950 Studebaker Commander, but to most the 300SL was the more obvious relative. It was a success for the design team, as the new roadster fit in well with Mercedes' line at the time, a low-slung, wide-eyed car with a racy open grille, a huge Mercedes star in front, and a sleekly tapering rear with low-profile taillights.
It was available as a coupe or a roadster, but the coupe was a roadster, just one with a removable hard top but without the folding soft top. The doors, hood and deck lid were aluminum panels, while the rest of the unibody was stamped steel, and the 190SL weighed in at around 2,600 pounds. It carried an independent suspension, front and rear, and a vacuum servo-assist drum braking system similar to the 300SL's. A four-speed manual transmission with a floor shifter was standard.
The car, while having the appearance of a sports car, was let down by the engine: a single-overhead-cam four cylinder with two dual downdraft Solex carburetors, displacing 1897 cc and making just 105 horsepower. Top speed was around 105 mph, and the 190SL's 0-60 mph time was a stately 13 seconds. This modest performance led many to characterize the 190SL as a touring car rather than a true sports car like its big brother.
Chrome trim was added after the first year of production and the car received an in-dash clock in 1957. Notable mechanical changes were made to the brake servo and the rear axle's gear ratios over the years. Production ended in February 1963, with a total of 25,881 190SLs produced.
A potential 190SL buyer has a few areas of concern. As a European touring car, the 190SL was meant to be used across a multitude of climates, but its heater has often been described as feeble.
Don't be dissuaded if a 190SL you're looking at is fitted with replacement Weber or Stromberg carburetors. The original Solex carbs were complicated to tune, especially their vacuum-operated secondaries, and many were replaced. If you intend to show the car competitively that might be a problem, but otherwise these are perfectly appropriate for driving. Just be sure an often-disconnected bracket supporting the carbs from below is still in place.
If you're not happy with the performance of your car, regardless of which carb is in it, in his February 2004 profile, Alex Finigan suggested that a single downdraft carburetor and manifold from a Mercedes 190b can be a solution. Of course, it takes the look of the engine compartment farther away from stock and even farther away from a sporty appearance.
Look extremely carefully for rust in these cars, as their unibodies are both prone to rot and rarely worth fixing if it is extensive. Search for previous rust repair in the rocker panels below the doors, as well as in jack points, and rear axle follower arms. Also, be wary of cars with a lot of underbody coating, as we all know what that's usually hiding.
John Olson of the SL Market Letter ( says that 190SLs are slowly but surely increasing in value. Even though these cars are not rare, good 300SLs seem to be easier to find, as the prices at which 190SLs trade don't really support restorations. A nice driver 190SL can be purchased for around $25,000, while $45,000 and up will buy you a better one. SCM contributor Alex Dearborn reports that he has sold perfect cars for more than $100,000 at his dealership, but those prices are the exception. Original accessory hard tops are rare and desirable, as is original fitted luggage.
Its sophisticated looks, decent parts availability and a supportive group of SL enthusiasts make the 190SL a desirable car for a budget-minded collector. Potential buyers should be confident that the 190SL will hold its value if carefully maintained. And if, every once in awhile, someone mistakes your car for a $250,000 300SL roadster, consider it an extra bonus.

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