|1957 Mercedes-Benz 190SL Roadster
|Original List Price:
|$4,032 in 1957
|Tune Up Cost:
|Chassis Number Location:
|Stamped into firewall to the right of the battery
|Engine Number Location:
|Left side of cylinder block, by rearmost cylinder
|International 190SL Group
|1956–59 Porsche 356 cabriolet, 1961–68 Alfa Romeo 2600 Spyder, 1955–62 MGA
This car, Lot 160, sold for $126,500, including buyer’s commission, at RM Sotheby’s Santa Monica, CA, auction on June 24, 2017.
The purchase of a 190SL is a highly variable transaction.
While the market for great examples has grown beyond what it was a decade ago, the gains that were seen between 2010 and 2014 have tapered off.
The 190SL still lives in the shadow of the 300SL, and when 300SLs came up, so did 190SLs. As 300SLs have established themselves in the $1.2 million–$1.4 million range, the best 190SLs have ended up at 10% of that.
Unfortunately, many buyers can’t seem to distinguish between the best examples and the most-expensive ones. Read on to learn the difference.
A variable market
Those of us in the industry know how ugly any car can get when it is abandoned for decades. Unfortunately, this was the case with most 190SLs up until about seven years ago.
In those days, the 190SL market was unpredictable. You could purchase a rotting carcass for $10,000 and resell it for $25,000 to a European restorer.
I recall a trip to Jupiter, FL. I was cruising down U.S. 1 when I noticed the nose of a 190SL at a repair shop. I gave a friend who bought these things a call.
In a week or so, he managed to snag that car in the very low teens. He then resold it at a significant profit within a couple of days.
This represents the bottom of the market, where the fast cash is made, and Dutch or German buyers are waiting with their hands in their pockets.
Most 190SLs have passed through these proverbial gates of hell as beaters — and on to restoration shops in Europe. These rotting hulks are typically restored in countries such as Poland, Latvia or the Czech Republic for a far lower price than U.S. or Western European restorers can churn them out.
The finished product represents the second type of 190SL: the restored driver. The European crowd actually uses these cars and enjoys them for the experience, so most cars — but not all — sell through private transactions over there.
While these cars are often fitted with industrial-grade leather and many reproduction parts, they are fun to drive and are often mechanically solid. Hence, their roughly $100k price tag focuses on usability rather than concours worthiness.
The next type of 190SL is the conserved example, which is not as rare as one would presume. I have driven several of these cars, and they are charming and usable — even with cracking paint and aged mechanicals.
They generally run and drive better than their restored counterparts, and the majority of them reside in the United States. They represent the best-kept secret for the money, and usually trade under $100k.
It should be noted that documented, perfectly preserved specimens can be worth twice as much.
Concours restorations — or wanna-be concours restorations — represent the fourth market segment. This is where our subject W121 sits.
These cars have often received restorations from privateers looking to make a buck, so not all of them meet the required standards.
While many of the 190SLs that show up in domestic auctions claim to have no-expense-spared restoration pedigrees, many have been restored at hot rod shops that lack experience and are hell bent on making a profit.
Hose clamps, carburetors still reliable indicators
How do you identify cars from hot-rod shops? The clues are obvious. Underhood, one often sees American hose clamps and Weber or Mikuni carbs, along with a generic, lifeless leather kit inside. When you see a no-sale of an apparently nice 190SL at auction, it typically means that it failed to pass muster under scrutiny.
The sad truth is that you still can’t perform a correct, concours-level restoration of a 190SL and generate a profit.
If you’re in the market for a 190SL, familiarize yourself with the Beru cotter pin clamp. These clamps consist of a 0.1-mm thick steel strap bound by a cotter pin. While they come in different sizes, they were the predominant clamp on the 190SL. Occasionally, Norma clamps, with a fine-thread, flathead screw, were used for non-cooling system hoses, but generally the presence of the cotter pin clamps is a good sign.
Our subject car appears to use Beru cotter pin clamps, but if you look closely, you’ll see that the lower radiator hose and thermostat bypass hose use the aforementioned American clamps. This kind of treatment is still a red flag, as it makes you ask, “What other corners did they cut?”
Cars restored in Europe frequently utilize modern Norma worm clamps, which are far less hideous than the giant American clamps of the typical hot-rod shop restoration most U.S. 190SLs receive.
Check for the Solex PH44s
Now for the big one — a number of 190s have been converted to Weber sidedraft or Mikuni carburetion instead of their original Solex PH44s.
Some “experts” try to claim the Mikunis are Solex replicas, but the Solex is to a Mikuni what a German shepherd is to a miniature poodle.
The Weber conversion is fine if you’re racing the car, but the 190SL is an awful vintage racer, and Webers are for Italian cars with high-revving engines and aggressive camshafts. They don’t do so well with the torquey Mercedes M121 engine, which feels truck-like.
During one stint at Auctions America, I overheard a restorer denigrating the good old PH44. Anyone who claims to be experienced with the 190SL but can’t make a set of PH44s work is not as dedicated to their craft as they should be. Anyone who has bought a 190SL with incorrect carburetors for the sake of financial gain should consider converting back to PH44s if they are serious, because savvy purchasers bid far less for 190SLs without Solexes.
If you want a functional carb conversion, consider using the intake manifold and the single carburetor from the 190 sedan. I’ve driven one of these, and it performed almost as well as the original setup.
Mercedes should have followed through with adding mechanical injection to the 190SL, as they experimented with it during development, but it was dumped because of cost considerations.
Subject car a winner
Because this 190SL has its correct carburetors, decent leather and may have possibly been an original black car, it was, in today’s demanding market, fairly bought and sold.
While little was mentioned of the car’s restoration pedigree, the surface details are acceptable for a $130k car. The seller got a fair price, and the buyer acquired an example that should retain its value. ♦
(Introductory description courtesy of RM Sotheby’s.)