190SL, the car that saved the SL name

by Bernd

in Mercedes SL-Class

Mercedes SL

The 190SL did not have an easy start in life. Not that it was the black sheep of the family, but neither was it the white swan. It was the little brother of a show business star who had been sent to a gifted plastic surgeon to make him look the part. That beauty was just skin deep, though, for underneath it all was not the talent of a thoroughbred, but the genes of a reliable, hard-working farm horse.

Max Hoffman, U.S. importer for Daimler-Benz and other brands in the 1950s, was, as we all know, behind the 300SL. He knew his American clientele, so he asked the Daimler-Benz board not only for the super car, but also for a similar-looking beauty for people who wanted the looks, but not necessarily the price tag. Daimler-Benz, which had no significant presence in the U.S., listened to what Mr. Hoffman had to say. But Hoffman was not satisfied with the response. At a meeting between Hoffman and Daimler-Benz executives in Stuttgart on September 2, 1953, it was suggested that the 180 sedan platform be used.

Mercedes Ponton

The wrong option

When Nallinger showed Hoffman the concept of a lower-priced convertible based on the 180 sedan, the famously short-tempered Hoffman simply replied: “That’s not going to happen”. Of course, he would have been right if the project had gone ahead. Something more attractive was needed.

Shortly after this meeting, on September 25, 1953, stylist Walter Häcker showed his boss, head of design Karl Wilfert, the first blueprints of what would become the 190SL prototype.

190SL, Prototype design

Everyone, including Hoffman, was excited; not only did the car have similarities to the 300SL, but it also carried design elements from the 180/190 sedan backwards from the rear fenders. After getting the go-ahead from his superiors, Häcker did something incredible: In just three days, he managed to complete the final blueprints needed to build the car.

Mercedes SL Prototype

Although the concept of the car was essentially born at the insistence of Max Hoffman, he did not have it his own way. For cost reasons, a number of components such as the chassis and the front suspension with sub-frame had to be shared with the 180 sedan. This subframe was isolated from the chassis with rubber bushings and offered an almost vibration-free ride. A feature that was unheard of in a two-seater open touring car at the time.

An attractive new design

Although the 180 Sedan and 190SL shared similar genes, there were some important differences. The 180 chassis had been shortened by 254 mm (10 in) and the rear axle was not the carry-over from the previous 170S, but from the more powerful 220a. This meant that it already had the improved single-link, low-pivot swing axle. Fortunately, the idea to upgrade the aging side-valve engine of the 170S/180 never came up.

Instead, it was a fairly advanced four-cylinder in-line version originally developed in its basic form for the 180. This engine was loosely based on the M186 from the larger 300 sedan. It had a chain-driven overhead camshaft and twin Solex 44PHH governor downdraft carburetors. The carburetor system, by the way, was designed by a 27-year-old young engineer. He later became known as the father of the M100 engine for the majestic Mercedes 600. His name was Dr. Kurt Obländer. He also tested the 190SL prototype for its road holding. The new engine was called M121 B II, it had 1,897 cc (116 cu in) and offered 105 hp. It was nicknamed “The Rattle King” by the Mercedes engineers because of its specific noise at low revs.

Dr. Obländer with the running prototype

Two prototypes were built

Despite some reservations from other Daimler-Benz departments and even from Dr. Nallinger himself, it gave a respectable top speed of 172 km/h (108 mph) and could accelerate the roadster from a standstill to 100 km/h (62 mph) in 14.4 seconds. However, 190SL enthusiasts later agreed that the car would have benefited from an additional 30 to 50 hp.

The wheelbase was 2,400 mm (94.5 in), identical to that of the 300SL. The overall length of the car was 4,220 mm (166 in), which was about 300 mm (11.8 in) shorter than its bigger brother. Gasoline consumption was fairly moderate with an average of 9 liters per 100 km (26 mpg). The 65 liter (17 gallon) fuel tank also proved to be adequate. Although never officially advertised, the car could be ordered with four different gear ratios: 3.70:1, 3.89:1, 3.90:1 and 4.10:1. The 3.90:1 was the most common, as it offered the best balance between acceleration and top speed.

As promised to Hoffman, one of two prototypes of the car was sent to the New York Auto Show in February 1954, along with the 300SL. It did not run, however, and its Solex carburetors were made of wood. The second prototype did run and was used for testing back home. The power and performance figures published for the New York appearance proved to be on the optimistic side. Visitors to the show, of course, were unaware of this. The public and the press admired the 190SL and saw in it an elegant, smaller sports car sibling to the out-of-this-world 300SL.

190SL Prototype

190SL prototype vs. actual production model

190SL, 1

190SL is launched in 1995 in Geneva

More than a year after its introduction in New York, the Mercedes 190SL was finally unveiled at the Geneva Motor Show in March 1955. Its base price in Germany was 16,500 DM ($4,125). Its starting price in the U.S. was just under $4000, making it more expensive than the elegant and fast Jaguar XK140. In memory of the Silver Arrows racing cars, the 190SL was only available in silver metallic in its first year.

 190SL, instruments 1

Prototype instruments lay-out vs. production version

190SL, instruments 2

Gasoline consumption was fairly moderate, averaging just under 9 liters per 100 km, or about 26 mpg. Also the 65 liter or 17 gallon fuel tank proved to be quite sufficient. Although never officially advertised, the Mercedes 190SL could be ordered with four different gear ratios: 3.70:1, 3.89:1, 3.90:1 and 4.10:1. The 3.90:1 was the most common, as it offered the best balance between acceleration and top speed.

190SL in yellow

190SL, Pearlgreen, interior

Throughout its career, the car had seen minor upgrades, either in the form of wider chrome trim on the upper part of the door in March 1956, or in the form of larger taillights in June. These lights were now shared with the six-cylinder 220 sedans. The previously optional clock on the right side of the dashboard became standard and an ATE Hydrovac brake booster was added. In 1959 the rear window of the hardtop was redesigned to resemble that of the 300SL roadster.

 190SL, taillights 1

First and second generation taillights

190SL, taillights 2

The 190SL saves the SL program

The Mercedes 190SL was always compared to the more powerful 300SL, but there was never any need. It did not have the muscle of that pure thoroughbred, but its quality and refinement were almost on a par. For some journalists its road handling was even better (compared to the Gullwing, not the 300SL Roadster). As mentioned earlier, there was a general consensus that the car could use a more powerful engine to match the “S” for sport in the SL’s name. But resources in Stuttgart were limited to complete this project. The larger engine would have to wait for a successor model.

190SL, roof 1

First and second generation hardtop 

190SL, roof 2

If it had only been for the 300SL, the exercise of building such a car would have been a single one. Sales of the 300SL were relatively modest and it’s a safe assumption that Daimler-Benz lost money on every car produced. The Mercedes 190SL sold 25,881 units in its career and it was decided already in 1958 to develop a new SL. In the end, the “smaller” SL was more convincing from a business point of view, and aren’t we all glad to have the opportunity to enjoy such a car today?

If you want to read more about the 190SL, its development and history, plus the attempts by Daimler-Benz to give it a larger 2.2-liter engine, here you can buy the book and e-book. This link leads you to the US Amazon site, but the title is the same on Amazon sites in other countries. I am sure, you will enjoy.  

A German version of this book is also available from Amazon.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

????? February 13, 2024 at 2:14 pm

This is a topic which is close to my heart… Thankyou! Where are your contact details though?


Larry Pappo February 10, 2024 at 11:43 am

Hello Mr. Koehling,

Greetings from Canada!

As a longtime 190SL owner with special interest in the history of the car, I’d like to thank you for your wonderful book which I just bought and read – it has much information and photographs that are new to me.

May I post a photo of the book cover on the International 190SL Group Forum and recommend it to members?

Also, as owner of a specially restored 190SL which was re-created as the Prototype #2 New York Auto Show version (see colour photo in your article), I’d appreciate if I can ask you some questions that result from reading your book.

I look forward to hearing back from you if at all possible!


Dr. Larry Pappo
Toronto, Canada


Bernd February 10, 2024 at 1:21 pm

Dear Dr. Pappo,

thanks for your comment. I have sent you an email.


klaus köster December 18, 2022 at 12:55 pm

auch wenn alles englisch läuft , ich versuchs auf deutsch.
Habe mit großem Interesse Ihr bemerkenswertes Buch über den 190 SL verschlungen . Ein sehr gelungener Beitrag zu Geschichte und Entwicklung dieses einzigartigen Fahrzeugs . Es sind nicht immer nur die großen Helden die glänzen.
Ich erlaube mir aber ,Sie auf einen Fehler im Kapitel über Max Hoffman aufmerksam zu machen. Dort heißt es auf Seite 165 er habe Kontakt zu Josef Ganz gehabt, um mit Ihm einen Lizenzbau eines 2 sitzigen Roadsters zu organisieren . Gesetzt es war so , dann handelt es sich um den sogenannte Maikäfer , den Prototypen eines deutschen Volkswagens , ein Miniaturauto ,das Hitler ablehnte.
Der Name Rosengart , den Sie angeben , gehört zu Fahrzeugen des französischen Herstellers Lucien Rosengart , der sich im Großraum Paris in den 30er Jahren durch Lizenzbauten des Austin 7 und und später versch. Adlermodelle und Sonderkarossen auf Basis des Traction Avant einen Namen machte.
Wenn ich mir darüber hinaus noch eine Bemerkung erlauben darf , so würde ich anregen im Kapitel über die Technik in späteren Ausgaben tiefer auf die Unterschiede der 3 versch. Motortypen des 190 Sl einzugehen. Dazu findet sich anderen Ortes leider auch fast nichts.
Mit freundlichen Grüßen
Klaus Köster


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