Road Royalty: The Mercedes-Benz 300SL and 190SL


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Story by Rich Taylor • Photography By Jean Constantine

Editor’s Note: This story was originally published in 2012. Values, references and vendors listed may not be correct.

You can tell at first glance that the Mercedes-Benz 300SL and 190SL are siblings. Built on the same 94.5-inch wheelbase, these two-seater roadsters share beautiful long-hood, short-deck proportions. Their front ends bear an undeniable resemblance to one another, with wide-eyed headlights and grinning grilles forming similarly gleeful faces. Watch both of these cars cross the block at auction, however, and you’ll notice a jaw-dropping difference between the two.

When both were new, the 3-liter 300SL cost roughly twice as much as the 2-liter 190SL. Today, that price difference is 10 to 1. The first car has become a million-dollar milestone; the other makes a great investment that doesn’t have to be sheltered from the outside world.

WORLD'S GREATEST ROAD CAR: Mercedes-Benz 300SL

The devil is in the details, and no car provides better than Friedrich Geiger's brilliant 300SL

The devil is in the details, and no car provides better than Friedrich Geiger's brilliant 300SL

The 300SL is a collaboration from four unlikely characters, each a genius in his own field. The story begins with Rudi Uhlenhaut, engineering director of Mercedes-Benz.

He created a race car called the 300SL using pieces of the stodgy 300 series sedan: an old-fashioned 3-liter SOHC inline six and a four-speed gearbox. He cleverly wrapped those components in a lightweight, tubular space frame fitted with coil spring suspensions in the front and rear.

The resulting chassis was decades ahead of its time. Back then, Ferrari was still using a ladder frame and rigid axles on leaf springs. Clothed in an aerodynamic body hammered out of aluminum, the 1900-pound 300SL won everywhere from Le Mans to La Carrera Panamericana in 1952 and ’53.

How did this track car make its way to the street? Enter Maximilian Hoffman. In September 1953, the incomparable “Baron of Park Avenue”—at one time or another, Hoffman served as the American distributor for almost every marque, from Abarth to Zil—lordly guaranteed to buy 1000 units if Mercedes built a street version of the all-conquering 300SL. At war-wrecked Mercedes, an order of a thousand cars was not to be sneezed at.

The automaker instructed Uhlenhaut to revamp his race winner for limited production. The 2996cc engine, canted over 45 degrees and fitted with a dry sump lubrication system to fit under the low hood, received Bosch mechanical fuel injection, making the 300SL the first gasoline fuel-injected production car in the world. Otherwise, the chassis and running gear were almost identical to that of the all-conquering race car.

This is where the third collaborator comes in. Karl Wilfert, brilliant director of Mercedes-Benz styling, was responsible for creating an aerodynamic body for the production car. It bore resemblance to the 300SL racer, but incorporated lights, bumpers and all those other bits that street machines need.

Finally, there’s Mercedes stylist Friedrich Geiger, who was in charge of the project. The 300SL is not a car of great delicacy, but Geiger’s design is one of the all-time best nonetheless—forceful without being brutal, clean but not barren, possessed of character and poise. The production body was built in steel, with an aluminum hood, trunk and doors. Geiger, in perhaps his most significant design decision for the car, used unique gullwing doors similar to those on the racer to clear Uhlenhaut’s space frame.

The production 300SL weighed 3000 pounds, half a ton more than the track car, but it could still travel from zero to 60 mph in just over 8 seconds, zero to 100 mph in 21 seconds, and the quarter-mile in 16 seconds at 90 mph. Top speed, depending on gearing, was a little more than 160 mph. Those figures may not seem earth-shattering today, but in 1954 and from just 3 liters, they were the stuff of which dreams were made.

In deference to Max Hoffman, whose idea it was to make street 300SLs in the first place, Mercedes introduced the car at the New York Auto Show in February 1954. It was priced at an astronomical $6820—at the time, a brand-new Corvette started at less than $2800. The 300SL continued to grow even more expensive, and reached $8905 by 1957. Compared to today’s values, however, that was still a bargain investment.

Grand as it is, the 300SL Gullwing was always a compromise. Uhlenhaut was a racer, and the Gullwing was really a race car quickly converted for the street. It was hard to get into, then hot and stuffy once you were inside. Mercedes-Benz sold 1400 copies during its four-year run, 80 percent of them in America.

For 1957, the factory told Uhlenhaut to come up with a more civilized car: a 300SL convertible with conventional doors, a folding top, and roll-up windows. The now-famous low-pivot swing axle derived from the one on the Mercedes W196 Grand Prix racer replaced the coupe’s less sophisticated high-pivot rear suspension. The rest of the chassis and styling remained essentially unchanged.

The roadster came out more refined, more luxurious and more elegant, but also more expensive. It cost $11,099 with a soft top and $11,573 with a removable hardtop. It didn’t ask the occupants to make as many sacrifices, however.

Between 1957 and 1963, Mercedes sold 1858 copies of their 300SL roadster. Buyers, as expected, were wealthy enthusiasts like the Aga Khan, King Constantine of Greece, Clark Gable and Tony Curtis. By 1962, the roadsters came with four-wheel disc brakes and an all-aluminum engine; realistically, however, the upgrades made little difference in the driving experience. Any number of small features changed from year to year on what are, after all, hand-built cars produced at the rate of one per day. Still, the model’s essential goodness remained throughout its lifespan.

Of all the blue-chip investment vehicles there are in the world, of all the four-wheeled icons built since World War II, the 300SL is at the top. As restorer Paul Russell puts it, “The 300SL is great to look at, great to be in, great to drive.” Years ago, in my book “Modern Classics,” I wrote, “If there were only 1000 or 500 or a dozen 300SLs, that handful, that few, that one car would still be the greatest road car ever built.”

While the 300SL's racing prestige helps the car draw huge bids at auction, too much street use—let alone track use—can cause an example to lose value.

THE CULT-CLASSIC SIBLING: Mercedes-Benz 190SL

The 190SL seems smaller and more delicate, but the two cars are actually built on the same 94.5-inch wheelbase.

The 190SL seems smaller and more delicate, but the two cars are actually built on the same 94.5-inch wheelbase.

By 1953, the concept of building a sports car based on running gear from a small production sedan had already spawned such diverse machines as the Austin-Healey, MG TD, Porsche 356 and Triumph TR2. At the same meeting in September 1953 that led to the streetable 300SL, Max Hoffman suggested that Mercedes also build a small sports car. He wanted the prototype to show alongside the 300SL at the New York Auto Show—just five months away.

The basis for this new, small Mercedes-Benz sports car would come from the 180 sedan. It debuted in July 1953 as the brand’s first fresh postwar design. Every other Mercedes was still a warmed-over prewar car.

The assignment for the new, diminutive car first fell to engineer Fritz Nallinger, who started by cutting 10 inches from the wheelbase of the 180 unibody. Coincidentally, he ended up with the same 94.5-inch wheelbase of the 300SL.

The 190SL's sedan origins are easy to discover under the hood, but Mercedes quality is present throughout the car.

Now he needed an engine. Enter the brand’s new 1.9-liter, 120-horsepower inline four fitted with an aluminum, single-overhead-cam head fed by twin Solex 44s. Happily, Nallinger could also use the independent front suspension and innovative “single-pivot” independent rear suspension from the new sedans.

Stylist Walter Hacker got the rush assignment to draw the 190SL, and was told to deliberately use details similar to those on the 300SL. Imagine having his job: You’ve got just a couple months to create a whole new car on a whole new chassis, using design motifs that Friedrich Geiger is simultaneously inventing for the 300SL. Unlike Geiger’s cost-is-no-object 300SL, however, the 190SL had to be affordable.

Hacker succeeded beautifully. The 190SL was obviously related to the 300SL, yet distinguished—petite but even prettier.

It was May 1955 before the 190SL went into production, priced at half of what a 300SL cost. It featured just about the same performance as a contemporary Triumph TR2, but offered roll-up windows, a big trunk, a real heater and build quality that was unmatched by any British marque except perhaps Rolls-Royce. So what if it cost 60 percent more than a Triumph? A Porsche 356 or Alfa Romeo Giulietta cost nearly as much as the Mercedes, but without comparable luxury and reliability.

The 190SL had two problems from the very beginning, though. First, it was almost completely overshadowed by the 300SL. It was a Pippa Middleton scenario: She may be cuter, but her big sister will still become the queen of England.

Second, the 190SL was seriously overweight. A contemporary Alfa Giulietta, Porsche 356 or Triumph TR2 all checked in at less than 2000 pounds. The new Benz weighed over 2500 pounds—even more with the optional hardtop or in coupe form.

The extra weight hampered both acceleration and cornering. A few people tried racing 190SLs with limited success, and aside from 17 rudimentary Rennsport kits, Mercedes offered very little help.

Professionals and wealthy amateurs were more interested in racing the 300SL. For impecunious beginners, a less expensive Triumph or MG that came with factory backing made a lot more sense than racing a pricey Mercedes.

The 190SL soon got a reputation for being a “boulevard sports car” or, even worse, a “chick car.” Among enthusiasts, that was the kiss of death.

On the other hand, Mercedes sold almost 26,000 copies of the 190SL, many of them to high-profile clients like Grace Kelly and Zsa Zsa Gabor.

Bottom line: Just as Max Hoffman had hoped, the 190SL relaxed Mercedes’s stuffy image in the U.S. Unless they lived in Beverly Hills or Palm Beach, most Americans never got to see a 300SL in real life. But 190SLs appeared in upper-middle-class neighborhoods across the country, often parked next to a sensible Mercedes Ponton sedan.

There's nothing intimidating about the 190SL; it's pretty, pleasant and fun.

Playing Favorites

If you can afford a million-dollar sports car, obviously we recommend you buy a 300SL. It will be a life-defining moment you will never regret. The car is fast, solid and exclusive. It’s welcome at just about any automotive event, too.

It’s also the machine that put Mercedes-Benz back in the game. This one would be on any list of the most important cars ever built.

However, if you want a graceful, dependable, comfortable, undemanding little car for vintage rallies or car shows, the 190SL has all the style and appeal of a classic Mercedes for less than $100,000. The 300SL will always be the star, but the 190SL attracts a special following.

In that sense, nothing has changed in 60 years.

Call the Factory: The Mercedes-Benz Classic Center Can Help, Too

While some manufacturers simply let the aftermarket handle parts and service for their older vehicles, Mercedes-Benz provides support for all models, no matter what the vintage. The Mercedes-Benz Classic Center in Irvine, California, offers parts sales and restoration services for their earlier models; they can find you the exact components you need. The Mercedes-Benz Classic Center can be reached toll-free at (866) MB-CLASSIC, and they maintain a pair of online sites: mbusa.com/classic and facebook.com/mbclassiccenter.


This article is from a past issue of the magazine. Like stories like this? You’ll see every article as soon as it's published, and get access to our full digital archive, by subscribing to Classic Motorsports. Subscribe now.

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