W 121 (1955 to 1963)

Alluring and comfortable: Mercedes-Benz 190 SL (W 121 series, 1955 to 1963)

  • The touring sports car at the side of the super sports car 300 SL
  • A sporty elegant two-seater touring and utility car
  • USA an important market for the vehicle

The story of the Mercedes-Benz 190 SL starts with Maximilian Hoffman. He was the Mercedes-Benz brand’s official importer for the US market in New York since 1952. When the company presented him two ideas in early September 1953 – bring the 300 SL racing sports coupé (W 194 series) as a production vehicle and simultaneously team it up with an open-top touring sports car – he recognised the potential for sales in the USA.

First prototype of the 190 SL exhibited at the International Motor Sports Show in New York

At the time, however, Daimler-Benz was completely absorbed in other design and development activities – for production vehicles and also for the 1954 racing season, for which the new formula racing car of the W 196 R series was earmarked. The pressures of work even made the Stuttgart people put off their plans to participate in sports car racing in 1953. So the new SL models increased the pressure, but they were important for the image of Mercedes-Benz – the 1950s marked the beginning of a new era after the Second World War. And these were interesting cars too because Mercedes-Benz lacked sporty vehicles in its range. Already in mid September 1953, the Board of Management made a decision: the road version of the 300 SL (W 198 I) would come out along with a smaller, open-top sports car, the 190 SL (W 121).

300 SL and 190 SL at the International Motor Sports Show in New York, February 1954

About five months after the decision the touring sports car and the super sports car were to celebrate their premieres – in America, at the International Motor Sports Show in New York, taking place there from 6 to 14 February 1954. At the time it was the most important motor show on the other side of the Atlantic. This meant that the engineers had very little time for development. So they had to hurry: a few days after the Board’s decision to build both vehicles, the directors of Daimler-Benz were examining the first sketches, and two weeks further on they were able to assess the first 1:10 scale model, which was followed eight weeks later by a full-scale model. And the pace of development was raised still further. The floor assembly, which came from the Mercedes-Benz 180, had to be adapted to the new ideas and the right engine had to be found. Moreover, the tight time schedule stipulated that the contours of the planers on which the body would be created be finalised by 31 October 1953. The race against time was won: Mercedes-Benz registered a tremendously favourable response to both vehicles at the show.

190 SL with coupé roof from 1955

Up until then, the bodies of various models also were available in the two-seater A-version as Cabriolet, Roadster or Coupé, the most recent example being the Mercedes-Benz 220 Cabriolet A (W 187). According to chief engineer Fritz Nallinger, this body variant would be replaced in future by the SL vehicles – no longer with the existing formal lines and face and explicitly in the SL design, including the star placed centrally on the radiator grille – a paradigm change in the model structure. The 190 SL was thus the symbol of a new product philosophy and the forefather of the SL-Class.

190 SL Roadster dashboard from 1958

First, series production of the Mercedes-Benz 300 SL began in August 1954 at the Sindelfingen plant. The 190 SL, on the other hand, was thoroughly revised once more because the car displayed at the International Motor Sports Show in New York was neither technically tested nor stylistically mature. In March 1955 Daimler-Benz then presented the final model of the touring sports car at the Geneva Motor Show. The body was designed by Walter Häcker and closely followed the design of the Gullwing Coupé 300 SL, but unlike the 300 SL the 190 SL had a retractable soft top. The production body showed some clear differences from the show car: the stylised intake scoop on the bonnet was dropped;  the forward edge of the bonnet had been moved farther back; there were “eyebrows” above the rear wheel cut-outs too; and the bumpers, indicators and tail lights were modified. The Sindelfingen factory built the pre-production series starting in January 1955. Standard production commenced in May.

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