190 SL and SLK-Class

Compact, innovative and easy on the eye

  • 190 SL:  dream car of the fifties
  • SLK-Class:  roadster exhilaration since 1996

Maximilian Edwin Hoffman spent hours trying to persuade the Daimler-Benz Board of Management to build a reasonably priced sports car for the American market. When he finally obtained the go-ahead from the then Director General Dr. Fritz Könecke, the elegant American still felt he had lost out. This was due to the proposal from Development chief Dr. Fritz Nallinger recommending that the small sports car Hoffman wanted to build should be constructed on the platform of the 180 Saloon. Hoffman’s immediate rejoinder was to the effect of ”That’s not going to come to anything.” Later, the car buff good-naturedly conceded:  ”I lost ‑ the outcome was the 190 SL.”

The notable Board meeting in Stuttgart, viewed as the session which gave birth to the famous 190 SL, took place on September 2, 1953. The people responsible for the business had invited Max Hoffman because the entrepreneurial American had been importing European cars to the USA ever since 1946 and had demonstrated an unfailing instinct and a considerable level of prescience. He was therefore the right person to partner Mercedes-Benz when it came to penetrating the American market.

190 SL in the design engineering office of the form development department, March 1955. These models show development from the preliminary stage to production version, from left to right: 1:10-scale plastic model, 1:10-scale synthetic resin/fibreglass model, 1:5-scale plastic model and one of the first cars from the pre-production series

190 SL in the design engineering office of the form development department, March 1955. These models show development from the preliminary stage to production version, from left to right: 1:10-scale plastic model, 1:10-scale synthetic resin/fibreglass model, 1:5-scale plastic model and one of the first cars from the pre-production series

The 190 SL, whose prospects of success were rated so low by its overseas godfather after what had for him been a disappointing meeting with the Board of Management was, together with the legendary gullwing 300 SL, to throw open the doors of the American market to the world’s oldest automotive brand. With this in mind, Hoffman was promised the 300 SL for the ”International Motor Sports Show” in New York, held from February 6 to 14, 1954. And its baby brother, the 190 SL, was to make its debut alongside it. The intention was to win the hearts and minds of the American public with an elegant sports car from a renowned company – one which combined an exciting design with a modest price tag.

190 SL with coupé roof from 1955

This of course meant that the engineers were left with no more than five months to develop this car. Things had to move swiftly, and just two weeks after the meeting with Hoffman, the directors at Daimler-Benz were already examining initial draft designs for the new car. Two weeks later, they met to evaluate the first 1:10 scale model and eight weeks after that, the first 1:1 model was ready for their inspection. Then the already breathtaking pace of development actually increased. The floor assembly of the 180 model had to be adapted to suit the new design notions and the right engine had to be found.  The tight schedule also meant that the shapes for the wooden blocks which would eventually give rise to the body of this car needed to be in final form no later than October 31, 1953. Faced with this time pressure, it was ultimately to be Walter Häcker who made the decisive changes to the draft designs for the body shape, culminating in the unmistakable character of the 190 SL.

190 SL Roadster dashboard from 1958

While the designers were working flat out and with great enthusiasm on the new sports car, the Board of Management were giving fundamental thought to the future model policy. One of the reports from these Board meetings consequently states that the 190 SL should be viewed as a sports tourer rather than as a racing sports car.

Double premiere in New York

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

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

Finally, on February 6, 1954, the New Yorkers enthusiastically responded to the arrival of the 190 SL with their hallmark exuberance and style. The German journal ”Automobil + Motorrad Chronik” reported a ”turbulent debut.” Other newspapers and magazines also marvelled at the chic sports car from Stuttgart and informed their readers of the new ”Star in the Automotive Firmament,” heaping praise on its ”refined elegance.” Another German journal, ”Motorrundschau” then encapsulated what many people were by then thinking of the 190 SL: ”A tantalising dream for the thousands of people for whom the 300 SL would always be unattainable.”

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

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

Nevertheless, for an initial period, the younger brother of the motor racing star remained no less elusive for the buying public because the 190 SL, after causing such a sensation, was simply not put on the market – not immediately anyway. The designers were still being vociferous about a range of weaknesses: in their eyes, the car still did not have quite the right look and the new engine, later used in the saloon version of this model, still behaved in a rather idiosyncratic manner. All in all, there was no hiding from the fact that the rapid pace of development had left no time for thorough trials and test cycles. Under no circumstances was Mercedes-Benz willing to dispense with this rigorous approach to a new product.

Refined cars from Germany: Daimler-Benz displayed the 300 and 190 SL models at the Geneva Motor Show in March 1955.

Refined cars from Germany: Daimler-Benz displayed the 300 and 190 SL models at the Geneva Motor Show in March 1955.

The engineers thus set about teaching their engine better manners. They experimented with various carburettor configurations, modified the shift lever configuration, and the body first exhibited in New York was also subjected to a number of refinements. This process did away with the stylised air intake on the bonnet, the front edge of the bonnet was offset towards the windscreen, the bumpers, turn signals and tail lights were modified and the familiar ”comet tail” bulges above the wheel arches on the SL models also appeared above the rear wheels of the modified 190 SL. This final version was first unveiled to an admiring public at the Geneva Motor Show in March 1955. Volume production started in May 1955, once the vehicle had completed all its technical trials and was deemed fit and ready for life on the open road.

190 SL Roadster from 1955

190 SL Roadster from 1955

At this point, the 190 SL appeared on a stage where, at least during its early days in Germany, it looked somewhat out of place. Back in 1955, road traffic was still dominated by two-wheeled forms of transport. Most Germans would not have dared to dream of ever owning more than the tiniest of cars – frequently no more than a modified motorcycle with stabilisers. On the other hand, the stress and worry of finding somewhere to park were still completely unknown ‑ at this time, a total of 1.6 million cars shared a road network some 129,238 kilometres (80,304 miles) in length, of which 2,174 kilometres (1,351 miles) were motorway. Nowadays, although the number of kilometres on the road network has almost doubled, with a five-fold increase in the length of motorway sections, the roads in Germany have to carry almost 45 million passenger cars.

190 SL Roadster with coupé roof from 1955

190 SL Roadster with coupé roof from 1955

The year which gave birth to the Mercedes-Benz 190 SL also saw the partition of Germany, when the two German states gained separate autonomy. At the same time, when the Warsaw Pact was established, the political temperature between East and West dropped well below zero – the Cold War induced fear in a great many people.

In March 1956 the 190 SL reaches production of 3000 units.

In March 1956 the 190 SL reaches production of 3000 units.

Despite all this, there was still optimism in the air. The first indistinct signs of the economic miracle were starting to emerge in West Germany, prompting the much aspired for upturn in fortunes. The shortage of workers prompted thoughts of turning to Italy as an initial source of migrant workers. At the same time, Italy became the dream destination for holiday travel.

190 SL Roadster with coupé roof from 1958

190 SL Roadster with coupé roof from 1958

While the front pages of newspapers were reporting on the worldwide fight against polio with the new ”Salk” vaccine, the sports pages were enthusing about the racetrack successes of Mercedes-Benz cars. They swept to victory in the Grand Prix events in Belgium, Great Britain, the Netherlands and in Argentina. Mercedes driver Juan Manuel Fangio became World Champion. The cars with the star emblem also dominated all of the world’s most gruelling long-distance races – the Mille Miglia, the Targa Florio and the Tourist Trophy.

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