The more refined baby brother of the Mercedes 300 SL ’Gullwing’

The Mercedes-Benz 190 SL was the more laid-back version of the legendary 300 SL and, like its much more exclusive big brother, was a huge hit in the U.S., practically establishing the SL model in Mercedes’ range for decades to come.

The 190 SL, like the 300 SL, was born out of a suggestion from U.S. executive and luxury foreign car importer Max Hoffman who thought that a less expensive but still exciting and luxurious version of the 300 SL would appeal to the U.S. clientele. He’d previously come up with the idea of the road-going 300 SL as well, reckoning that America’s rich and famous would love to blitz down the country’s infinite highways aboard a more friendly version of Mercedes-Benz’s 1952 Le Mans winner, the W194 300 SL designed by Rudolf Uhlenhaut.

Due to Hoffman’s significant success as the Mercedes importer, the Stuttgart-based company decided to follow suit on his bold ideas and debuted prototypes of the two SLs at the 1954 New York International Motor Sports Show in February of that year.

Unlike the 300 SL, for which a purpose-built tubular spaceframe chassis was created, the 190 SL exhibited a tweaked version of the Mercedes-Benz 180’s underpinnings. As such, it received the W121 nomenclature with the sedan known as the W120.

Keep reading to learn more about the 1958 Mercedes-Benz 190 SL

1958 Mercedes-Benz 190 SL Exterior

1958 Mercedes-Benz 190 SL
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The 190 SL was first shown alongside the 300 SL in early 1954 in New York City but the production only started in May of 1955. It was, at the suggestion of Mercedes’ Chief of Development, Fritz Nallinger, based on the unassuming Mercedes 180 Sedan which was selling for $3,350 back then in the U.S., which is about $30,930 today.

The Mercedes 180 was chosen as it was the first new design after World War II and benefitted from a unified body and frame construction, although the engine sat in an isolated sub-frame to minimize vibrations.

The engineering team in Germany constructed the prototype 190 SL in just five months, kicking the project off right after Hoffman himself flew to Germany in September 1953 to explain why he thought these sports cars would sell like hotcakes across the Atlantic.

The production-ready 190 SL was 10 inches shorter than the 180 Sedan and sported styling done by Walter Hacker’s team of designers which was obviously inspired by the Friedrich Geiger-penned 300 SL. Although less exotic-looking than a 300 SL, the design was still stylish and it was very well received at the 1955 Geneva Auto Show.

1958 Mercedes-Benz 190 SL
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Up front, there isn’t much in the way of differences between the 300 SL and the 190 SL. Granted, the general shape of the front fascia is different but all the emblematic elements of the ‘Gullwing’ are there. The massive rectangular chrome-framed grille is present with its single chromed dash running from one side of the inlet to the other, only to be interrupted by the Mercedes three-pointed star.

The inlet sits just above the chromed front bumper which runs around the edges of the car and feature rather large over-riders on the U.S. model. The orange indicators are placed outboard, just below the circular single-headlamp headlights. The hood itself sports a small hump that runs down the middle getting narrower towards the nose of the car.

The swooping profile of the car lacks any flashy elements although, again, we can see some design cues from the 300 SL that found their way on the diminutive ‘Sport Leicht’.

For example, above each wheel arch, there’s a horizontal crease, or ‘eyebrow’, identical to those on the 300 SL. The car has integrated fenders although the rear ones peer out a bit wider than the ones up front. On the rocker panel, there’s a chromed element that runs towards the back wheel where it ends with a chrome fender cover.

1958 Mercedes-Benz 190 SL
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The wheels themselves are covered by color-matching hubcaps, as was the trend back then with many cars, not only Mercedes-Benz models, while the whitewall tires were an often-seen option. That’s because the 190 SL was classified as a more relaxed tourer, clearly more refined than the purpose-built 300 SL which didn’t offer as many amenities and wasn’t as user-friendly.

As a fun fact, the 190 SL was classified as a sports roadster and was originally available with a soft top although a removable hardtop was later available.

The cars equipped with a hardtop were called “Coupes” by Mercedes-Benz. Also, you could order a hardtop if you purchased the 190 SL with a soft top. The car comes with a standard full-size single-piece windscreen although, as part of a dealer-installed competition pack, the SL was available with a small windshield up front and other modifications. “To better equip the model 190 SL for competition, the convertible top may be completely removed as well as both bumpers, thus reducing the overall weight. Similarly, the curved windshield can be replaced by a small competition screen. Upon special request, extremely light and low-cut doors are available, which can replace the normal doors, thus completing the conversion aimed at enabling maximum performance," is how the 1954 190 SL brochure described the modifications available.

To round things out on the topic of styling we end up towards the rear of the 190 SL. The car has a visibly narrow back end with tiny vertically-mounted taillights on the tip of the fenders complimented by the bumper just below them. The rear bumper is shorter than the one up front and, as such, it doesn’t cover the whole of the rear overhang. The chromed fuel cap is located on the right-hand side between the taillight and the right fender over-rider. Meanwhile the exhaust pipe exits from under the bumper on the left.

1958 Mercedes-Benz 190 SL
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The trunk lid barely doesn’t extend as far back as to meet with the rear bumper, ending just above the upper edge of the taillights as seen from the back. On the middle of the trunk, there’s the Mercedes three-pointed star and, just below, in chromed lettering, the “190 SL” model moniker which is underlined for added stylistic effect.

1958 Mercedes-Benz 190 SL Exterior Dimensions

Wheelbase 94.5 inches
Length 168.9 inches
Width 68.5 inches
Height 52.0 inches

1958 Mercedes-Benz 190 SL Interior

1958 Mercedes-Benz 190 SL
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The interior of the 190 SL is surprisingly spacious and is a true joy to look at. Literally, you could spend an hour looking at all the details like the chromed knobs, the period Becker radio, the white steering wheel or the huge dials behind it.

The interior is finished in a gorgeous combination of red over black with the interior door panels, the top of the dashboard and the seats being covered in red leather while the median part of the dash is black.

On the doors you’ll find that everything that sticks out from the leather upholstery is chromed: the lever that moves the window up and down, the door handle itself, and the door lock. Then there’s the chrome on the two-piece steering wheel. The main wheel is white but, attached to the middle bit, there’s an extra smaller chromed wheel also with two spokes like the one it hovers above. Obviously, the three-pointed star is located right there, in the middle.

Behind the massive steering wheel, within the lump on the dash, there are two main gauges. The one on the left is the tachometer with a 6,000 rpm redline while the one on the right is the odometer. The white lettering suggests that the 190 SL could reach 210 km/h which is about 130 mph. That number is far too ambitious as no stock 190 SL could exceed 110 mph. There’s also a third, much smaller, gauge just below the odometer which informs you about how much gas you’ve got left in the 17.2-gallon tank. The 190 SL averages 18.8 mpg on a good day.

In the middle of the dash, there’s the Becker Europa four-band radio with the interior light above it and the heater-defroster controls underneath. Unusually, there’s an analog clock placed on the glove box.

1958 Mercedes-Benz 190 SL
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The car doesn’t have a center console that extends between the seats so the gear shifter sticks right out and ends with a white round knob.

The lush front seats have virtually no side bolsters which could make tackling a twisty road a bit troublesome for the passenger. There’s also a small bench behind the front seats although it’s not particularly practical.

What is, however, is the trunk. As demonstrated by the 1958-built example in the pictures, the trunk is big enough to welcome a three-piece luggage set. All that alongside the spare wheel.

1958 Mercedes-Benz 190 SL Drivetrain

1958 Mercedes-Benz 190 SL
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Mercedes made use of the 180s platform but, otherwise, the 190 SL benefits from a different engine. It is known as the M121, a 1.9-liter (hence the ‘190’ moniker) four-banger which was loosely based on the M186 6-cylinder engine under the hood of the 300 SL. It had a cast iron block with an aluminum cylinder head, a chain driven overhead camshaft and was fed via a pair of two-barrel side-draft Solex 44 PHH carburetors.

With a 3.34-inch bore and a 3.29-inch stroke, the M121 developed a meager 104-horsepower at 5,700 rpm and 105 pound-feet of torque at 3,200 rpm.

The seemingly fatigued engine got the car to a top speed of around 106 mph while the sprint from 0 to 62 mph was achieved in 13 seconds. The car was also heavier than its rivals from Alfa Romeo and Porsche. It weighed 2,560 pounds, which is 600 pounds more than both the Giulietta and the 356A. That is despite the fact Mercedes-Benz fitted the 190 SL with aluminum doors, trunk, and hood. The rest of the body was made out of sheet steel.

The car came with recirculating ball steering. The suspension was by double wishbones with coil springs and stabilizer bar at the front and featured a single-pivot swing axle rear suspension, also with coil springs. This setup made the 190 SL a very comfortable cruiser and, given the Mercedes-level build quality which was foreign to the Italian Alfa Romeo or a British Triumph, it also didn’t crumble away if left outside during a shower.

1958 Mercedes-Benz 190 SL
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The power from the M121 four-cylinder was sent to the rear wheels through a 4-speed manual transmission with the standard ratio being 3.90:1. Some customers demanded a more powerful version to be delivered by Mercedes and, indeed, the German engineers successfully crammed the M180 6-cylinder engine under the hood of the baby SL.

However, the 220SL as it would’ve been known (since it rocked the engine of the 220A Sedan) was ultimately abandoned in late 1957 although the Mercedes board gave the green light to the new version. It’s believed that the final decision to ditch the big engine was due to the fact that the 180 and the 220 models were nearing the end of their life cycles and Nallinger was aiming to put together the replacement for both the 190 SL and the 300 SL on the underpinnings of the next sedan. This new SL finally appeared in 1963 and was known internally as the W113, using the W111/112 platform.

1958 Mercedes-Benz 190 SL Specifications

Engine 4-cylinder-inline engine (four-stroke), front-mounted
Displacement 1.9-Liter
Max. Power @ rpm 104-horsepower @ 5700
Max. Torque @ rpm 105 pound-feet @ 3200
Compression Ratio 8.5: 1, from 09/59 8.8:1
Fuel feed twin two barrel side-draft carburetors – Solex 44PHH
Valvetrain SOHC, duplex chain
Cooling Water
Gearbox 4-speed manual rear-wheel drive, standard axle ratio 3.90:1
Front suspension Double wishbones, coil springs, stabilizer bar
Rear suspension Swing axle, coil springs
Brakes Drum brakes (diameter 9 inches), power assisted
Steering Recirculating ball steering
Body structure Sheet steel, uni-body construction
Dry weight 2,560 pounds; Hardtop: adds 44 pounds
Top speed 106 mph

1958 Mercedes-Benz 190 SL Pricing

1958 Mercedes-Benz 190 SL
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The 190 SL was produced for seven years, between 1955 and 1962. In this time span, a total of 25,881 units were assembled at the Stuttgart Untertürkheim plant in Germany. Of these, over 80% were exported and at least 10,000 were sold in the U.S., proving Hoffman right – although his gig as the official Mercedes importer didn’t last much longer after the debut of the 190 SL and the car was later serviced and sold through the ailing Packard-Studebaker network of dealerships. This whole deal didn’t help the 190 SL, as well as the rest of Mercedes’ range, and sales weren’t as great as they could’ve been. In fact, the SL’s best year in the U.S. was 1956 when, through Hoffman’s network, over 1,800 examples were sold.

In any case, the 190 SL isn’t a unicorn in the same way that its bigger brother, the 300 SL, very much is.

In fact, you can still get your hands on a good example for just under $100,000.

However, Concours-level chassis sell for as much as $200,000. You can imagine, then, how much it would set you back to buy the cars that were once in the ownership of Zsa Zsa Gabor or Grace Kelly – if they’re still to be found today.

For instance, this particular 1958 model, a fully-restored matching numbers car, was sold during the RM/Sotheby’s Monaco 2016 auction for $165,943. It also has very low mileage. With that being said, Mercedes underlines that the prices of the 190 SL will only go up. “According to the data gathered by Historic Automobile Group International (HAGI), the 190 SL has increased in value by an average of around ten percent per year since 1980 and even by over eleven percent per year since 2004. The Roadster occupies a similarly prominent position in the leading group in the HAGI Mercedes-Benz Classic Index (MBCI).”

1958 Mercedes-Benz 190 SL Competition

Alfa Romeo Giulietta Spider

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The Pininfarina-designed Giulietta Spider was part of the Type 750/101 family of models and was built at Pininfarina in San Giorgio Canavese, Italy. The Spider was basically the drophead version of the Sprint 2+2 which was launched at the 1954 Turin Auto Show and it arrived a year after the Sprint.

It only weighed 1,896 pounds and was originally powered by a tiny 1.3-liter 4-cylinder DOHC engine before Alfa brought a 6-cylinder in 1962. The four pot was barely good enough for 82-horsepower but the Giulietta 1600 version with one Solex 32 PAIA 5 dual downdraft carburetor and a 9.1:1 compression ratio made 104-horsepower and 123 pound-feet of torque. The meatier Veloce versions, of which just 2,796 units were made (compared 14,300 usual spiders), had 129-horsepower and two Weber two-barrel side-draft carburetors.

The Spider was much more compact than the 190 SL, measuring 15 inches less than the Mercedes. The design has become a classic among Alfa Romeos with the typical triangular grille up front with the two elongated oval air inlets on either side just below the dual headlights. To some, it’s prettier than the Mercedes but there’s no denying that the Mercedes is the sturdier car and the one you’d have more faith in when it comes to tackling a longer journey.

Porsche 356A

1957 Porsche 356A 1600 Sportster High Resolution Exterior
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The 356A was produced between 1955 and 1959 and was known as the Type 1. It was the first 356 to be available with the four-cam Carrera engine although, most often, the car was ordered with the 1.6-liter 4-cylinder boxer air-cooled naturally-aspirated pushrod OHV engine with dual downdraft Zenith carburetors which produced 60 horsepower at 4,500 rpm and 81 pound-feet of torque at 2,800 rpm.

But, when it did come with the Type 692/2 B4 Carrera engine, the 356A was a different animal. That flat-4 with two Solex 40 PII-4 carburetors developed 105-horsepower at 6,500 rpm and 89 pound-feet of torque at 5,000 rpm.

Since it only weighed 2,094 pounds, a top speed of 125 mph was possible. The 356 was 13 inches shorter than the 190 SL and, as mentioned before, significantly lighter, which meant it handled better. It wasn’t, though, as well equipped although it didn’t let you down and many of the 21,045 356As produced are still on the road today.

Read our full review on the 1957 Porsche 356A 1600 Sportster.

Final Thoughts

1958 Mercedes-Benz 190 SL
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The 190 SL was a car born from the cunning idea of a dealership network owner. The bet paid off and Mercedes sold over 25,000 of them in 7 years, almost half of which ended up Stateside. While it didn’t provide the excitement delivered by the 300 SL, it also didn’t cost as much and it could actually be used as a daily driver.

It was also more refined than any of its competitors, be it the Triumph TR3, Porsche 356A or the Alfa Romeo Giulietta Spider. It was also superbly built, confirming Mercedes’ status as a builder of bulletproof cars, be it budget sedans or executive coupes and roadsters.

  • Leave it
    • Underpowered compared to some of its rivals
    • Overshadowed from the start by the 300 SL, although now it’s the more affordable option by a country mile

Further reading

1957 - 1962 Mercedes 300SL Gullwing (W194)
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Read our full review on the 1957 - 1962 Mercedes 300SL Gullwing (W194).

Source: RM Sothebys

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