Story and photo by Bill Vance

1962 Mercedes-Benz 190SL
1962 Mercedes-Benz 190SL. Click image to enlarge

If cars had feelings, the Mercedes-Benz 190SL could be forgiven for having an inferiority complex; it had to grow up in the shadow of its bigger, more glamorous sister, the 300SL gullwing coupe.

Its big sister seemed to have everything: a successful racing heritage that included wins at the Le Mans 24-Hour race and the Mexican Road Race; those fascinating gullwing doors; stunning performance; and even the honour of an automotive milestone by being one of the first four-stroke-engined production cars to be fitted with fuel injection.

Not that little sister 190 was without virtues. She was very attractive in her own right, but in a more demure and understated way. And she had the advantage of being a much cheaper date, in the $4,000 to $5,000 range, about half the 300SL’s price. And after the early infatuation had worn off, she would be much less costly to maintain over the long haul. Important considerations, those.

After the heavy damage inflicted on its plants during the Second World War, Daimler-Benz had made a remarkable recovery. In less than 10 years it had established a full line of cars from small sedans to the large, limousine-like 300. It had introduced its 300SL and 190SL to the sporting scene.

And it had re-entered grand prix racing with triumphant results that were reminiscent of the almost invincible racing M-Bs of the 1930s, winning the world championship in 1954 and ’55, and then retiring.

The 300SL and 190SL were marketed by Mercedes at the insistence of New York Mercedes distributor Max Hoffman. Hoffman, an early post-Second War imported-car czar who sold many different marques, understood the American market. In the case of the Mercedes sportsters, he turned out to be right. The 190SL and 300SL bowed at the New York Auto Show in February, 1954, the first Mercedes to make their premieres in the U.S. It indicated the growing importance placed on the North American market by the German company.

The 300SL was an out-and-out high performance, race-bred sports car. The 190SL was called a boulevardier, a mildly pejorative term used in sports car circles to describe a car that was more show than go.

The 190SL got into production in 1955. Its chassis was a shortened version of the company’s 180 sedan platform, including the high-pivot, swing axle, and coil spring rear suspension. The frame was strengthened to accommodate an open car. It was clothed with an attractive two-seater (plus an optional transverse seat in the back) convertible body with wind-up windows. This would be joined later by an optional removable hardtop, and a fixed hardtop coupe.

The 190 borrowed a lot of styling cues from the 300SL, including the wide grille with a large three-pointed star, the general rounded body shape, and the “eyebrows” above the wheels. Because it had a normal platform, unlike the 300’s multi-tube space frame that dictated its gullwing doors, the 190 had conventionally hinged doors. They didn’t however, confer the cachet of the gullwings.

Under the hood of the 190SL was a single overhead cam 1.9 litre (115.8 cu in.) in-line four-cylinder engine. According to Road & Track magazine it developed 120 horsepower at 5,700 rpm and 101 pounds-feet of torque at 3,800. Over one horsepower per cubic inch of engine displacement was excellent output in those days.

It didn’t enjoy the fuel injection of its big sister, but breathed through two Solex carburetors. Power reached the rear wheels via a manual, floor-shift, four-speed, all-synchromesh transmission.

When Road & Track (10/55) tested a 190SL it termed the performance as “very good for a 2-litre car of this weight” (1,134 kg; 2,500 lb). The car accelerated from zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) in 13.0 seconds and had a top speed of 160 km/h (99.8 mph). The 190SL was hardly “Super Light” as its name suggested, and the 1.9 litre engine had its work cut out for it.

The 190SL, which was built until 1963, remained remarkably unchanged over its nine-year life span. And in spite of some mechanical refinements, performance was altered hardly at all. Top speed rose a bit and acceleration fell due to a slight increase in weight. In Road & Track’s second test of a 190SL in December, 1960, it recorded a 0-to-96 (60) time of 13.5 seconds and a top speed of 171 (106).

By the time the last one rolled off the assembly line, a total of 25,881 190SLs had been produced, compared with some 3,200 300SL coupes and roadsters combined.

In spite of labouring in the shadow of big sister, the 190SL had, unlike the 300SL, made money for Daimler-Benz. For those who wanted a sporty car, it had also made the Mercedes mystique, if still not cheap, at least more affordable.

The 190SLs were bought and enjoyed by many enthusiasts for what they were: a comfortable, reliable and beautiful car that brought a great deal of driving pleasure to its owners.

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