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Zeitgeist: The Mercedes-Benz 190SL

By June 19, 2022News

The 190SL (W 121) was launched by Mercedes-Benz at 25th International Motor Show in Geneva in March 1955. It was pitched as a more affordable alternative to its ‘elder sibling’ the Mercedes-Benz 300SL “Gullwing” (W 198) 1954, coming in at half the price. Together, these cars paved the way for the successful Mercedes-Benz SL tradition — culminating in the current AMG-SL (R232).

Concept drawing for the 190SL (W121) by Walter Häcker, August 1954
Head body designer Walter Häcker (left) in a meeting with team at Sindelfingen plant, with a model of the 190SL, March 1955.

The development of the 190SL roadster was defined by Austrian-born, New York-based Max Hoffman, who imported luxury European cars to the United States in the 1950s. Hoffman would make suggestions to Mercedes about what he believed the American market wanted. This led to the sales success of the 300SL, with more than 80% of the 300SL’s total production run of 1,400 sold in America. Hoffman was instrumental in changing the company’s image in America, from a manufacturer of solid but staid luxury automobiles to one capable of rendering high-performance sports cars.

The Gullwing Coupé was based on a complex space frame chassis. Whereas the 190SL Cabriolet had the shortened floor assembly of the 180 Saloon model (W 120), paired with the additional self-supporting chassis-body structure. The car was designed as both comfortable and alluring – an open-top, two-seater for stylish travel. Mercedes Engineers Karl Wilfert and Walter Häcker designed the body with sporty lines, reminiscent of the 300SL. The 190SL was powered by the newly developed M 121, a 77 kW (105 hp) 1.9-litre four-cylinder engine with an overhead camshaft. Its top speed was a respectable 170 km/h – more than adequate for the roads of the fifties and sixties. Production of the 190SL commenced in 1955. Upon release, the car set an international standard for a culture of comfortable travel with sporty elegance.

25,881 units had been built by the time production ceased in 1963, most of which were dispatched to America. The 190SL is a crucial part of re-framing the American consciousness of Germany after WWII. This car embodies all the optimism and elegance of the 1950s, epitomising what we think of as ‘classic’.

A 1963 Mercedes-Benz 190SL will be offered as part of our forthcoming Collectors’ Cars, Motorcycles & Automobilia auction in August. This is a headline event in the collectors’ car market, and further entries are welcome. Get in touch with our team of specialists for a complimentary appraisal.

Entries close Wednesday 22 June.

Caolán McAleer
Head of Collectors’ Cars
caolan@webbs.co.nz
+64 27 929 5603

Ian Nott
Specialist, Collectors’ Cars
ian@webbs.co.nz
+64 21 610 911

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