1961 Mercedes-Benz 190SL W121 Epic Restoration


Here’s one I made earlier. This Austin Healey 3000 was Mark’s first ever resto. He learned plenty about rust…


THE BIG RESTORATION AS FOUND AUGUST 2005

She’s achingly pretty, one of those heart thumpers that silently grips the eye of the gawping admirer, reeling you in. But a car like this requires a six-figure-sum kind of restoration, right? Surely she’s aristocrat territory, one for the privileged few with more yachts than sense? Well, not if you happen to be a determined 21st century bloke from the Cambridgeshire Fens with a crafts man’s eye for perfection and the Patience of a saint. Then she’s all yours. That bloke is Mark Messenger, for whom this 1961 Mercedes-Benz 190SL W121 will always represent quality time spent with the family – particularly with his dad Jim, whose lifelong love of fixing vehicles has always been an inspiration. ‘I was taught cars by my dad,’ says Mark as he rolls open his workshop door for us. ‘Everyone used to repair their own cars in those days. That’s the way it used to be.’ This is the workshop that his dad built himself, complete with pit, where Mark remembers being 10-years old and helping his brother replace a gearbox on an Escort van. Fast forward a few years and Mark would restore a Healey 3000 here, then a Series III Land Rover, followed this gorgeous Merc.


Boulevard cruiser

Launched in 1955 and developed from the unibody Mercedes W121 saloon, the 190SL was the baby brother to the high-performance 300 SL. You won’t find any look-at-me gullwing doors or rampant performance here though. Its 1.9-litre engine was never going to light up Autobahns, nor the boulevards of California where many ended up. But the 190 SL was adequately swift and possessed enough of the 300 SL’s prettiness and German workmanship to persuade the first owner of this car to hand over a princely £2896 in 1961 (including 40 percent import duty – ouch!).

‘Until Mark brought it home I didn’t really know what it was,’ admits Jim. Flashy convertibles weren’t really his thing, ‘but you end up getting attached to anything when you start working on it,’ says Mark. Sure enough, there’s a twinkle of pride in Jim’s eye.


‘I only intended to do it once’

It all started 12 years ago with an eBay purchase of about ten grand. Cobbled together for the sale, the car was the twice-abandoned project of two previous wannabees; mostly complete and original, but a bit of a shambles.  

First a jig was needed for the body to sit on. Mark already had the one he’d built for his Healey, with the cunning ability to tilt to 45 degrees, so now he just created a new, removable top section to fit the Mercedes. Stripping the vehicle to bare metal naturally revealed a few areas of deep corrosion.

Like the 300SL, the 190’s aluminium boot lid, bonnet and doors (and dash top) all help trim a few pounds off the overall weight and resist the rot, but it’s a different story for the rest of the car. Mercedes didn’t use any rust proofing, so corrosion to the steel floor, wings and chassis can be severe.

Fortunately Mark was ready for it. ‘Restoring the Healey was a good lesson because it taught me that, even if the car looked relatively tidy, I knew it would be a big job once I start taking it apart. ‘If I can make a panel rather than buy it, I will. After all, if you buy a new panel you have to trim it to fit anyway.’ So he got to work replacing sections of the floor and fabricating his own metal to fit – mostly hidden details such as the battery box and a new bracket for the alternator (replacing the original dynamo).


‘I only intended to do it once’

If you follow those gentle curves around the car you’ll notice remarkably few panel joins – almost as if the car came from a 21st century production line – but in fact there are invisible seams where the body was originally welded together, lead loaded (like posh metal filler) and smoothed over. Mark replicated all of this process himself – flawlessly, of course.

‘To be honest, I didn’t realise I enjoyed all this when I was restoring the Healey, because I just wanted to get it done so I could drive it. Doing the 190 SL made me realise that my enjoyment is in restoring the car, finding the bits or making them, and not rushing it. I only intended to do it once, and I like to think that it’ll still be in reasonable condition in 20 years time, so if there was anything I could do to prolong the car’s life, I’ve done it.’


The mechanicals

The engine was stripped and the block sent to be rebored before Mark built it all back up himself. Another jig, this one much smaller, was built to take the renovated front subframe, before the engine was then added on top, then the bodyshell – by now complete and resprayed – was lowered over the top. Stainless steel bracketry, hoses and a polished rocker cover would later finish the dazzling picture. The original Solex PHH44 carbs were swapped for a pair of later Solex ADDHE C40s, slightly smaller than the originals but simpler and easier to keep in tune. ‘For me, the most important thing is that it’s reliable, it doesn’t matter how shiny it is. I listened to a lot of people who said the C40s are a nightmare for starting when hot and you should change to Webers instead, but in my experience, people who use them regularly don’t have the problems.’

The gearbox is also original but, like the engine, it’s refurbished to within an inch of its life, with new bearings and seals wherever needed. Things got trickier at the back, where the sweeping haunches conceal a nifty independent suspension set-up using a swing axle. It looks complex ‘but it’s actually very simple,’ says Mark.

‘I didn’t restore it to sell, so if I want to make it more useable, I will’


Which bit goes where

On the whole, parts availability for the SL wasn’t a problem, even if many of them did come from Germany and America. Some are interchangeable with other Mercs of the ‘Ponton’ era. ‘Some stuff’s cheap, some you have to pay through the nose for,’ says Mark. ‘But I try not to take it into consideration, nor the amount of time, otherwise I’m cutting corners.’ But that’s not to say he’s felt obliged to retain every period detail. ‘If you find a classic in a barn that’s original, then yes, don’t change it. But if the car needs massive work anyway, it’s different. This is my car, I didn’t restore it to sell, so if I want to make it more useable, I will.’ So under the bonnet are a few modest concessions to the modern world – electronic ignition and electric fans for example.

Merc geeks might also spot that it’s riding on 14in wheels from a later 250 SL rather than the original 13ins, because the cross-ply tyres of the era would have been taller, giving a rolling diameter that can’t quite be matched with today’s 13in radials. Fitting 14in wheels with radials therefore means the rolling diameter, and ride height, is close enough to the original.’

As for the interior, the carpet also isn’t ‘correct’ but uses a deeper pile as found on the 300 SL (who’s going to notice?) and its splendid new red trim, masterminded by Mark’s mate Geoff, has been crafted from  leather, rather than the original MB-Tex vinyl.

Mark reckons trimming the aluminium dash top in leather was actually the hardest part of the entire build. It’s a tricky procedure involving skiving the leather down to the right thickness, then wetting it and stretching it into the right shape before sticking it down in one piece from both ends at the same time. Once it’s stuck there’s no going back. Mark is understandably envious: I really admire Geoff’s ability to make something so tactile. Of all the work that was done on this car, that’s what I’d love to be able to do the most.’


Benz for life

Despite the 55-year-old Benz being worth at least £120,000 Mark isn’t going to let go of it any time soon. Its destiny is to spend the summer transporting Mark and his wife Tracey around the shows, its surprisingly capacious boot easily swallowing picnic chairs and a weekend’s luggage. Total mileage so far: about 2000. Breakdowns: just the one, when a linkage came off a carb because Mark had forgotten to do up a locking nut. We’ll let him off that one.

‘The biggest problem is that you do all the work and end up thinking, “Now what can I do with it?” You can’t leave it in a supermarket car park, or drive it to Southend and leave it at the seafront because when you come back there’ll be a load of people sitting in it!’ First world problems, eh?


USEFUL CONTACTS Mercedes-Benz Classic Parts in Poole, mercedes-benzofpoole. co.uk The International 190 SL Group, 190slgroup.com Mercedes Benz Club, mercedes-benz-club.com

PC RESTORER OF THE YEAR This car is entered into Restorer Of The Year 2017. Details on how you can vote will appear in a future issue of PC


WHAT’S IT LIKE TO DRIVE

It’s amazing how Modern the 190SL feels When you’re cruising over a bumpy road. That independent suspension and smart unibody design makes light work of the roughness beneath. And despite the relatively modest level of thrust, there’s still a whiff of long-legged, SL sportiness about the way it gallops along; this is comfort with the poise of a baby grand tourer rather than the pillowy opulence of a limousine. But while your bottom has no clue it’s in a car that’s 60 years out of date, the rest of your senses receive a Fifties feast. It’s difficult to take your eyes off the interior– all polished chrome and chunky sliding mechanisms. When you do look up it’s just as easy to be distracted by the soft curves of that gently bulging bonnet. Eyes front!


TECHNICAL DATA SPECIFICATIONS 1961 Mercedes-Benz 190SL W121

Engine 1897cc/4-cyl/OHC

Power 125bhp @ 5700rpm

Torque 105lbft @ 3200rpm

Gearbox 4-speed manual

0-60mph 13.3sec

Top speed 106mph

Economy 22mpg

Weight 1160kg

Price when new £2896

Est value £120,000+


Here’s how Mark did it

1 AUGUST 2007 The big strip

Every component is painstakingly dismantled, categorized and photographed.

2 JANUARY 2009 Body building

Blasting, fabricating and welding the body in to shape. Here’s a new sill being fitted.

3 JULY 2009 Off to the paint shop

The refurbished body shell sets off for a professional coating of metallic silver.

4 AUGUST 2009 Full swing

Rear swing axle rebuilt and assembled on to its own mini jig, ready for installation.

5 OCTOBER 2010 Fit and trim

The interior is starting to take shape, including leather trim and a stunning, refurbished hood frame.

6 JULY 2012 Big moment…

Mark’s dad Jim stands ready for the big event when car and engine are to be re-united after five years of graft.

7 JULY 2012 Engine in

Mark’s brother Malcolm lends a hand lowering the car onto its refurbished engine and sub-frame.


MARK’S CLASSIC CV

Austin Healey 3000 Mark dreamed of owning one of these Brit legends since he was a kid. It was his first resto, and he’ll never part with it now – for one thing, it’s quicker than the SL.

Land Rover Series III Rebuilt onto a galvanised chassis. The engine recently ran for the first time in seven years – ‘Big cloud of smoke came belching out… but it was running again!’

Jaguar E-type Mark’s current project. It is just a bare shell at the moment, with its gleaming differential mid-rebuild in an adjacent workshop.


THE RESTORER

Like his father, Mark is an electrician by trade. He learned to weld on Jaguar XJ40 rear suspension beams, when a job repairing industrial welders at an engineering firm in Bourne saw him doing stints on their production line. He became rather good at it!

Attention to detail is phenomenal – you can see why it took Mark 12 years. Not bad for a bloke in a shed. Period perfect details are the result of Mark’s remarkable patience. Welcome to the Fifties. Interior is exceptional. Rebuilt engine has done 2000 miles with no major issues.


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