Classic choice 190SL
HAVE IT YOUR WAY
With a rare factory hardtop, this 190SL can be transformed from a traditional roadster into a headturning coupe, only adding to its appeal. Words Richard Truesdell. Images Richard Truesdell/Daimler AG.
unveiled the SLK I and SLK II concepts in 1994, it wasn’t lost on marque enthusiasts that the manufacturer was reviving an idea from its illustrious past, that of the smaller, more lightweight, grand touring cars that lacked the power and pace of the maker’s most expensive two seaters, but were less hard on the wallet and still had the good looks and elegance of their bigger siblings. When the production ready R170 SLK was introduced in 1996, complete with its clever vario-roof, it ushered in the modern era of more affordable sports cars and two seaters with retractable hardtops.
Of course, Mercedes’ original compact roadster was the W121 190SL , which made its debut at the New York International Motor Sports Show in February 1954 alongside its 300SL Gullwing stablemate, from which its enviable looks derived. It was presented as a prototype and after further testing and refinement, the final production version premiered at the Geneva show in March 1955. Yet while the 190SL shares styling elements with the 300SL , structurally it has much more in common with the Ponton saloons.
The 190SL ’s chassis is a shortened version of the Ponton’s, its more modest performance meaning the 300SL ’s tubular space frame chassis was not necessary. Instead of the 2,996cc, 212bhp/203lb ft torque six that the powers the 300SL , under the 190’s bonnet is a 1,897cc, four-cylinder unit developing 104bhp and 105lb ft torque. Paired with an all syncromesh, four-speed manual transmission using a floor mounted shifter, the oversquare unit’s pace was leisurely but adequate, giving a 0-62mph time of 14.5 seconds with a top speed in excess of 100mph. Its as delivered price in the US (New York) at its 1955 introduction was $3,998, the optional hardtop a $300 extra. The 190SL enjoyed a long production run until February 1963 with 25,881 units produced before it was replaced by the W113 230SL Pagoda. This figure includes the coupe version built alongside the roadster.
SHOW AND TELL
All of this serves as background for this feature car, a #1959
owned by Nelson Jones of San Marino, California. After viewing this pretty, silver roadster at the 2012 San Marino Motor Classic, we pursued it because of its most distinctive feature: the rare, removable hardtop that has a wrap-around rear window. Looking closer, we noticed ‘190SL’ script adorning each side. In researching this feature we discovered that cars built before 1959 lacked the wrap-around glass. And all of the factory photographs, including one dated 1959, show the roof without the distinctive 190SL script found on this example. In fact, extensive research did not turn up a single 190SL with a removable roof featuring this 190SL script, which left us wondering if it was something added at some point in the car’s life, maybe during the roof ’s restoration.
Nelson Jones and his wife Mimi are now retired, but in his working years, Jones was a developer of commercial retail properties and his automotive passions are eclectic. He owns several pre-war Packards, an exact duplicate of his first car which was a 1950 Chevrolet convertible, a fully restored, heavy duty Chevrolet truck from 1940, an original 1993 military Humvee and several tractors, but Jones is also drawn to cars bearing the three-pointed star. In addition to the 190SL featured here, he also owns a flawless 1956 300Sc Coupe, similar to friend Vin Di Bona’s (Mercedes Enthusiast February 2012) except that it lacks a sunroof. He certainly has a diverse collection!
Jones acquired this 190SL after seeing it in the Mercedes-Benz Classic Center USA’s Pebble Beach display in 2009. After Pebble Beach, he visited Mercedes’ classic showroom in Irvine and began negotiations to buy the 190SL and at the same time asked if it would be possible to locate the rare matching hardtop. With its worldwide resources, the Classic Center was indeed able to source a hardtop, albeit one that was in need of total restoration.
A NATURAL LOOKER
“I wanted a car that had a matching coloured hardtop,” begins Jones. “It’s my opinion that with the factory removable hardtop, the automobile does not look like a convertible but instead looks like a coupe from its inception, a very handsome thing to view, in my opinion. But, the car under consideration did not have a hardtop available. No problem, the Classic Center went out into the marketplace and acquired a hardtop for my future car. It was necessary to do a full restoration on the hardtop including new headlining. After some discussion with the staff at the Mercedes-Benz Classic Center, I acquired this automobile from them. The odometer reading was approximately 46,000 miles which is believed to be the original mileage.” And does he know anything about the origins of the script on the hardtop? “During the restoration process of the roof, in talking with the Classic Center they asked me if I wanted to retain the 190SL script on the hardtop,” he tells us. “As I liked the look, I asked them to attach the script using double-sided tape instead of permanently attaching the trim to the hardtop.”
So while this 190SL’s rare hardtop was purchased for purely aesthetic reasons – and it looks very handsome and has great presence with its hardtop in place – it is wonderful to learn that this Mercedes-Benz wasn’t just bought to be looked at and polished. “I attempt to drive all of my automobiles on a monthly basis as it is my opinion that this procedure keeps them limbered up, which is very desirable,” Jones tells us. “While I have not yet taken the Mercedes on any extended trips, I don’t hesitate to drive perhaps 100 miles or so to a meet or show. I belong to the Mercedes-Benz Club of America, the International 190SL Group, Gull Wing Group International and the Classic Car Club of America.”
When photographing the car at Jones’ ranch two hours north of Los Angeles where he stores his collection, we were struck by the fact that the car lacked carpets. He explained that the rubber floor mats in front of the seats were period correct, something that was verified by looking at factory photographs of the interior, as all the 190SLs pictured lacked carpet as well.
AN EYE FOR DETAIL
With its modest performance compared to its bigger engined brother, the 300SL, the 190SL was always much more a grand touring car than an out and out sports car, something apparent in reading contemporary roadtests from both sides of the Atlantic. Yet 49 years after it went out of production, the 190SL still has that special appeal that made it the darling of enthusiasts when new. Its charm captivated many and famous 190SL owners included Alfred Hitchcock, Frank Sinatra, Sandra Dee, Tuesday Weld and Grace Kelly. And we can’t forget that singer-songwriter Sheryl Crow auctioned her personal 190SL last year at Pebble Beach for a charity that benefited tornado relief in Joplin, Missouri. It sold for a then record $143,000 (around £90,000), exceeding the pre auction estimate of $100,000, setting a new benchmark for 190SLs.
Looking at this gorgeous, compact, classic roadster, it seems unfair that the 190SL has been in the shadow of its 300SL sibling for so long. With its neatly proportioned body that oozes 1950s glamour, cool and suave, any 190SL that has survived the ravages of time (and rust) will surely be a delightful motorcar to be enjoyed and cherished for decades to come. The enthusiastic owners of the many surviving 190SLs are very lucky indeed.
This roadster has the rare, removable hardtop that features a wrap-around rear window.
I don’t hesitate to drive perhaps 100 miles or so to a meet or show in my 190SL.
JUST THE FACTS #Mercedes-Benz-190SL-Roadster-W121
Power 104bhp @ 5,700rpm
Torque 105lb ft @ 3,200rpm
Transmission 4-speed manual, RWD
Top speed 106-112mph
Fuel consumption 32.8mpg
Years produced 1955-1963
Today this pretty, diminutive, classic SL is still as charming as ever Figures for a 1959 190SL as pictured; the weight quoted is without the hardtop fitted; fuel consumption determined at ¾ of top speed (not more than 110km/h, 68mph) plus 10 per cent.
Removing the heavy top is a two-man job.
Do Mercedes dials get any prettier than these?
The SL’s two-valve, 104bhp M121 motor.
The attractive, original radio remains.
The origin of the roof’s script is unknown.
Only from 1959 did hardtops have this elegant, curved glass.
The sleek, low roof gives the 190SL a racy, seductive, coupe look.
Mimi and Nelson Jones enjoy their SL.
The cabin is in fantastic condition.
The 190SL and 300SL debuted in New York in February 1954.
A spare wheel and a decent sized boot come with this handsome, classic SL.
The Mercedes-Benz Classic Center USA sourced and restored the rare hardtop.