This is the story of a German-American love affair that no novelist could ever better: As in the case of the 300 SL Gullwing, a successful businessman played the key role in the development of the 190 SL. Max Hoffman is thought of as the spiritual godfather of both Mercedes Roadsters.
Our print edition includes a full article about this genius Austrian-born salesman. Hoffman would go on to acquire a legendary reputation in the USA as an automobile importer.
Hoffman achieved the impressive feat of convincing the Board of Management of Daimler-Benz that they should add a small, cheaper sports car to the range for their American clientele alongside the 300 SL. The sales opportunities for such a Roadster over the other side of the Atlantic, according to Hoffman, were excellent. The 190 SL was developed with breathtaking speed: work began in September 1953 and it was then launched in February 1954 at the New York Auto Show, together with the 300 SL.
It took another year before the car was ready for series production. It made its European debut at the Geneva Auto Show in March 1955, with production starting two months later. The stylistic similarity between the 190 SL and the 300 SL is completely intentional. But the similarities end, once past that exquisite metal exterior. Here there is none of that innovative space frame, nor the direct gasoline injection system of the 300 SL. The technical basis here comes off the standard production line.
Nevertheless, a top speed of 170 km/h is something that most drivers of that time could only dream of. Coupled, as here, with exceptional comfort and sweet-tempered handling, the Roadster represents the ideal “Sports Tourer”.
The so-called frame/floor system is taken, in shortened form, from the good old 180-series Ponton Sedan. The redesigned four-cylinder in-line engine of the 190 SL is derived on a technical level from the six-cylinder units found in the 220 and 300 models. With just 105 hp, the engine delivers just about half the power of the six-cylinder in-line unit of the 300 SL.
That it should be capable of breaking the hearts of even the proudest women is a plausible idea, even at first glance. Bibi Johns, one of the idols of the economic miracle generation, is just as much at home behind its ivory-coloured steering wheel as the actresses Grace Kelly and Gina Lollobrigida.
The originally proposed racing version of the 190 SL remains a mere side note, but one that was also developed at Max Hoffman's urging. On this model, the fenders and soft top could be removed completely. Special lightweight doors without wind-down windows improved the power/weight ratio.
The panoramic windscreen was replaced by a small Plexiglas panel in front of the driver's seat. It is thought that 17 units were built in all, but major successes remained elusive.
The engineering development department toyed with the idea of designing an engine with direct gasoline injection for the 190 SL. Consideration was even given to using the 3-liter six-cylinder unit from the 300 models. There was also a 2.2-liter six-cylinder unit still languishing on a warehouse shelf somewhere. But all such fanciful ideas ultimately ended up being consigned to a drawer.
No attempts to make the 190 SL sportier, lighter or more powerful could diminish its importance. It preserves the charm of this era of reconstruction like few other automobiles of its era, because right until production was discontinued in 1963, it was spared any significant modifications.
Some 18,000 of the 25,881 Roadsters built ended up in the USA. In Germany, the 190 SL cost 16,500 marks, a fortune at that time.
What could be finer than to drive a car that represents the dreams of a whole generation? One that can safely be described as the true role model for all generations of SL and SLK models to come. In this respect even its big brother which goes by the name of 300 SL must capitulate for once - even though it was the first Mercedes-Benz permitted to bear the letters SL.