Both down-to-earth and captivating.
The entertainer Helmut Zacharias used his violin to play jazz and win the hearts of the masses during the Second World War, and later, when television took over, he became a household name. It would seem logical that anyone leading a virtuoso and creative life would not be content with a normal car. For a car is just as able to arouse passionate feelings as a work of art or a piece of music. What kind of car does someone drive who has made himself as a cheerful violinist with more than 400 melodies of his own being played on millions of records? A car which is both down-to-earth and captivating at the same time. A sports car with the genes of a saloon.
Living life in the fast lane.
The idea was to create something racy on the basis of the more solid “Ponton-Mercedes”, which was a no-frills, indestructible saloon with the famous “oil engine”. As in the lively stroke of the magic violinist’s bow, the designers, headed by Walther Häcker, shortened the Ponton’s floor plate slightly and tailored an almost voluptuous body onto the technically unspectacular base. The design was borrowed from the 300 SL Gullwing by Friedrich Geiger. There’s the word Geiger (German for “violinist”) again.
The bonnet, boot lid, door surfaces and door sills were all made of aluminium, which allowed the vehicle to weigh in at 1,180 kg, slightly above the planned weight of one tonne. The figure 190 was of double importance; it represented the displacement of the newly designed four cylinder engine with 105 PS and should also have been the vehicle’s top speed. But even with a tailwind, the test cars were only able to reach about 170 km/h, although that was enough, back in the 1950s, to lead the way in the fast lane.
In the back, the violin has pride of place.
It is said that the violin sorcerer was fascinated more than anything else by the colour combination of red paint and beige leather seats. The beauty of the whole work of art that is the 190 SL took the press by storm at the 1955 Geneva Auto Show. Which is exactly what everyone had been hoping for. The horizontal lancets over the wheel arches didn’t just look great, they prevented dirt forming at the sides. Another gimmick was the easy-to-install individual chair behind the front seats which could be used by a third passenger to sit perpendicular to the direction of travel. And for Helmut Zacharias, his Philipp Hamming violin had pride of place here, in its violin case, wrapped in a clean cloth, waiting for the next performance.
Steered by virtuoso hands.
We also have a violin here. This guitar-playing writer has no idea whether it is an expensive model, but, in any case, it looks fabulous. The white-haired man in his prime, wearing a golf cap and matching scarf with a sports jacket seems to be in just as good a mood as the magic violinist once was. Otto Voss, the ex-Managing Director of Autohaus Voss in North-Rhine-Westphalia, a dealership handling classic cars, really looks the part and is now about to take Helmut Zacharias’ car for a run through the charming landscape. And it’s not just a car similar to that of the famous violinist, no, it is his car. The notes of success are somehow lodged in the seats and those once so virtuoso, successful hands turned this steering wheel. Somehow, you can still sense that.
A petrol stop in a small village.
The two carburettors fill up with petrol and the cantankerous four-cylinder engine is revived. Despite its sportiness, the Ponton genes still show through. But today, that is somehow … cool. We give the engine a little while to warm up, and then we’re off. The engine runs smoothly and healthily, with a powerful pull and a lively and sporty rumble when idling. The landscape passes us in a flash; it is not spectacular like the city backdrop of Milan, but it does score with lovable details. A stop at a small petrol pump all on its own, right in front of an old house in the middle of town. This used to be the place to refuel. Today, it looks great but no petrol comes out of the pump.
Colours and pure happiness.
The sun is shining from a deep-blue sky onto the red roadster with the beige seats as it rolls along the roads, filling the villages with an unexpectedly powerful engine sound. So many colours are almost too much for the eye to handle. The 190 SL is more like a piece of art than a car. But why not? There are paintings, apparently, which are considerably more expensive. And, with them you can’t shoot through the countryside so well with the wind in your face. Helmut Zacharias knew exactly what he was buying. Even today, the 190 SL is both an inspiration and a means of transport, a way of life and yet, somehow, almost an understatement. That’s because it has just the four cylinders. Otto Voss shifts gear using the long stick, listens carefully and then smiles. Just like the violin sorcerer used to do. After a few hours, we roll back onto the forecourt. That is pure, joyous driving. That’s the way it has always been. And that’s how it always will be.