1955 Mercedes-Benz 190SL W121 B II
You have no new male. Modest performance meant this Benz found favour with female buyers.
By now you’d be familiar with Max Hoffman, the expat Austrian turned influential New York car importer who introduced war-ravaged European marques to a cashed-up, post-war American market. In the early-1950s, particularly, Hoffman’s product-planning pop-psychology prompted iconic and unforgettable cars ranging from the stripped-to-a-price Porsche 356 Speedster to the ultimate road-going supercar of the day, the Mercedes-Benz 300 SL W198.
With the latter – which Hoffman grandly sealed with an advance order for 1000 cars – his genius extended to backing it up with an each-way bet. Knowing well the success of affordable British roadsters from such as MG, Triumph and Austin-Healey, Hoffman also lobbied for a similarly production-based little sister to soak up the glow of the supermodel 300 SL W198.
Both the 300 SL ‘gullwing’ coupe and a prototype 190 SL (W121) roadster premiered at the February, 1954 New York International Motor Sports Show. The two cars shared a wheelbase and very clear styling cues. The 190 SL’s resemblance would be brought even closer for its production launch 12 months later – and it would have the roadster role to itself for two full years before a 300 SL (W198) drop-top arrived.
Under its sleek skin, however, the 190 SL was no supercar. Against the 300 SL’s race-bred spaceframe and all-alloy body, the 190 SL’s chassis was derived from Merc’s first monocoque sedan, the W120 ‘Ponton’, shortened (by 250mm) and strengthened for its roadster role. The double-wishbone front and swing-axle rear suspensions carried straight over.
The 190 SL’s mostly steel body panels obviously lacked the 300’s signature heat outlets behind the front wheels. Buyers could order no roof, a canvas roof, or a hardtop.
A new, M121 1.9-litre four-cylinder superseded the base 180 sedan donk, making a modest 78kW for the roadster’s portly 1160kg kerb weight.
Still, the 190 SL was built for style, not for speed. It was more comfortable and sophisticated than British rivals, and while a stripper-spec ‘SLR’ club-racing option was initially offered, the 190 SL was forever a boulevardier and conspicuously popular among wealthy women.
Production of the W121 190 SL ended in February 1963, with 25,881 having been built – the majority for the US market.
- 1956 MERC 190 SLRS WIN GT CLASS AT MACAU & MOROCCO GP
- 85 BORE IN MM, COINCIDENTALLY THE SAME AS THE 300 SL W198
- 25,881 TOTAL NUMBER BUILT
- 369,995 A$ PRICE OF 1961 190 SL AT CLASSIC THROTTLE SHOP, SYDNEY
- 14.9 KG/KW (VS 300 SL W198 7.9 KG/KW)
INSPIRED BY GULLWINGS
Freidrich Geiger, who joined Daimler-Benz in 1933 and became its first head of styling, was responsible for both the W198 300 SL (coupe and roadster) and the W121 190 SL. Interior styling was inspired by the hero W198’s with an ivory Bakelite steering wheel, and prominent speedo and tacho. A single, transverse rear seat was an option.
WHAT’S THE RUSH?
The M121 four-cylinder engine, newly introduced for the 190 SL, displaced 1897cc and featured an iron block, with an alloy cylinder head and single overhead cam. Fed by twin Solex carbs, and with a low 8.5:1 compression ratio, it made a leisurely 78kW and 142Nm. It provided 0-100km/h in 14.5 seconds and a top speed of 170km/h.