1955 Mercedes-Benz 190SL W121

1955 Mercedes-Benz 190SL W121

Recently selling at auction for a record-breaking sum, this fully restored 190SL confirms that many still hold dear the Pagoda’s predecessor. Words Neil Briscoe. Images H&H Classics.

Labour of love

It’s temptingly easy to think of the 190SL as the runt of the sporting Mercedes litter. It had, after all, the unfortunate position of sitting alongside the mightyW198 300SL Gullwing andRoadster W198 II in the Mercedes catalogue. That would be a hard enough act for which to understudy, but then the 190SL got replaced in 1963, by theW113 SL Pagoda, a car that even today manages to look sleek, modern and contemporary.

1955 Mercedes-Benz 190SL W121

However, there are exceptions to every rule and this particular 190SL is just that. Meticulously restored by Sean Horsey and his team at 1st Choice Car & Body Repairs in Oxfordshire, this particular example is certainly one such exception. Indeed, it’s exceptional. In fact, let’s go further than that. This precise 190SL — an original, 1957 right-hand drive version, one of only 562 right-hand drive 190SLs built that year — is a record breaker, and sold at auction last year for £226,000, which is reckoned to be a world record for a supposedly ‘lesser’ Benz.

“Every time we fixed one item, we would then find another problem”

1955 Mercedes-Benz 190SL W121

You wouldn’t necessarily expect such a car to come out of 1st Choice, which is not to be insulting to such a fine supplier, repairer and restorer of cars. Look through its website and you’ll see plenty of pictures of satisfied customers standing next to their new or rejuvenated pride and joy, but for the most part these are what one might call fairly normal cars. A Jaguar XF saloon or a Range Rover Sport, maybe. Even a humble Ford Fiesta. Not normally stablemates you would associate with record-breaking, auction-bound restorations.

“The amount of filler we found was staggering”

Look a little closer though, and you start to see some more exotic machinery passing through 1st Choice’s hands. A gorgeous, mint green Mk1 Ford Capri GT, for example. Or a 1983 Lotus Esprit Turbo, also green, but this time an almost-black racing green. There’s a smattering of Triumph Stags on 1st Choice’s books too, and — of course — plenty of Mercedes, from some gorgeous R107 SLs to a stunning creamy-white W113 230SL.

And then there’s the 190SL. Have a look at how the car itself, when consigned for the H&H auction at the historic Duxford air museum towards the end of 2021, was described by Damian Jones of H&H Classics: “It has been the subject of an exhaustive two and a half year, photographically documented, ‘rotisserie’ restoration and is as good underneath as it is on top and the nicest example we have encountered. It is potentially Mille Miglia eligible,” said Damian. “This is a wonderful example and very collectable. And this is a car that could just continue to grow in value. It represents everything we mean by the word ‘classic’.”

1955 Mercedes-Benz 190SL W121 - engine M121 motor with two Solex PHH carburettors

M121 motor with two Solex PHH carburettors. A pristine underside, as you would expect… Dashboard colour matches the paintwork.

That’s quite the description from someone who sees hundreds of classic cars passing across the auctioneer’s block every year, and if some of it can be ascribed to auction catalogue hype, there’s no hype needed when you look at this finished SL. In its DB190 metallic grey paint, this is one 190SL that sidesteps the comparisons with the bigger and faster Gullwing, or the later Pagoda. Look at it and you can instantly imagine one-time 190SL owner Grace Kelly behind the wheel. The story goes that she used to chauffeur Frank Sinatra around in hers — the two were close friends — but that didn’t stop Sinatra later defecting to the charms of aJaguar E-Type. Would this 190 be enough to bring Ol’ Blue Eyes back to the Mercedes fold? I’d say so. The stunning finish is a credit to Horsey and his team, not least because, as with so many restorations, this one looked good at first, but soon became a much bigger task than anticipated.

“The car was in light green and it appeared solid, however when renovations started, years of bodged repairs came to light,” Horsey tells us. “It had a good history fi le going back decades and its previous owner had had it for many years, although when I bought the car, it was actually surrounded by chickens.” Local poultry shooed away, the 190SL was brought back to 1st Choice and the first unpleasant discovery was made. “At this time, it was a complete car and was finished in a light shade of green,” says Horsey. “However, when the paint came off, we found places with over an inch of filler.”

1955 Mercedes-Benz 190SL W121 - interior

This was not going to be a light-touch restoration for Horsey. The car was entirely stripped back and all of the unpleasant filler was removed. To call it a back-to-metal job doesn’t quite do it justice though — this 190SL was stripped back to its component parts, and everything that wasn’t perfect was made so.

“Throughout the process, I had to gulp more than a few times at how much it was all costing,” says Horsey. “It cost me £93,000 to buy, back in the summer of 2018 at a classic car auction. It made vastly over the guide having been entered by its long-term owner. I invested over £100,000 into its restoration on top of the purchase price, and my team of highly skilled restoration staff did a fantastic job. Every nut and every bolt was removed and zinc plated. No expense was spared on the restoration as I wanted this 190SL to be the best there is.”

The photos that Horsey shows me are telling. At first, the bright green SL looks fairly solid on the surface (how many times have we all said that, peering at a potential purchase for the first time?), but the next few photos show the extent of repairs (bodges might be a less kind phrase) that lurked below the lime-green finish. Stripped of its shiny paint, the body of the SL looks tired and worn-down by the ravages of time. The following photos are, if anything, even more illustrative. Horsey shows me one of components, stripped down to each individual part and laid out neatly on a bench. There are springs, nuts, washers, brackets — everything you need to assemble a classic 1950s roadster – and they all gleam with a beautifully burnished finish. It looks less like a workbench in a classic car restoration garage and more like a window display in Goldsmiths such is the alluring shine coming off each part. Most of these parts will never be seen again, at least until the 190SL needs restoring once more, but the effort that has gone into making each tiny component as perfect as it can be is astonishing. “The car was taken to a bare shell and sand blasted. This process uncovered the huge amount of fabrication required,” says Horsey. “The amount of filler we found was staggering. By the time we’d finished, hardly any filler was used as we got all panels to fit as they should. I’m proud to say that all the work was done in-house. The engine in particular is a work of art.” That last sentiment is undeniable — to see the comparison between the pre-restoration engine bay and the finished article shows just what a dramatic change the 190SL has undergone.

Whereas before it was dirty, grimy and rusting in places, now it looks so perfectly clean and finished that you’d be happy to let a team of food hygiene inspectors have a good poke around it. The little 1.9-litre four-cylinder engine, with a mere 104bhp when new, was not quite one of Mercedes’ superstar engines, but here in Horsey’s car it’s been given superstar surrounds in which to work. The same is true of the interior — stripped right back and then delicately and carefully rebuilt, with seats and doors trimmed in a warm, creamy leather that perfectly sets off the dark grey exterior. “All the interior was re-trimmed, and again it was all done in-house by my team at the time,” says Horsey. “All trim for 190SLs is hard to find – however we used exact match material. Every part of the build was a challenge – every time we fixed one item, we would then find another problem. The results at the H&H auction spoke for themselves — it made the most a 190SL had ever made at auction with a winning bid on the day, with premium, of £226,000. That’s a world record!”

Horsey says that the car was bought by a classic collector who lives in North Wales (and who doesn’t want any more details than that included in public) who said that, “The immense quality of the restoration was why he purchased the car.”

Is the time ripe for a 190SL revival, then? Horsey thinks so. “I do think the 190SL is a bargain compared to the 300SL, and while the Pagoda is a better driving car, with the price mine made it is up in the same level as the top end Pagoda models. Even at the price paid, in my opinion it’s a shrewd investment by the new owner as there are few right-hand drive examples left and very few are restored or kept to the standard of this example.”

JUST THE FACTS 1955 Mercedes-Benz 190SL W121

  • ENGINE M121 1,897cc 4-cyl
  • MAX POWER 104bhp @ 5,700rpm
  • MAX TORQUE 105lb ft @ 3,200rpm
  • TRANSMISSION 4-speed manual, RWD
  • WEIGHT 1,140kg
  • 0-62MPH 14.5sec
  • TOP SPEED 106-112mph
  • YEARS PRODUCED 1955-1963

All figures from Mercedes-Benz for a 1957 car as pictured; fuel consumption determined at ¾ of top speed (not more than 110km/h, 68mph) plus 10 per cent

Far from a green dream… This is how the 190SL appeared before the resto work; gleaming new parts ready to revive this classic roadster.

190SL Sporting luxury

Developed by Mercedes at the behest of New York-based car importer Max Hoffman, and making its debut alongside the faster, more glamorous 300SL Gullwing at the 1954 New York motor show, the 190SL looked sleek and sporty, but was mechanically humble under the skin. It was Mercedes’ only convertible sports car at the time (the 300SL Roadster arrived in 1957) but used the floorpan and mechanical package of the humble 180 saloon, a car likely to be seen with a taxi sign on its roof.

Mechanicals aside, the 190SL was actually a rather forward-looking car. In comparison to rival roadsters from the UK and Italy, the W121 SL was much plusher and luxurious inside, previewing a general drift away from overt sportiness and towards more luxury motoring that would eventually come to all high-end convertibles through the 1960s, 70s and 80s. Production of the 190SL ran from 1955 until 1963 (a total of 25,881 Roadsters and Coupes with hardtop were built), and it always had the same engine — a 104bhp, four-cylinder 1.9-litre unit, with a top speed of up to 112mph. In spite of such modest performance, it was popular with more than a few celebrities. Grace Kelly we’ve already mentioned, but other 190SL owners included Zsa Zsa Gabor, Gina Lollobrigida and the Aga Khan.

“This is one 190SL that sidesteps the comparisons with the bigger and faster Gullwing”
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