The Mercedes-Benz 190SL roadster of the mid-1950s was more an “elegante touren-wagen fur den boulevard” than a true sports car.
And, as such, destined to exist in the shadows cast by the “gullwing” doors of the legendary 300SL it shared showroom space with. But this stylish, if rather mild-mannered roadster, did garner its share of celebrity limelight and notoriety.
American jazz-man Miles Davis once raced the Baroness Pannonica “Nica” de Koenigswater-Rothschild’s Bentley down New York’s Seventh Avenue in one, and a younger and not-yet-a-fashion-legend Karl Lagerfeld stuffed his into a tree.
Other famous folk owners, among them Zsa Zsa Gabor, Gina Lollobrigida, Prince Rainier of Monaco and Grace Kelly, Ingrid Bergmann, Yul Brynner, Alfred Hitchcock, Francois Segan, the Aga Kahn and Ringo Starr, were likely more concerned with looking good than going fast in their 190SLs.
You can imagine this was also top of mind with the 190SL’s most notorious owner, high-class and highly successful German call girl Rosemarie Nitribitt, who was found murdered in her Frankfurt apartment in 1957, igniting a scandal and creating a mystery. A macabre twist saw her head displayed in the local “kriminalmuseum” until it was buried in 2008. It was apparently her 190SL Lagerfeld that later crashed.
The 190SL was born of pressure from New York based auto-entrepreneur Max Hoffman, who was busily making a fortune in the early 1950s importing European brands. He badly wanted a street version of the 300SL racer to sell – the car that in 1952 began restoring the Mercedes sporting legend. And Hoffman personally beat up the Mercedes board until it agreed to have a production Gullwing 300SL ready for the 1954 New York auto show, as well as a smaller and less expensive roadster.
After a crash five-month program, a 190SL prototype emerged in time to join the new 300SL in New York. But it was based on Mercedes’ new 180 sedan, with its rather unpromising in sporting terms 51-hp flathead-four, not the “supercar” 300SL.
It featured a shortened version of the 180’s semi-monocoque platform, with independent front and an “eingelenkpendelachse” or single-pivot swing-axle suspension system at the rear. Powering it was an overhead-cam, 1.9-litre engine, created by excising two of the 300SL engine’s six cylinders. With twin Solex carbs it produced 105 hp at 5,800 rpm, and came with a four-speed gearbox.
With this low level of power and a hefty weight of 2,500 pounds, the 190SL’s performance was less than scintillating, 0-60 mph requiring about 13.5 seconds and a top speed 107 mph.
But it looked good. Its styling theme was borrowed from the sexy 300SL, albeit drawn to a smaller scale, right down to the “eyebrows” over the wheel arches. A removable hardtop was available and a “rennsport” or racing kit, but the 190SL never excelled on the track.
The 190SL went into production in 1955, priced at about $4,000 in the United States, or about half what a 300SL sold for, and proved a modest success with 25,881 built before production ceased in 1963. By contrast, just 3,258 300SL’s were built.
After being relegated to a dusty corner of indifference by Mercedes enthusiasts for decades, 190SL’s began emerging as sought-after collector cars, fulfilling much the same role they did when new – providing much of the 300SL’s panache for considerably less money. A decently driveable 190SL today can be had for about $40,000, with a nicely restored one commanding $100,000-$120,000. Gullwing 300SL’s regularly sell at auction for more than a million dollars and one recently went for $4.6 million.
No glamour or mystery seems to be connected with the five previous owners of the 1959 190SL owned by Roland Wilhelm of Thornton, Ont., which is currently being thoroughly enjoyed after a restoration resurrection following a long sleep in a Toronto warehouse.
Wilhelm, now 55, was born in Sarnia, Ont., moved to Europe with his family as a youngster, living in Germany and Switzerland, then returned to Canada in 1979 to “do something with computers.” A self-described electronics geek who built his own first micro-computers – “You couldn’t buy them, you had to build them, from kits, and chips, and etch your own boards” – he went on to develop software for human resource and later group benefit management. When he sold his company in 2005, it left him with some cash in hand to spend on either a car or a Harley-Davidson.
He talked himself out of the latter, then remembered “that beautiful car” he’d come across while visiting at a friend’s cottage in the early 1980s. “Parked at the marina was this beat up old Benz. It had holes in the top that let the rain pour in and a Horse and Hound magazine disintegrating on the seat. But its owner obviously loved it enough to drive it. And from then on I wanted one.”
A lengthy search uncovered a number of 190SLs, which he was talked out of by his tame mechanic. But, in 2007, he came across and bought this matching numbers car with full documentation – even the separate bill of sale for the tube radio – that had just been put back on the road after two decades in storage.
It was a runner, but suffering from long-term neglect and, after driving it that summer, Wilhelm commissioned a complete body rebuild. Other tasks were turned over to various restoration experts, some producing positive outcomes, others results so disappointing he ended up learning – on YouTube, no less – skills such as “skiving” leather in order to do a better himself.
With the car finally to his liking, Wilhelm and his wife, not entirely convinced of its reliability, initially drove it “in larger and larger circles around the Barrie area.” – but have since used it to explore much of Ontario. “We’d never think of doing this in a closed car. In the Mercedes it’s just more fun.”
And it doesn’t just see weekend use. “It’s a daily driver,” says Wilhelm, who still works for his old company from a home office. “My daily ritual is getting in my little car and driving to Tim Horton’s to get my morning coffee.”
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