In February 1954, Mercedes-Benz introduced its first two postwar production sports cars. One was the remarkable “Gullwing” 300SL, the street version of the race car that won Le Mans in 1952. The other was the smaller Mercedes 190SL roadster, a pretty and competent (if underpowered) tourer suggested by legendary importer Max Hoffman. This is the history of the 1955-1963 190SL.
The racing history of Daimler-Benz AG (now simply Daimler AG) is a long and storied one, going back to the dawn of the automobile. Both of the firm’s predecessors, Daimler Motoren Gessellschaft and Benz & Cie, competed in the first organized motor race back in 1894. Before the Second World War, Mercedes-Benz was involved in almost every form of automotive competition — perhaps most impressively in the late thirties, when the legendary Mercedes Silberpfeile (“Silver Arrows”) vied with Auto Union for domination of Grand Prix racing.
The war put the brakes on competition and it was not until the fifties that Mercedes returned to racing in full force. Their first serious postwar effort was the 1952 300SL (known internally as W194), which featured distinctive gull-wing doors and the 2,996 cc (183 cu. in.) six from the big Type 300 sedans. The W194 scored both first and second overall in the 24 Hours of Le Mans and did the same in the Mexican Carrera Panamericana. It achieved a 1-2-3 victory in the Prix de Berne-Bremgarten and dominated the GT class at the Nürburgring. The W194 didn’t quite edge out Ferrari to win the 1952 Mille Miglia, but 300SLs scored second and fourth.
Rudolf Uhlenhaut’s engineering team developed the W194 in only five months and it was never intended for road use. Only 11 were built, all pure competition cars with complex space-frame construction and a total lack of amenities. The demand was there for a street version, but Daimler-Benz management was reluctant to even consider such a thing. Still, the company was under considerable pressure to produce a road-going 300SL — particularly from Mercedes’ American distributor, the inimitable Max Hoffman.
THE BARON OF PARK AVENUE
As ubiquitous as they have become in recent decades, most foreign marques had little presence in the United States before the late sixties. A few very wealthy customers imported high-end European luxury or sports cars — Rolls-Royce actually had a U.S. factory in the twenties — but imported cars of any stripe were generally rare. Before the war, the average American had probably never seen an Alfa Romeo or an SS Jaguar sedan and wouldn’t be able to identify one if they did.
The man most responsible for ending that obscurity was one Maximilian E. Hoffman (originally spelled Hoffmann). Born in Austria in 1904, Hoffman got into racing as a young man. When the Austrian firm Grofri, which built a licensed version of the French make Amilcar, started a factory racing team, Hoffman became one of their drivers. Although he had some success, Hoffman retired from racing in 1934 to become a car dealer, a profession to which he found himself exceptionally well suited. He was a persuasive salesman and his racing career had helped him establish a useful network of contacts. By the late thirties, he had obtained distribution franchises for Rolls-Royce, Bentley, Delahaye, Alfa Romeo, and several other makes.
Following Germany’s annexation of Austria in 1938, Hoffman moved to Paris. After the fall of France, he fled to America, arriving in New York in June 1941. Short on cash, he temporarily abandoned the auto business for a new endeavor, the manufacture of costume jewelry, which proved successful enough to finance his return to automotive distribution. In 1947, he launched the Hoffman Motor Company with a showroom on New York’s Park Avenue.
Over the next few years, Hoffman became the sole U.S. distributor for a wide variety of European marques, ranging from Jaguar, Porsche, and Alfa Romeo to Volkswagen (a franchise he abandoned in 1953, to his later regret). He eventually established showrooms in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles and established a network of about 40 franchised dealerships in other parts of the country.
Mercedes-Benz was not a household name in the U.S. when Hoffman became the company’s distributor in April 1951. According to some estimates, fewer than 200 Mercedes-Benz cars were imported to the States before World War II. To make matters worse, the only direct experience most Americans had with Mercedes cars was either during wartime service in Europe or from newsreel footage of Nazi officials in their Großer limousines, neither of which was likely to leave a favorable impression. Hoffman sought to reaffirm Mercedes’ upscale image by selling Mercedes to high-profile, all-American customers like Marilyn Monroe and Bing Crosby.
Hoffman also established a strategy of premium pricing. While Mercedes made expensive luxury cars, its lesser models were middle-class family sedans that found frequent employment as taxicabs — not exactly premium products. In Germany, a basic 180 sedan cost around 9,500 DM — around $2,250 at contemporary exchange rates, comparable to a Pontiac sedan. In America, the same 180 sedan started at $3,350 POE, a whopping $1,100 more than at home. Some of the difference was the cost of transatlantic shipping, import duties, and excise taxes, but something of the ample nature of Hoffman’s margins is suggested by the fact that both his New York showroom and his home in Westchester County were designed by legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
A NEW SMALL SPORTS CAR
Hoffman frequently took a hand in product development for the manufacturers whose wares he sold; he was responsible for the conception of a number of notable cars, including the Porsche Speedster and the BMW 507 sports car. Automakers did not necessarily like Hoffman, but in those days, European companies were often baffled, if not intimidated, by the vagaries of the American market and were usually willing to take Hoffman’s advice, which was frequently correct.
Hoffman felt that Daimler-Benz was foolish not to capitalize on the tremendous marketing opportunity that the W194’s racing success presented. Recognizing that many of his wealthy customers would stand in line to buy a road-going version of a Le Mans-winning car, Hoffman suggested to the Daimler board that there would be a market for at least 1,000 production cars. To supplement those, Hoffman also wanted a smaller, cheaper roadster that would appeal to buyers who couldn’t quite afford the inevitably towering price tag of the 300SL.
Hoffman was invited to address the Daimler-Benz board in Stuttgart in September 1953, where he persuaded the board to develop prototypes of both cars to show at the 1954 New York Auto Show the following February. At the suggestion of development chief Fritz Nallinger, the smaller model would be based on Mercedes’ humble four-cylinder 180 sedan (chassis code W120). This was not necessarily a promising foundation for a sports car, as Hoffman himself pointed out, but from an economic standpoint, it was logical enough, leveraging commonality with the mass-market model to keep the sporty car’s price down.
The Mercedes 180 sedan, launched in July 1953 and known internally as W120, was the first true postwar Mercedes design; the contemporary 170 dated back to the mid-1930s while the big Type 300 cars married a modern body shell and engine to a chassis of prewar origins. The W120 was a “three-box” sedan in the contemporary American mode, with integrated fenders and no running boards. It was not quite a true monocoque, but it was unitized with the body welded to a self-supporting floorpan with integral frame members. The engine was carried on a separate subframe, rubber-isolated to keep engine vibration from being transmitted to the floorpan.
The 180’s original flathead four-cylinder engine was carried over from the 170, as was the suspension, which used double wishbones in front and simple swing axles in back. From 1954, the four-cylinder 180 was supplemented by the six-cylinder 220a (known internally as W180), which was about 10 inches (254 mm) longer and 30% more expensive. Today, the W120 and W180 are known collectively as Pontons (“Pontoons”), which was originally a generic nickname for the three-box sedans, derived from their streamlined, integrated shape. The W180 cars were well-built, up-to-date midsize European sedans, neither groundbreaking nor sexy. They were also more expensive than the old 170, which remained in production concurrently through 1955.
On the face of it, Hoffman was quite right that the 180 sedan was hardly an inspiring basis for a sports car. Its styling was conservative and it was quite slow: An early Mercedes 180 sedan with a gasoline engine needed around 30 seconds to reach 62 mph (100 km/h) and its top speed was only 78 mph (125 km/h). Extracting sports car performance from such a car was a challenge, particularly since Fritz Nallinger and his team had only five months; a prototype of the small roadster had to be ready to ship to New York by the end of January.
SPORT LEICHT: MERCEDES 190SL
The Mercedes 190SL (known internally as W121) was structurally similar to the 180 sedan — albeit shortened by some 10 inches (254 mm) — but had a number of important differences. First, the W121 had an all-new 1,897 cc (116 cu. in.) four-cylinder engine known as the M121. Based loosely on the M186 six from the 300SL and Type 300 sedans, the M121 had an aluminum head, iron block, a chain-driven overhead cam and twin Solex 44 PHH carburetors. In this form, it made 105 PS DIN (77 kW, 120 hp SAE gross), twice the output of the 180’s old flathead engine. The W121 also featured the new Eingelenkpendelachse (“single-pivot”) rear suspension, shared with the six-cylinder W180 models and the 300SL roadster, which reduced the earlier swing-axle setup’s propensity for abrupt trailing-throttle oversteer.
The styling of the sports car, designed by Walter Häcker’s team under the supervision of chief stylist Karl Wilfert, was directly inspired by Friedrich Geiger’s design for the 300SL. Scaling down its styling cues to the smaller dimensions of the 190SL gave the latter a faintly cartoonish quality. It was unarguably pretty, but more cute than sexy.
The 190SL’s proportions made it look smaller than it really was. In fact, it was 166 inches (4,215 mm) long and 68.5 inches (1,740 mm) wide, making it 14 inches (356 mm) longer than an Alfa Romeo Giulietta and 10.2 inches (259 mm) longer than a Porsche 356. Despite the use of aluminum for the hood, decklid, and doors, the 190SL weighed 2,560 lb (1,160 kg), nearly 600 lb (272 kg) more than either the Alfa or the Porsche. In compensation, the Mercedes was solidly built, with a level of assembly quality alien to most of its British or Italian contemporaries.
Although the Mercedes 190SL was described as a roadster, it was actually a proper cabriolet with roll-up windows and a well-insulated top. A detachable aluminum hardtop was added shortly after introduction. In keeping with contemporary practice, the hardtop could be ordered either instead of or in addition to the folding top; Mercedes described cars with the hardtop and no folding top as coupes.
A prototype of the Mercedes 190SL made its debut on schedule at the New York Auto Show in early February 1954. The styling of this early prototype differed in a number of respects from the eventual production version and Mercedes cited both power output and performance figures that would prove to be somewhat optimistic.
The 190SL was well received, but its bigger, faster, more famous sibling inevitably overshadowed it. Even without its impressive racing pedigree, the Mercedes 300SL “Gullwing” coupe (known internally as W198) would have been a showstopper; it made the same sort of impression the Jaguar XK120 had made at the Earls Court show five years earlier. Sleek, aggressive, and beautifully proportioned, the W198 Gullwing was also among the world’s fastest cars. Next to it, the smaller 190SL seemed faintly anemic.
Nonetheless, response was very favorable and the 190SL was soon approved for series production. A new prototype bowed at the Geneva show the following March and went into full production in May 1955. While it was less desirable than the 300SL, the 190SL was far more attainable, though hardly cheap: In Germany, the roadster started at 16,500 DM (about $3,900 at contemporary exchange rates) and when it went on sale in America, the 190SL’s starting price was just under $4,000 — for once, Hoffman had resisted his customary markup. The 190SL was barely over half the price of a 300SL, although it was $300 more than a Porsche 356 cabriolet and about $700 more than a Giulietta Spider.
The Mercedes 190SL performed much better than the 180 sedan on which it was based, but compared to the 300SL, the small roadster’s performance was disappointing. Reaching 60 mph (97 km/h) took around 13 seconds, with a top speed of about 106 mph (170 km/h), a bit shy of the factory claims. The 190SL’s speed and acceleration were roughly comparable with a Triumph TR3 or a basic Porsche 356A 1500, although a well-driven Porsche Super Speedster would leave the Mercedes for dead. The 190SL was not as nimble as these rivals, but its handling was entirely competent. Tom McCahill of Mechanix Illustrated actually considered the 190SL superior to the trickier 300SL coupe, which still had the old dual-pivot swing axles. The 190SL also offered a high level of general refinement, rare in contemporary sports cars. If not terribly exciting, it was at least in impeccable taste.
Although it could not compete with cars like the 300SL or Porsche Carrera, Mercedes did develop a competition (Rennsport) package for the 190SL. This was not a factory option, but a customer- or dealer-installed kit, including new cut-down aluminum-alloy doors without side windows, and a smaller Perspex windscreen. Combined with the removal of the convertible top mechanism and bumpers, the kit trimmed the 190SL’s weight by around 220 lb (100 kg). Only 17 of the Rennsport kits were sold, but cars with those kits — known as Mercedes 190SLRs — won the GT class of the 1956 Macau Grand Prix and Casablanca Grand Prix. New FIA regulations subsequently barred the 190SL from the GT class, however, and its racing career was brief.
The small roadster was more in its element as a posh touring car. A number of international celebrities owned Mercedes 190SLs, including the Aga Khan and actresses Grace Kelly and Zsa Zsa Gabor. Its most famous owner, however, and the source of no small notoriety, was escort Rosemarie Nitribitt, who bought a black roadster in 1956. Nitribitt’s network of wealthy clients made her one of the most financially successful women in Germany in the mid-1950s, but in October 1957, she was murdered in her flat in Frankfurt, a crime that was never definitively solved. Nitribitt’s short life quickly inspired a novel by Erich Kuby, two feature films, and eventually a musical. Thanks to the notoriety, the Mercedes 190SL soon became known as the Nitribitt-Mercedes.
AUF WIEDERSEHEN, MAXI
Although Max Hoffman initially had its doubts about the Mercedes 190SL, the roadster sold reasonably well: more than 1,700 units in 1955, about half of those in America, and over 4,000 in 1956, the 190SL’s best year. In fact, the 1,800-odd 190SLs sold in the U.S. in 1956 accounted for nearly two-thirds of Hoffman’s total Mercedes sales.
By 1956, however, Daimler-Benz had become disenchanted with Hoffman. Heinz Hoppe, who later became head of Daimler-Benz’s North American operations, was dismayed by Hoffman’s attitude towards his franchise dealerships, which Hoppe considered overly callous. Daimler-Benz was also uneasy about high U.S. warranty costs, something Hoppe blamed on poor after-sale service from Hoffman’s dealerships.
That fall, Carl Giese, head of Daimler’s international operations, began negotiating with aviation company Curtiss Wright, which had recently signed a management agreement with the ailing Studebaker-Packard Corporation. On March 6, 1957, Daimler-Benz signed a seven-year agreement for Studebaker-Packard to distribute Mercedes-Benz automobiles in North America. They notified Hoffman that his own contract would be terminated effective May 1. When Hoffman threatened to sue, the Daimler-Benz board, fearing that a court battle might threaten their tenuous foothold in the U.S. market, agreed to a substantial out-of-court settlement that eventually cost the German company around $2 million.
Studebaker-Packard was not a great improvement over Hoffman Motors. By 1956, Studebaker-Packard was on the brink of collapse; Packard’s death warrant had already been signed by the time the Daimler-Benz agreement was concluded and many financial experts doubted that Studebaker would survive to the next presidential election. Worse, while former Packard dealers knew how to sell luxury cars, the typical Studebaker dealer did not, which did not help Mercedes-Benz’s market penetration.
Daimler-Benz management ended up spending much of the next seven years trying to disentangle themselves from Studebaker-Packard, which eventually cost them millions of dollars in franchise termination fees. In 1965, Daimler-Benz established its own distribution organization, Mercedes-Benz of North America, with Heinz Hoppe as president and CEO. As reluctant as the home office had been to tackle the American market alone, it proved the right decision: Hoppe nearly tripled American Mercedes sales by 1970 and they doubled again by 1982.
Hoffman eventually sold all his other franchises to concentrate on BMW, with great success. He retired in 1975, selling his business to BMW, and died in 1981.
The Mercedes 190SL received a number of minor improvements during its eight-year lifetime, notably the addition of an ATE Hydrovac brake booster in mid-1956, but the basic shape and design were little changed. Fritz Nallinger and his engineers were never very happy with the M121 engine, but several plans to improve its performance were abandoned because they would have cost more than they were worth.
In 1956, Mercedes engineers tried installing the 220 sedan’s M180 six in a modified 190SL with far more promising results. The Daimler-Benz board actually approved the production of a six-cylinder 220SL in April 1957, but the project was delayed and finally canceled, in part because the Ponton sedans from which the 190SL was derived were soon to be replaced. Nallinger decided instead to wait and use the Ponton’s successor as the basis for a new six-cylinder sports car intended to replace both the 190SL and 300SL. That car, based on the W111/W112 sedans and known internally as W113, bowed in 1963 as the Mercedes 230SL.
Production of the 190SL ended in February 1963. The eventual tally was 25,881 cars, about 10,000 of which were sold in the U.S.
THE LITTLE SISTER, REVISITED
After the death of the 190SL, Mercedes didn’t build another small sports car for more than 30 years. The bigger six-cylinder W113 SLs survived through 1971, when they were replaced by the remarkably long-lived R107. This lasted until 1989, and sales remained strong till the end despite an elderly design and eye-watering prices. Its sophisticated 1990 replacement, the R129, was the biggest and heaviest SL yet. That generation’s top-of-the-line 600SL, with its big V12 engine, was neither particularly sporty nor especially light, tipping the scales at over 4,400 lb (2,000 kg).
It was not until 1997 that Mercedes offered a modern equivalent to the original 190SL: the SLK230 (known internally as R170), featuring a neat retractable hardtop. Although Mercedes mercifully resisted any temptation to retro styling, the SLK’s combination of modest size — actually some 8.7 inches (221 mm) shorter than the 190SL on the same wheelbase — cute styling, refined (if not exactly sporty) demeanor, and relatively attainable price was very much in the tradition of the 190SL.
Surviving Mercedes 190SLs have become increasingly collectible in recent years, although still not with the fervor that attends the bigger Gullwing 300SL. Ironically, that fervor has been partly responsible for the interest in the 190SL, which has become more desirable as prices of its big brother have reached ever more stratospheric heights. Although a little slow, the 190SL is still comfortable and competent by modern standards. Unfortunately, it is not a great deal less expensive to restore than a 300SL, particularly if serious rust (to which the steel body is very vulnerable) has set in.
We are rather fond of the Mercedes 190SL. Its styling has aged very well, and while a more powerful, smoother engine would be nice, it suits our taste far more than contemporary English roadsters. Given a choice, we’d probably opt for an Alfa Romeo Sprint (mostly because we don’t like convertibles), but the pretty, polished Mercedes has charms of its own.
NOTES ON SOURCES
Our sources for this article included the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, “1955-1963 Mercedes-Benz 190SL,” HowStuffWorks.com, 18 September 2007, auto.howstuffworks.com/ 1955-1963-mercedes-benz-190sl.htm, accessed 29 July 2009; C. Danielson, “The Mercedes-Benz 190 SL” eMercedesBenz.com, 7 August 2008, emercedesbenz.com, accessed 30 July 2009; Gavin Farmer, “1955-1963 Mercedes-Benz 190SL: Stuttgart’s Lost Classic,” Collectible Automobile Vol. 17. No. 5 (February 2001), pp. 26-37; Richard Heseltine, “Glam that rocks,” Classic & Sports Car October 2004, reprinted in Porsche 356 Ultimate Portfolio, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 2006); Tom McCahill, “The Mercedes-Benz 190 SL,” Mechanix Illustrated April 1956, pp. 98-101, 202; Mark J. McCourt, “Mistaken Identity,” Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car #67 (March 2011), pp. 34–39; Jeff Miller and Ray Ilich, “Mercedes-Benz Pontons (1953-1962),” www.mbzponton. org, 22 July 2009, accessed 29 July 2009; Simon Read, “Tales of the 300SL,” Automobile Quarterly’s Great Cars & Grand Marques, ed. Beverly Rae Kimes (Princeton, NJ: Automobile Quarterly/Bonanza Books, 1979), pp. 88-97; André Ritzinger, “Mercedes 190SL 1955-1963,” RitzSite, n.d., www.ritzsite. nl/ 190SL/ 01_190SL.htm, accessed 26 July 2009; Rainer W. Schlegelmilch and Hartmut Lehbrink, Mercedes (Cologne: Könemann VGmbH, 1997); “Technical Information for the 190SL,” The International 190SL Group USA, 31 January 1994, www.190slgroup. com/tech/ tech.htm, accessed 29 July 2009); and the Wikipedia® entry for the Mercedes 190SL (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mercedes-Benz_190SL, accessed 29 July 2009).
Some information on the life and death of Rosemarie Nitribbit came from Christian Steiger, “Das ewige Rätsel um Rosemarie Nitribitt,” Die Welt 29 October 2007, www.welt. de, accessed 30 July 2009; her entry on Find a Grave (18 April 2001, www.findagrave. com, accessed 30 July 2009; and her Wikipedia entry (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rosemarie_Nitribitt, accessed 30 July 2009).
Additional background on Max Hoffman came from the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, Porsche Chronicle (Lincolnwood, IL: Publications International Ltd., 1996); Thomas Bonsall, More Than They Promised: The Studebaker Story (Chicago, IL: Stanford University Press, 2000); Jim Donnelly, “Max Hoffman,” Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car March 2006; Hoffman’s entry at the Automotive Hall of Fame (www.automotivehalloffame. org, accessed 30 July 2009); Jan P. Norbye and the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, BMW: Bavaria’s Driving Machines (New York: Beekman House/Publications International, 1984); Donald Osborne, “Max Hoffman Made Imports Less Foreign to Americans,” New York Times 18 March 2007, www.nytimes. com, accessed 30 July 2009; and “Car and Driver Road Test: BMW 1600,” Car and Driver February 1967, reprinted in Car and Driver on BMW Cars 1957-1977, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 1986), pp. 42-47.
Exchange rate data for the dollar and the mark came from Harold Marcuse, “Historical Dollar-to-Marks Currency Conversion Page” (19 August 2005, UC Santa Barbara, www.history.ucsb. edu/ faculty/ marcuse/ projects/ currency.htm, accessed 30 July 2009). All equivalencies cited in the text are approximate and are provided for illustration and informational purposes only — this is an automotive history, not a treatise on currency trading or the value of money, and nothing in this article should be taken as financial advice of any kind!