The Birth of the 190 SL

Maximilian Hoffman spent hours trying to persuade the Daimler-Benz Board of Management to build a reasonably priced sports car for the American market. When he finally obtained the go-ahead the elegant American still felt he had lost out. This was due to the proposal from Development chief Dr. Fritz Nallinger recommending that the small sports car Hoffman wanted to build should be constructed on the platform of the 180 Sedan. Hoffman’s immediate rejoinder was to the effect of “That’s not going to come to anything.” Later, Hoffman good-naturedly conceded: “I lost - the outcome was the 190 SL.”

The notable Board meeting in Stuttgart, viewed as the session which gave birth to the famous 190 SL, took place on September 2, 1953. Max Hoffman had been invited because the entrepreneurial American had been importing European cars to the USA since 1946 and had demonstrated an unfailing instinct.

190 SL Prototype
The 190 SL, whose prospects for success were rated so low by its godfather was, together with the legendary 300 SL, to throw open the doors of the American market to the world’s oldest automotive brand. Hoffman was promised the 300 SL for the “International Motor Sports Show” in New York, held from February 6 to 14, 1954. And its baby brother, the 190 SL, was to make its debut right alongside it. The intention was to win the hearts and minds of the American public with an elegant sports car from a renowned company - one which combined an exciting design with a modest price tag.

This of course meant that the engineers were left with no more than five months to develop this car. Things had to move swiftly, and just two weeks after the meeting with Hoffman, the directors at Daimler-Benz were already examining initial draft designs for the new car. Two weeks later, they met to evaluate the first 1:10 scale model and eight weeks after that, the first 1:1 model was ready for their inspection. The company felt that the 190 SL should be viewed as a sports tourer rather than as a sports car.

Finally, on February 6, 1954, New Yorkers enthusiastically responded to the arrival of the 190 SL. The German journal “Automobil + Motorrad Chronik” reported a “turbulent debut”. Another German journal, “Motorrundschau” then encapsulated what many people were thinking of the 190 SL: “A tantalizing dream for the thousands of people for whom the 300 SL will always be unattainable.”

Nevertheless, for an initial period, it remained no less elusive to the buying public because the 190 SL, after causing such a sensation, was simply not put on the market – not immediately anyway. There was no hiding from the fact that the rapid pace of development had left no time for thorough trials and test cycles. Under no circumstances was Mercedes-Benz willing to dispense with this rigorous approach to a new product.

The body first exhibited in New York was subjected to a number of refinements. This process did away with the stylized air intake on the bonnet, the front edge of the bonnet was offset towards the windscreen, the bumpers, turn signals and tail lights were modified and the familiar “comet tail” bulges above the wheel arches on the SL models also
New York Debut
appeared above the rear wheels of the modified 190 SL. The final version was first unveiled at the Geneva Motor Show in March 1955 and volume production started in May 1955.

The 190 SL was available as a soft-top roadster or as a coupé with removable hardtop with the additional option of a soft-top as well. Also shown was a sports version for motor racing, featuring lighter doors with a cutout for the arm, stripped away bumpers and a small Plexiglas windshield in front of the driver instead of a windscreen. However, the Oberste Nationale Sportkommission (ONS or Governing National Sports Committee) refused to approve this sports version which was therefore withdrawn in March 1956.

Although this marked the end of any possible motorsport career for the 190 SL, it nevertheless came second at the 1956 Grand Prix in the Portuguese colony of Macão and was awarded Best in Class. In 1958 it went on to victory in its class of the Hong Kong Rally. The sporting career of the 190 SL continued in 1961 when it was equipped with a diesel engine, going on as it did to break many records for diesel-engined cars.

The 190 SL garnered even more success on elegant city streets than it did on the race track. A broad range of prominent social figures chose this elegant sports car to complement their image, including Grace Kelly and Frank Sinatra who drove a 190 SL in “Ten Thousand Bedrooms”.

The success of the 190 SL is demonstrated by its sales. Between May 1955 and February 1963, no less than 25,881 were sold – far in excess of the aspirations initially discussed back on September 2, 1953.