By the 1950s it was clear that Americans were in the mood for sporty cars with the right balance of style and performance. For many young people, single, married, or even with small children, a small two-seater presented a delightful relief from the lunking, heavy American cars that still seemed stuck in the 1940s. Among the many European car companies that were paying close attention to this growing market, Mercedes-Benz was poised with an offering that not only would captivate the hearts of Americans, but would also set a new world standard for sporting fun in an open two-seater car with plenty of style and performance to match.
Introduced at the 1954 New York Auto Show, the prototype 190SL was cleverly situated alongside the powerful and prestigious 300SL Gullwing. With such celebrated company the 190SL immediately struck a glamorous chord with all onlookers. Displaying all the characteristic quality, fit, and finish of the 300SL, the 190SL delivered in every respect. The motoring press showered the new 190SL with ample praise confirming this affordable convertible would surely lead the way to new markets in North America.
Principally motivated by U.S. distributor and marketing pioneer of European imports, Max Hoffman, the 190SL positioned Mercedes-Benz as a premier brand in the growing North American market. Strategically priced at around $4,000, the 190SL was almost half the price of the 300SL. This attractive value, coupled with irresistible looks and open cockpit driving, motivated nearly 26,000 buyers to purchase these sporting cars between 1955 and 1963. And while these numbers might seem modest in terms of modern car sales today, during this period, these important sales catapulted Mercedes-Benz into a larger market opportunity, one that would greatly advance their broader objectives far beyond the more costly and lower volume 300SL. Shortly after the first year of production, the public fell in love with the 190SL not just because of the fantastic looks and quality, the 1900-cc SOHC engine with twin Solex carburetors coupled to the 4-speed transmission, delivered spirited driving while returning admirable fuel economy.
Driving manners were also rewarding via double-wishbone coil spring front suspension and swing axle coil spring rear suspension. Attributed to the Mercedes-Benz engineer Rudolf Uhlenhaut, the term SL is generally regarded to mean Sport Light or Super Light, characterizing the nimble nature of these cars but also the sporting heritage that Uhlenhaut had so carefully crafted as part of the racing dominance Mercedes-Benz achieved as formidable motorsports competitors against Ferrari, Jaguar, and Aston Martin. Today, the 190SL remains an attractive and highly desirable classic very much for the same reasons experienced upon its launch; a comfortable sporty car blending elegant open motoring with easy to service mechanicals. Despite the 190SL being the modest lower priced sibling of the 300SL, over the past 60 years it has charmed its way into more celebrated collections in part because of its heritage to the 300SL.
Striking in every view, the 190SL immediately brings to mind the cavalier mid to late 1950s so fervently romanticized in movies, theater, and music of the period. Offered with a removable hardtop and custom-tailored luggage, the 190SL was more than transportation, it was a statement of carefree elegance without the opulence of stone mansions and tuxedoed butlers.