CLASSIC DRIVE: Mercedes-Benz 190SL

mercedes 190sl

We go for a drive in one of the most timelessly elegant roadsters of all time, the Mercedes-Benz 190SL.

Words: Wilhelm Lutjeharms

Pictures: Charles Russell

The Outeniqua Mountains, running parallel to South Africa’s South Coast, block our view of the rising sun, for now at least. We have been on this road before – with three SELs. Today, however, we are focusing on one car, and a rather significant one – the Mercedes-Benz 190SL Roadster. 

The owner is behind the wheel and working the four-speed gearbox. The mountain pass is not particularly steep, but with a 1.9-litre, 78 kW engine under the elegantly styled hood, and two adults on board, fourth gear simply doesn’t offer the necessary torque to power us up the hill. Wisely, he keeps the car in third. As the crisp morning air barrels into the cabin, I rest my left arm on the door and begin to drink in the details. 

mercedes 190SL

The interior is tight, but it does offer an intimate connection with the car, even from the passenger seat, and a sensation that only small cars can achieve. The solid feel of the dashboard controls is in stark contrast to the thin rimmed steering wheel and dinky gearlever, but with tidy operation, all gain your admiration. 

The details

The current owner purchased the car in 1991. He is a true Mercedes-Benz enthusiast and drives this 190SL regularly, while maintaining all of his collection to the same high standard. For instance, this 190SL received a full respray a number of years ago. Under his ownership, it was the first time that a respray was needed, and the paint was removed down to bare metal. The suspension has also received some attention, and the result is a 190SL that you can’t really fault. 


The dark red hue contrasts vividly with the grey, brown and green environment we find ourselves in now. Fortunately, there is no need for the cream hardtop this morning, although it does transform the look of the car to a true coupé without robbing the SL of its delicious lines. 

Although a roadster’s practicality is naturally limited, this SL does offer some form of compensation. Behind the driver’s seat is a small, side facing chair. It is only ideal for a toddler though – at a push. Should you wish to have a roof over your head, you had better attach the cream fixed roof before you leave home. Once the roof is fitted, the car impressively resembles the more expensive 300SL, which made its New York Motor Show debut alongside the 190SL in February 1954. 


Other highlights of this car’s interior include the colour scheme. The combination of a cream steering wheel, and red dashboard and carpets is as fitting as indulging in strawberries and cream at Wimbledon. The rest of the dashboard and facia are graced with a significant number of levers and switches. There are levers for operating the cabin’s hot and cold air flow for both driver and passenger.

mercedes 190sl

There is also a pull switch for the blower, a clearance lights selector switch, and button for the main lights. Not forgetting a starting device for when the engine is warm (similar to that which is offered in the 300SL), and the choke. The clock still works, but needs to be manually wound up to start ticking. 

Behind the wheel

Finally, it is time to slip behind the steering wheel. As I found with the passenger side, the driver’s seat is also rather cramped. But, if you like the compactness and involvement this provides, then you won’t complain – although the top of the windscreen does obscure my line of vision by a surprising amount. 

mercedes 190sl

The clutch is easy to modulate, the gearlever less so because it doesn’t want to be rushed. Take your time, however, and you will quickly learn to point the gearlever in the correct direction. The rather huge circumference of the steering wheel means it is easy to place and manoeuvre the car through the pass, as well as at parking speeds. But make no mistake, you can’t expect sports car performance from this engine. At the time of release, journalists remarked how the smaller engine (compared to the 300SL) and the heavy chassis deprived it of true sports car ability. 


Reviews at the time were quite clear about the 190SL, with statements by Road & Track such as “First, this is not a sports car”, and “for a 1.9-litre car, it is certainly not particularly light – it weighs 1 160 kg and, while that’s not bad for a very deluxe convertible coupé, it’s not light, let alone super light.” One test figure came in at over or 1,360kg, which is around 200 kg more than what Mercedes claimed. Another review concurred, “This is no racing car – though it could probably be made into one if the factory were inclined to peel off a few hundred pounds in weight, close up the ratios and stiffen the springs and shocks.” 


However, it does depend on your definition of a sports car. Even though the 190SL was not known for being the lightest car at the time, it turns into corners with a level of enthusiasm I didn’t expect. The steering is quite slow but very easy to master with a few miles under your belt, and from then on confidence only grows. 


The engine revs with relative ease and, as is typical of most Mercedes-Benz cars from the era, it is the dominating sound. The car’s sporty appearance owes much to the bonnet bulge, which can be seen from the upright and comfortable driver’s seat. At an indicated 90 km/h, the engine sits at 2 700 rpm, which confirms the 190SL’s long gearing, something some testers took issue with when the car was new. But we are not chasing lap times or dicing with other cars today, so the gear ratios have little negative effect on the driving experience. 


Each gearshift needs to be executed with precision, but you only need two or three fingers to do so, and the engine sound is deeper than I imagined it would be, especially if one considers its modest cubic capacity. Once you get into a rhythm, you realise how well judged the ride is. 

The 190SL’s double-wishbone front suspension and single joint swing-axle, with coil springs front and rear, offers occupants a remarkably comfortable ride. In total, 25 881 190SLs were produced, of which 3 949 were built in the year this car rolled off the production line – 1959. That may seem like a big number, but they are much more scarce now. 


The 190SL will always remain in the shadow of the 300SL Gullwing, but I think Mercedes-Benz hit the nail on the head with this car. Its lines are timelessly elegant, with flair not too far removed from the iconic 300SL. The performance lacks the visceral sparkle of a true sports car, but that seems to matter little to classic car buyers today. 


“It comes near to being the ideal car for going to and coming from races,” said another review at the time. I think that captures the essence of the 190SL perfectly, and so does Mercedes-Benz’s very own, original 190SL brochure: “The car for sporty driving and enjoyable travelling.”

Mercedes-Benz 190SL (W121)

Engine: M121 1,9-litre cc, in-line four cylinder

Power: 78 kW @5,700rpm

Torque: 155 Nm @3,200rpm 

Transmission: 4-speed manual, RWD

Weight: 1 160kg

0-100 km/h: 14,5 seconds

Top speed: 170 km/h

Years produced: 1955 – 1963

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