Reviewed by Unique Cars and Parts
Our Rating: 4
The only 4 cylinder SL built (modern SLK's excluded), this was a far simpler (and far less expensive) alternative to the 300SL. The companies promotional literature used at the New York motor show best describes the vehicle ... "The stunning new Mercedes-Benz 190SL production sports car offers three hits - Racing Performance, Luxurious Comfort and Operational Robustness - and no errors, meaning, no sacrifice of the factory's prime principle: safety.
And now the car of your dreams has become a reality, it is here and waiting for you. Designed and built for long-distance driving as well as for short daily rides, this ultra-smart roadster offers in spite of its sporty character unusually high riding comfort, dependability, and economy ... .but the 190SL also wins by fitting it with a sleek looking hard-top.
It is turned then into a distinguished Club Coupe, offering all the comforts of a luxurious sedan...Indeed, three hits and no errors, a Roadster, a Convertible, and a Coupe with no flaws whatsoever." The vehicle helped ensure the longevity of the "SL" marque by providing a lower cost alternative to the expensive 300SL
price comparison can easily demonstrate this, with the 300SL Roadster
costing US$10,928, the 190SL $5232, the Austin-Healey 100-Six
$3389, Jaguar XK150S
$5120 and Chevrolet Corvette $3621. As one commentator at the time described it; "The 190SL is just not quite quick enough or rebellious enough....but it drifted toward a different image. It was seen as respectable, dripping with quality and even nippy enough for the boulevard cruiser".
The 190 SL enjoyed a very successful production run. It appealed, not only to enthusiastic drivers but had become an icon in the world of fashion and films. As ever Mercedes-Benz refined the model so that it continually evolved during its run. Initially only available in silver, the car soon progressed to the colours of the time, but generally the differences were subtle. Most of the changes were under the skin resulting in a much better car in 1963
than had been launched nine years earlier, such was the rate of development during that period.
The overhead-cam four cylinder engine had a displacement of 1897cc, and was fitted with two Solex horizontal carburettors, making the engine good for 105 horsepower at 5700rpm. Obviously the 190SL was not designed for spirited driving, but it was certainly no slouch, and fitted the role of stylish boulevard cruiser for the well heeled perfectly. In September 1959
a new style hard top was designed, which provided a larger window area for improved vision. But many lamented the fact that the 190SL was not really a true "Sports Light", being too heavy and underpowered to compete with contemporary sports cars of the day, particularly of the British variety. There was one highlight on the competion calendar, when W. Sulke took out the 1958
Hong Kong rally.
Behind the Wheel
To begin with the 190SL was heavy. Unladen it scaled in at well over the ton. To pull it the Mercedes used an over-square straight four of 1897cc, developing a noble 105 conservatively estimated nett b.h.p., or 120 as rated for USA deliveries. The interior showed no evidence of skimpy weight-saving. Construction was solid and equipment lavish. The seats were big, form-fitting affairs that were very similar to those being used by Porsche at the time. The back-rests hugged you tight around the small of the back and squab measurements were generous. Legs and arms had plenty of room too. The door trim was carefully moulded to include a spacious pocket, a slam grab and an armrest all in the one projection. The designers at Stuttgart had cleverly contrived to place their window winders right where driver's and passenger's right and left knees were respectively. Rubber covered the floor in front, with a handsome woven German carpet in the luggage recess behind the seats.
From a driver's point of view everything was as close to perfect as you would expect from MB. A big wheel, chunky and solid and simple, sat at a good angle. Careful seat adjustment with the aid of a simple rake control and the normal hand lever could lead to comfort no matter how you liked to drive. Pedals were big and well spaced. The handbrake wasn't a sporting fitting - umbrella type, under the dash - but it worked okay. Gear shift placement was perfect. The lever itself had a pleasantly un-English knob, scientifically shaped to fit your hand. Lever travel was long and there was a little whip in the linkage, but criticism is not really justified because the box was as good as anything going at the time.
Instruments were housed in a handsome cowl right ahead of the driver. Speedo and tacho shared feature placement, with equal-sized dials that were easy to read. A tell-tale light for the indicators flashed only a weak warning from between the dials. A pity, since a sideways twist of the horn ring worked the non-self-cancelling indicators and they were easy to forget. A nice touch was that speedometer and tachometer needles were geared to revolve in the same plane at the same rate. This meant that when the speedo needle was at nine o'clock the tacho needle was in the same place on the other dial. In top gear only, of course.
Minor instruments were water temperature and oil pressure gauges, fuel gauge and clock. Oil pressure was around 90 lb. sq. in, so that the needle was at the limit of its travel most of the time. A really comprehensive heater/ demister set-up was standard. There was an ashtray in the dash. Other stock features that helped to remove much of the starkness often associated with sports car motoring (read British sports-cars) were the inclusion of a dipping mirror, an interior light, a key starter, a lockable glovebox, a headlight flashing stalk and, best of all, wind-up windows. A safety feature was the twin sun-visors which would collapse on impact in a crash.
On the Road
The Mercedes motor was willing on the road and reasonably docile in traffic. But it developed its power high in the range and gearing was high too. This was really the fault - if you can call it that - of an otherwise happy combination of engine characteristics, gear ratios, throttle linkage and clutch. Speaking of the clutch, it gripped hard, but it was inclined to be a little dicey in normal usage. For instance, owners reported that it would object violently to the mild slip technique made almost essential by city traffic conditions. The subject of gear ratios was a contentious one too, and with a car with the relatively small capacity 4 cylinder engine as used on the 190SL the problem was complicated by such considerations as low-speed torque. Many believed that the third cog should have been higher. As it stood, the 190SL was good for around 80 m.p.h. in third. A higher gear would have arguably not been so handy around town, so Mercedes engineers obviously sought a compromise - and who are we to argue.
Other ratios were just about ideal. Admittedly a lower second would, again, make the car better in town, but no serious-minded enthusiast would have ever consented to give up the joy that a 50 m.p.h. second gear maximum can give on the highway. The throttle linkage could be touchy at low speeds, meaning that gradual acceleration in second or third gear (top was seldom used in town) was difficult. The carburettors were often blamed, but they were actually not as hairy as they looked. The four Solex barrels did not each serve a cylinder. Instead two of them looked after all four pots low down, allowing the others to cut in with the aid of supplementary jets when the pressure was on. The cut-in speed was adjustable. Owners report that carb adjustment was necessary only very rarely.
Third gear maximum, as mentioned above, was more than 80 m.p.h. at 6,000 (red line 5,750). Second was useful for passing from low speeds, besides giving a real kick away from the lights. In fact in second gear the 190SL seemed able to tackle anything. In first it was a regular ball of fire - and better still the chassis performance matched up nicely with its lusty motor. Basic construction was a typically German pressed steel pan on a medium wheelbase and a very wide track. An ingenious low-pivot divided back axle layout gave independent suspension characteristics simply and efficiently, although it didn't offer complete transference to the frame of propeller shaft torque. Front suspension was by coils and wishbones. There was an anti-roll bar at the front.
The 190SL was so low and wide that it was, in effect, almost flat. This gave a very low roll centre and consequent good cornering powers. The suspension helped to make cornering not just good but very good. Recirculating ball steering never had the feel of rack and pinion, but even though it was low-geared at 3.5 turns the Mercedes system was much better than most from the 1950s. It had the precision that a keen driver needed, built-in shock absorbers made it bump-proof, and the gearing wasn't so soft that a lazy driver could push the car through a right-angle bend in a single cross-arm bite.
The independent rear end did prevent excessive inside wheel lift in tight turns. It also kept both back tyres in close contact with the road well beyond the point where a cart-axle equipped opponent would be slipping all over the place. When the back end did let go, the tail remained delightfully controllable. Road testers of the time claimed that at no time did the swing axles even look like "taking over". When taking into consideration the state of automotive engineering then going, the 190SL was as close to the ideal as a designer could get without actually hanging their final drive on the chassis. Steering characteristics would change from a mild understeer, which called for a definite haul into most bends, to a delightful brand of oversteer when the loud pedal was on the floor.
The Merc's, spring rates were an ideal compromise too. There was never a suggestion of hardness around town, yet it never felt sloppy either. Admittedly the 190SL didn't corner board flat in the manner of, for instance, a Lotus - but then the people who bought the 190SL did not want that kind of handling to come at the expense of a bone-shaker ride on even medium-grade surfaces. The 190SL had none of the traditional fast car objection to rough stuff. Whenever the SL had to cross a rugged patch in the normal course of things it would raise no protest at all. Ground clearance was sensible. So, for that matter, was luggage space - all of which added up to pleasant, quick touring just about anywhere you wanted to go. The wind-up windows helped, as did the snug, one-man hood. A detachable hardtop was optional.
The 190SL had excellent brakes. They were turbo-finned drum affairs with a big lining area aggregate and a servo boost that was claimed to halve pedal pressures. Road testers who dealt out a fair share of punishment showed no appreciable fade at all. It was almost impossible to lock the brakes up, instead they would just kept on pulling at maximum efficiency until the car stood at a standstill - no black marks, no fuss, yet the figures were really good. That is was about as good as braking got in those days, before ABS and even disc-brakes were commonplace.
The 190SL was also a brilliant car to drive at night. The headlight main beams allowed high speeds with safety, instrument lighting was perfect, and with the side windows up and no hood driver and passenger simply sat there eating up the miles without draught or cold or noise. One niggle was, apparently, low beam which cut off much too sharply for Australian conditions. The hood itself was snug and it didn't flap. The rear window was soft plastic, however the original factory units were inclined to scratch easily. The three hood fasteners were ingenious and neat. There was a brace of catches to stop the mechanism from rattling when it was folded, too, as well as a nicely made tonneau to cover everything up.
Visibility with the hood up was almost as good as it was when the car was open, except for the opaque rear window. Headroom was adequate. The same went for entry and egress. The engine auxiliaries were surprisingly easy to get at. The bonnet opening looked small, but in fact it was unusually generous. Minor bits and pieces such as the fuse box, brake servo unit and fuel pump were all well placed, and mechanics had little trouble fiddling with plugs, distributor, or even carburettors. If you have read this far, you do not need us to tell you that the Mercedes 190SL was a beautiful car. Its lines had an unostentatious grace that brought covetous glances both then, and perhaps even more so now. Despite seemingly underpowered on paper, it went well enough, stopped well, and cornered well. It was extremely well made and its equipment, when judged with cars from the era, was nothing short of lavish. Many examples have survived, not only because many looked after their cars, but because back then Mercedes really did make cars that were designed to last.