The introduction of the 1955 Mercedes-Benz 190SL was held in tandem with the debut of the more powerful 300SL, which overshadowed the 190SL almost from the beginning. The four-cylinder, two-seat sports car had a lot of solid qualities all its own, but just couldn't compete with its bigger sibling.
Mercedes-Benz's United States importer, Max Hoffman, an expatriate Austrian who became known as the "Baron of Park Avenue," wanted a production version of the 300SL to sell to his wealthy American clientele. But at the same time, he recognized the need for a less complex and more affordable sports car carrying the three-pointed star.
His vision was of a sports car utilizing major components from the sedan range but wrapped in a svelte, stylish body. Hoffman would be successful with both requests, the 190SL and 300SL having their world premieres at the New York Motor Show on February 6, 1954.
Although the development and engineering for the 300SL came from Uhlenhaut's racing department, the 190SL was developed by technical director Fritz Nallinger's passenger car team. Nonetheless, both shared very similar styling cues, in particular the smooth roundness of their respective designs and the new grille.
The tall, imperious radiator topped with a three-pointed star was forsaken on the SLs for a far simpler, open design; a wide rectangular opening edged with chrome trim and a large star-in-a-circle within. The theme has been retained in various forms on the SL range ever since.
By late 1951, the "Ponton" styling of the new W180 series 220 sedans was settled and production plans were well under way. Designers and engineers next began preparations during 1952 for the smaller W120 series 180 that would share a great deal of hardware with its big brother.
An offshoot of the W120 program was W121, which would become the 190SL. Early concepts of the 190SL were drawn in late September 1953 after the board had met earlier the same month with Hoffman in Stuttgart-Untertürkheim.
The 190SL's styling was developed by a small team under the direction of Karl Wilfert, Mercedes's chief stylist. While Friedrich Geiger designed the 300SL body, it was Walter Hacker and his people, including a young Paul Bracq (later to gain international recognition at BMW and Peugeot), who were responsible for the shape of the small sportwagen.
For more on the design of the 1955 Mercedes-Benz 190SL, continue on to the next page.
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