1955-1963 Mercedes-Benz 190SL

1955-1963 Mercedes-Benz 190SL Road Tests

The Mercedes-Benz 190SL (this is a 1959 model) had worldwide fans. The turn signal lights on this car identify it as a European-spec model.
The Mercedes-Benz 190SL (this is a 1959 model) had worldwide fans. The turn signal lights on this car identify it as a European-spec model.

Over the course of its run, 1955-1963, Mercedes-Benz 190SL road tests were conducted by independent reviewers to assess its performance and handling.

The 190SL displayed at Geneva in March 1955 was one of a small series of preproduction cars leading to the official announcement and release in May. Offered in roadster form with the availability of an optional aluminum hardtop, it was received with some reserve by the press.

But it was beautifully built, in the Mercedes tradition, and solid in a way for which sports cars were not noted. Finish everywhere was near perfect in detail, whether under the hood, in doors that swung shut with almost no pressure and closed with that "clunk" that spelled solidity and strength, the millimeter-perfect body cut lines, or the immaculately upholstered interior and tailor-made set of suitcases.

Mercedes-Benz advertised the 190SL as a touring sports car, perhaps a car to compete in club hill climbs and rallies, but not the long-distance classic events. To support this view, Daimler-Benz even catalogued a production Sportausführung, a sports roadster that featured such lightening measures as cut-down aluminum doors minus the window winding mechanism and glass, and a small plexiglass aero screen for the driver. Mechanically, it was unchanged. How many were made is not recorded in the usually meticulous Daimler-Benz archives.

Road & Track, that most cosmopolitan of American motor magazines, tested the 190SL and made several positive comments. "Very few sports cars have been so eagerly awaited or so long in coming as the moderately priced SL version of the Mercedes-Benz...The net result is a car which is slightly more expensive and a little heavier than was originally planned, but certainly

it should be durable, dependable and without 'bugs.'"

Road & Track went on to say, "The outstanding achievement of the 190SL is without a doubt its quality in design and workmanship. But a close second is the general feeling of solidity which it immediately conveys." The magazine's test car ran a 0-60-mph time of 13.0 seconds, the standing quarter in 19.3, and a top-speed average of 99.8 mph, with a best run of 102.6 mph. Road & Track was impressed, even though the list price in New York was a tall $3,998.

By 1960, the Mercedes-Benz 190SL had competition from a 300SL roadster. By 1960, the Mercedes-Benz 190SL had competition from a 300SL roadster.
By 1960, the Mercedes-Benz 190SL had competition from a 300SL roadster.

Five years later, Road & Track again tested the 190SL and wrote, "To evaluate the Mercedes-Benz 190SL properly, one must first put the car into its proper category. First, this is not a sports car -- as far as we know no one has entered a 190SL in a sports car race for several years."

Testers remained impressed with the car's character and build integrity, commenting, "The steep price ($5,129) tag seems a little more plausible when one looks over the details and sees the quality of the car's interior." Apart from the enlarged rear window on the hardtop and the fitting of a clock on the glove box lid as standard, the car was unchanged.

This time, Road & Track managed a 0-60 run in 13.5 seconds (slightly slower), the quarter-mile in 18.9 seconds (slightly quicker), and a better maximum speed of 106 mph. "We say it's well worth the money," the publication concluded.

Across the pond in England, The Autocar tested the 190SL and ended its report by saying, "The 190SL was approached with keen expectation, knowing the reputation of its makers for quality and workmanship. It proved to be fast and tireless, exhilarating to drive, and was obviously created with long distance, comfortable travel in mind rather than competition work." Autocar testers produced a maximum speed of 106 mph, a 0-60 time of 13.3 seconds, and a 17.8-second quarter.

Sadly, many motoring journalists compared the performance of the 190SL with its 300SL sibling and found it wanting. The far more logical comparisons should have been with its homegrown rivals.

Across town in Stuttgart-Zuffenhausen, Porsche was producing its exquisite little 356 that, in 1600 form, produced 75 horsepower at 5,200 rpm, zipped from rest to 60 mph in 8.3 seconds, and matched the 190SL for maximum speed and build quality, but was lighter and less well equipped in keeping with its more overtly sporting character.

To the north, in a factory in Bremen, the Borgward Group was building the pretty Isabella TS coupe that was also available in limited numbers as a cabriolet. It was powered by a smaller 1493cc engine putting out 75 bhp, was superbly made, and its performance, too, matched the Mercedes. Its handling qualities were more in keeping with what a Mercedes buyer expected, whereas the Porsche 356 driver reveled in the tail-out oversteer from its rear-engine configuration.

To read about development during the 190SL's run, continue on to the next page.

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