Mercedes-Benz 190SL (1954-'62): Buyer's Guide

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Germany's style-leading '50s roadster is at the top-end of the collectability, classy cruising - and restoration costs - scale.

Mercedes-Benz 190SL (1954-'62): Buyer's Guide
Buyer's Guide: Mercedes-Benz 190SL (1954-'62)

 

Buying used: Mercedes-Benz 190SL (1954-'62) 

Should someone, someday write a guide to car manufacturing success, one of the Golden Rules contained therein will be: "Don't try to build an underpriced, underpowered version of your iconic models - unless your name happens to be Mercedes-Benz."

The 190SL displayed in prototype form at the 1954 New York Auto Show was a model designed to capitalise on the appeal and competition successes of the company's vastly more exotic 300SL.

Based on the pedestrian 180 'Ponton' sedan and developing just 78kW from its 1.9 litres, the 190SL was never going to win anything but admiring stares. Yet during an eight-year lifespan it comfortably out-sold open-top variants of the Porsche 356 and XK Jaguar.

Avoiding the 'poverty pack' tag that would afflict four-cylinder (912) versions of Porsche's favourite rear-engined status-symbol and 2.4-litre Mark 2 Jaguars was easy for the 190, because it never pretended to be a low-cost version of anything. It was a model in its own right and always regarded as such.

Priced at $3998 on release onto the United States market, the 190 offered enough 300SL cachet to attract status-motivated buyers who really didn't care that their sleek Germanic roadster took longer than an MGA to reach 100kmh and ran out of breath just beyond 160kmh.

Claims of 125hp (93kW) and 180kmh-plus made by Mercedes' United States distributor were simply not supported by contemporary press-tests - Modern Motor magazine used a privately-imported car in 1958 to record a 105mph (170kmh) maximum and 0-60mph (0-96kmh) in a respectable 12 seconds.

Most overseas publications couldn't beat 13 seconds, so maybe the upshifting skills of tester David McKay - who won races in a Moss-box Jaguar - might have been the telling factor.

The 190SL was and remains a car for cruising to the coast on warm summer's evenings and making the neighbours - even in the most elite of neighbourhoods - envious. The cabin was spacious and beautifully-appointed with broad, fully-adjustable seats, framed wind-up windows, comprehensive instrumentation and the best hood in the sports car market.

1956 was the 190's best sales year with over 4000 units built, and of a total 25,881 manufactured, more than 10,000 went to North American buyers.

Official Australian sales didn't start until late 1958 with local cars priced at around £3300. Several were sold as Art Union raffle prizes so a few lucky owners got to put a 190SL in the carport for an outlay of just five shillings.

Until the mid-'80s, 190SLs cost less than 'pagoda-top' 230/280 models but soaring values for 300SL Roadsters and Gullwings on the world market sent demand and average prices soaring. Cars which sold below $25,000 in 1982 had by 1988 hit the mid $50,000s and were heading for $70,000 before the local recession and international market tremors caused a 25 percent decline in values.

ON THE ROAD

Personal memories of the 190SL go back several years to a restored, midnight-blue example we were invited to drive to the Maclean's Bridge classic car display held each Mother's Day in a cow paddock in Brisbane's southern outskirts.

Top-down on a glorious autumn morning, the SL with its raspy exhaust sounded every bit as entertaining as its booming, six-cylinder companions. Leaving from the Gold Coast, we were obliged to climb some of the most daunting hills on the Australian east coat but third gear and 133Nm of utterly-useful torque coped with virtually any incline.

Once into the high country, open sweeping bends could be relished at 90-110kmh with no hint of the swing-axle oversteer said to bedevil these cars. Even backing off suddenly at the mid-point of a tight uphill corner provoked no more than a gentle lurch.

The huge, white-rimmed steering wheel wouldn't look out of place on the deck of a racing yacht. but such is the car's balance that cruising speeds required minimal amounts of wheel-twirling. Not so the indicators.

Unless you're told it would be impossible to guess that the big chromed horn ring also moves left or right so you can signal changes in direction. The long, spindly gear-lever takes a little practice but must be mastered if you want to keep the SL moving at a respectable pace.

Cautious use of the all-wheel drums on downhill stretches proved unnecessary and by the bottom of the return run's steepest grade it was not the 190 but an accompanying all-disc Aston-Martin DBS that had smoke billowing from its front brakes.

Comfort and space are huge 190SL attractions. The broad front buckets - in vinyl or leather - are slippery and exuberant cornering in cars without seat belts will deposit you in the passenger's lap or vice-versa.

Behind the seats is enough space for a vinyl-padded shelf and a good proportion of local cars come with this useful option. The long, shallow boot easily accommodates enough chairs, baskets and coolers for a lavish picnic, or all you'll need for a weekend away. The hood fits snugly and rates among the best soft-tops in the business.

HOW MUCH?

These cars are not a project for the amateur restorer and marque experts caution that reviving a badly-rusted SL will be a daunting and expensive process. Brisbane-based 'Benz specialists 'Sleeping Beauties' is currently undertaking such a process and proprietor Wolf Grodd had some telling advice for potential owners.

"This particular car wasn't that bad yet it needed $25,000 spent just to get the body into a state where the restoration could start," Grodd said.

"With paint, mechanicals, chrome and so forth, a car like this could easily swallow $150,000 and while you will spend more on a 300SL those are three times more valuable than a 190 when they're finished."

Our featured 190SL from Brooklands Motors in Melbourne represents probably the best compromise for anyone seeking a car with trophy-winning potential, but without a six-figure bank account to empty. Finished in red with black leather, this $65,000 example was restored several years ago to concours standard and has seen little use in the years since.

Lower down the price scale come cars which enjoyed their last serious makeover during the 1980s and are now in need of mechanical and cosmetic surgery. Often priced well into the $50,000 price bracket, such cars need to be carefully and expertly inspected as some which were subjected to 'quickie' restorations are now ready for another $20,000-30,000 worth of work.

Restorable 'project' cars aren't common in Australia, however LHD rustbuckets are available in the USA for less than $A10,000 - plus freight and other costs, of course. Cars with factory hardtops command a premium of $3000-5000 including the stand, which these heavy objects require to ensure they aren't damaged when not in use.

BUYERS CHECKLIST


Body

190SLs rust comprehensively and cost a small fortune to bring back from the brink. The body/chassis unit is steel and welded together into a quasi-monocoque but the doors, bootlid and bonnet are aluminium. The best places to look for impending rust are the cabin and boot floors, wheelarch lips, around the chromed rear mudguard stone shield and the sills. Original sills have a join behind the door - if it's missing the sills have been re-skinned or even filled. Replacement body panels are available from Germany or the USA, but quoted prices for new parts are daunting: front guards at $US1145 ($A1940), nose-panel $1245 ($A2110) and replacement sills $400 ($A680). Replacement hood frames cost $4000 ($A6780) new - coverings anywhere from $1000 to $3000 depending on the material specified. Used parts are usually 60-75 percent cheaper than new ones but may need work. If the front bumper on a 190SL is badly damaged or missing, walk away. New ones are worth $10,000!

Engine & Transmission

Like all Mercedes-Benz engines, the four-cylinder unit is durable and easy to maintain. All parts necessary to rebuild a tired motor or maintain a good one are available and not especially expensive - unless you need a brand-new crankshaft which will cost $4000. Leaks around the water-pump housing are common but can't be ignored. The original Solex carburettors are hard to find and expensive to replace or renovate, so owners more interested in economical SL ownership than concours trophies are fitting Webers in place of the authentic units. Parts for the conversion cost less than $2000. Gearboxes are durable but the action can be vague. Synchromesh problems or gearbox noise can mean the wrong oil is being used - automatic fluid is the recommended lubricant. A new gearbox will cost $10,000, a replacement clutch less than $1000.

Suspension & Brakes

Conventional - for a Benz - suspension means few dramas. Front springs sag and the rear spring mounts can rust. New springs cost around $500 a pair. The finned drum brakes look lovely but be cautious of brakes that shudder or cause the car to dart about under hard application. New drums are worth a fortune and even second hand from the USA they cost around $250 each with replacement shoes $120-175 per set. Brake boosters are hidden away in the engine bay and can suffer from corrosion if neglected.

Electrics & Interior

No major problems here unless items are missing or broken. The dash, hood and seat frames are all made from metal and restorable. Good-quality carpets, seat facings and door trims are available from aftermarket sources or can be made by specialist trimmers. Instruments are available second-hand and a new wiring harness - essential if you're serious about enjoying reliable motoring - should cost less than $2000 plus installation.

 

 

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