Feature Story

COLLECTIBLE MERCEDES 190SL

by Bob Hagin

April 12, 1996

When the Mercedes-Benz 190SL first arrived here in 1955, it faced stiff competition. The Austin-Healey 100 and the Triumph TR2 were both lightweight British roadsters, powered by 100 horsepower four cylinder engines and relatively inexpensive. Amateur Healey and Triumph drivers were competing successfully in races all over the country but the market was prime for other makers to enter the niche.

Mercedes-Benz, riding high on the success of its fabled 300SL "gullwing" coupe, felt that it was time to get on the bandwagon and produce a Teutonic competitor for the brash British. It took the running gear from its reliable 180 sedan, modified the engine a bit, shortened and reinforced the 180 floor pan and installed a redesigned rear suspension. This latter device was important in that it eliminated a rather undesirable characteristic of M-Bs of the period. Previously, the cars would swap ends when pushed by inexperienced drivers.

The body developed for the 190SL was a close copy of the 300SL's "pontoon" design, obviously calculated to capitalize on the fame of the larger, faster, but more expensive machine. Both were meticulously assembled and the fit and finish was of high quality. But the smaller car had one major problem. It was a slug on the road.

The 190SL was fast enough once it got under way (top speed: 105 MPH), but it took a while to get there. The major drawback here was its weight. It tipped the scales at a whopping 2700 pounds while its Anglo competition weighed in at around 600 pounds less. Unfortunately, its little two-liter engine simply wasn't up to the job of delivering sparkling stoplight performance since it put out only 105 German horsepower. Needless to say, the M-B 190SL was not an outstanding success in our amateur races.

Another problem the car faced was the fact that it was about $2000 more expensive than its British adversaries. Quality it had in abundance but Americans weren't ready for a German version of the Thunderbird.

It was, perhaps, this very lack of performance and racing success that enabled John Regis to buy his red '57 190SL for only $1700 in 1963. Regis, a friend of many decades, was (and still is) a stand-up comedian and felt that the overweight convertible two-seater was just what he needed; a comfortable touring car that could carry him and his equipment around the country without "pounding" him as affordable British sports cars of the era were wont to do. Even its removable hard-top was snug and watertight, an attribute lacking in other sports cars.

Regis bought his 190SL from our home-town Ford dealer who had taken it in on trade and was anxious to "off" the machine because of a transmission problem. The gearshift lever had a mind of its own and was so sloppy that it was a problem for the driver to select the right gear. Being a foreign car enthusiast, Regis understood the problem and explained to the sales manager that the complex German gearbox would require large amounts of money to repair. The distraught Ford dealer dropped the asking price by $600 and made the deal. Regis drove to the parts department of a nearby Mercedes dealership, bought a pair of plastic gearshift bushings for under a dollar and two hours later had his new mount shifting crisply.

Another problem that Regis found was in the car's quirky Solex carburetors. After a year of constant headaches in this area, he replaced them with a pair of reliable Italian Weber units. Today more than half of the restored M-B 190SLs found at auto shows carry these same Weber 40 DCOE carburetors even though the owners lose points at judging time. They obviously feel the loss is worth the reliability.

Regis sold his 190SL in 1966 after he discovered that his numerous Eastern trips had caused the car to develop rust, a common problem. After many miles and considerable soul searching, he sold it to the first caller to respond to his newspaper ad, an enthusiast in Reno who wired him the $1100 asking price and flew down to the San Francisco Bay Area that day to pick it up.

Regis and I often discuss his 190SL and the fact that it is now considered a "significant" vehicle by the Milestone Car Society. I once pointed out that it would be worth considerable money had he kept it.

"Yes," he said, "you're right. And if I'd taken that $1100 and bought IBM or some other successful stock, I'd be a millionaire today. As it was, I spent it on something even more important. I paid my back rent and was able to eat."

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