I saw this car parked at a place called House of Pies. Inside, I scanned around for the owner of this little black beauty. Eventually, I saw a young couple with just that right combination of weather protection and style: hats, flowy period-correct scarf for her, sun screen on him — it had to be them. It was.
The owner was named Aram, and he'd had this 1961 Mecedes-Benz 190 SL since he was 19, and he's now in his 30s. Clearly, this is a man I can relate to. Aram's family owns a Mercedes repair shop, Vaco Precision, so it makes sense that a 19-year-old would have had a chance to have a car like this – in fact, it came from a former client who passed away, and his kids just weren't interested in the little topless jewel. Aram, cleverly, saw the potential and snapped it up.
The 190SL is an interesting car. It was designed to be a sort of everyman's (well, every pretty well-to-do man's) version of the incredible 300SL, which is sometimes considered the world's first supercar. The 190 series had very similar styling, but on a basic chassis shared with other more pedestrian Benzes of the era, and with a 1.9L inline-four instead of the dramatic space-frame and straight-six of the 300 series.
I especially loved all the little, quintessentially-German mechanical touches on the car. For example, the fuel pump has its own little hand-operated pump to get the fuel into the carbs if the car has sat for a while. I've never seen anything quite like that before.
Even without the steampunk hand-pump touches under the hood, it's a beautiful car, and Aram's is in really stellar condition. It's not concours-perfect, but that's fine by him and pretty much anyone who actually wants to enjoy a car like this. In a concours car if you so much as fart in the seat you'll be wracked with guilt for months. This is a car that's meant to be used, and it is.
In fact, it's Aram's primary car. He cycles many places as well, but this and another old Ponton Benz are it for him, car-wise. And I think that's great. Growing up in a Mercedes repair shop gave him a huge leg up to maintain a car like this, and he's also become incredibly knowledgable about this whole era of Benz.
In fact, he was the one to tell me about my new favorite auto part, the filter used in these Mercedes oil-bath air cleaners: "a cake of boar's hair." The Germans were using cakes of boar's hair in their air cleaners? That's the most disturbingly amazing thing I've heard in a long time.
After doing these classic reviews for a while, the most incredible thing about this Benz is how incredibly solid it feels. I've driven classics that performed better, or were more dramatic, but I've never been in a car this old that felt as well-crafted and rattle-free as this one. Nothing felt loose or delicate or even really all that worn. It was really remarkable to drive something that seems to shrug off the ravages of time like you'd shake off unwanted confetti.
Have you ever had unwanted confetti? There's nothing worse.
This car is such a perfect example of European design of the era, and all that black and crome exudes so much raw class it actually made me feel woefully underdressed when I stood next to it. I wanted to call a bouncer on myself to keep me from getting in.
It's not exactly a ground-breaking design, really, but it all works together so well. There's hints of Ghia in there, and the flowing curves and heavy chrome even suggest an American influence, but the overall package is tight and clean and elegant. The flashes over the wheelarches directly mirror the 300SL's and give a nice bit of distinction to the car, and the color-coordinated hubcaps are just perfect.
It's beautiful from almost every angle. Interestingly, this is one that has no soft top, only a removable hard top. The factory made a few like this, and while it's clean and sleek that way, you sure as hell better pay attention to the weather, otherwise your lovely little German runabout will become a lovely little German mobile jacuzzi. There's vintage ads showing one person removing the hard top, but unless you're some secret genetically engineered übermensch, that ain't happening. It's a two-man job.
The color of the interior — a deep, rich red — is absolutely perfect for the black-and-chrome car. With the top off, you can see enough flashes of red to really set everything off nicely, and the effect is striking. Sort of like a lovely beached whale with a big chunk of its back cut off. But in a good way.
The dash is full of lovely early-60s chrome dials and controls, almost all of which are unlabeled, making the dash a sea of glittery confusion. It's easy enough to figure out what does what, but it's a good reminder that back in the day the assumption was that you weren't a total idiot, which takes some getting used to.
The rear-view mirror is low-mounted on the dash, which I've always kind of liked, even if every glance behind you starts with a quick look at the upper windshield frame. My only big complaint is that for a shorter guy like myself, the upper rim of the colossal white steering wheel is exactly in the center of your field of vision. I ended up having to look either over or through the wheel, which was a bit awkward.
I think for most people you'd be fine, but if you're a diminutive person like me and are considering one of these, steel your dignity and bring along a pillow or phone book to sit on.
By modern standards, very little of what was made in the early 60s we'd consider quick, and this car is no exception. The twin-carb'd four makes about 105 HP, and the car's right about 2500 lbs, so the pace is usable, but not neck-breaking. Aram let me take it out on the highway and encouraged me to get it up to about 4000 RPMs where the power kicks in, and it does feel pretty good, all things considered. You just go a bit heavy on the throttle and it keeps up with modern traffic just fine.
Besides, in a car that looks this good, how fast do you really need to go? People deserve a good long look at it.
Thanks to LA's generous supply of idiots piloting cars, I had the opportunity to give the brakes two nice hard tests during my 40 minute or so drive. And I'm happy to say they work remarkably well. Sure, it's drums all around, but those drums stopped the car quickly and without a lot of drama, even in stops that approached panic-stop levels.
I didn't want to do that particular test in someone's vintage car, but I'm pleased to report it did just fine.
The 190SL wasn't so much a purpose-built sports car as much as it was a fun little tourer of sorts. As such, the ride is quite comfortable, and free from the stiff, jarring performance-car traits. The car's relatively high weight and bank-vault solid construction keep everything very composed and smooth. The suspension eats up the bumps without too many histrionics, even on some of LA's crappier roads, and up into the gravelly/dusty roads in the hills.
You could happily take a long trip in this car and not feel like you fell asleep on the floor of a combine.
Again, this car wasn't meant to be a strict racing car, but it's genuinely fun to drive with some gleeful intent. There's swing axles at the rear and double wishbones up front, and it takes curves quite well. I took it through Griffith Park's windy roads and up into the Hollywood Hills, and it felt great. Little bit of body lean, sure, and the swing axles could cause a little tail-happiness if pushed really hard, but overall it was engaging, fun, and never felt un-composed.
The steering wheel is huge for the unassisted steering, but it never felt overly heavy or ponderous, and the tight dimensions of the car keep things very manageable. It's fun.
I really liked shifting this car. Mostly it was because of the impossibly thin gearshift lever, which Aram likened to "Bob Barker's microphone." It's a long, willowy lollipop, but the gear changes are precise-feeling and satisfying.
Getting started in 1st takes a bit of getting used to, being a bit throttle-heavier than maybe you'd think, at least initially, but after that gear changes are easy, and the clutch, while firm, isn't too grabby. Downshifting up a hill feels natural and the overall experience is pleasing in a well-oiled mechanical sort of way.
You absolutely could use a well-sorted one of these as a daily driver. Hell, Aram does. It's comfortable, keeps up with modern traffic, pretty easy to park, all that. There's a good-sized trunk, and even a fun little secret smuggling compartment behind the driver's seat.
But I had to dock a lot of points because of the no soft top thing. Sure, it's very cool that was a factory option, and out here in LA it's not a big deal, but overall, being out in a car with no overhead protection at all could be a huge issue to many people.
Sure, you could drive around with the hard top, but that takes away the considerable joy of open-air driving. You can see why soft tops were invented when the reality of having to head back home to put the roof up becomes clear. So, while the no-soft top option is great in that sort of fuck you, weather kind of way, for most folks it would probably just be a constant source of worry.
Are you kidding? This thing will give you charm poisoning if you sit in it too long. It's a very specific kind of dignified character, different from other quirky cars of the era. This is the sort of car you might get to co-sign a loan for you, or give your daughter away at her wedding. it's restrained, elegant, and just about perfect.
The 190s have always followed the 300s in terms of collectibility — as the value of the big brother has gone up, the little sibling has ridden those coattails. Still, decent ones will go for anywhere between $35K and $100K or so, so they're not exactly a starter classic.
They are beautiful examples of mid-century car design, a sort of last hurrah for the curvy, chrome-bedazzled European 50s before the razor-edged 60s came into play. They're delightful, charming, solid cars, and if you can find one, absolutely worth it.