Mercedes-Benz-Blog TRIVIA: The History of the SLK-Class - PART V


Stuttgart, Germany, Apr 07, 2004

Mercedes-Benz 190 SL and SLK-Class: Compact, innovative and easy on the eye

* 190 SL: dream car of the fifties

* SLK-Class: roadster exhilaration since 1996

Maximilian Edwin Hoffman spent hours trying to persuade the Daimler-Benz Board of Management to build a reasonably priced sports car for the American market. When he finally obtained the go-ahead from the then Director General Dr. Fritz Könecke, the elegant American still felt he had lost out. This was due to the proposal from Development chief Dr. Fritz Nallinger recommending that the small sports car Hoffman wanted to build should be constructed on the platform of the 180 Saloon. Hoffman’s immediate rejoinder was to the effect of “That’s not going to come to anything.”

Later, the car buff good-naturedly conceded: “I lost - the outcome was the 190 SL.”

The notable Board meeting in Stuttgart, viewed as the session which gave birth to the famous 190 SL, took place on September 2, 1953. The people responsible for the business had invited Max Hoffman because the entrepreneurial American had been importing European cars to the USA ever since 1946 and had demonstrated an unfailing instinct and a considerable level of prescience. He was therefore the right person to partner Mercedes-Benz when it came to penetrating the American market.

Mercedes-Benz 190 SL: the dream car of the Fifties

The 190 SL, whose prospects of success were rated so low by its overseas godfather after what had for him been a disappointing meeting with the Board of Management was, together with the legendary gull-wing 300 SL, to throw open the doors of the American market to the world’s oldest automotive brand. With this in mind, Hoffman was promised the 300 SL for the “International Motor Sports Show” in New York, held from February 6 to 14, 1954. And its baby brother, the 190 SL, was to make its debut alongside it. The intention was to win the hearts and minds of the American public with an elegant sports car from a renowned company - one which combined an exciting design with a modest price tag.

This of course meant that the engineers were left with no more than five months to develop this car, an almost impossible challenge. Nonetheless, by as early as September 5, 1953, Dr. Nallinger, his Head of Design Dr. Hans Scherenberg and the Sindelfingen coachwork specialists Walter Häcker and Karl Wilfert had defined the vehicle in outline. And just two weeks after the meeting with Hoffman, the directors at Daimler-Benz were already examining initial draft designs for the new car. Two weeks later, they met to evaluate the first 1:10 scale model and eight weeks after that, the first 1:1 model was ready for their inspection.

Then the already breathtaking pace of development actually increased. The floor assembly of the 180 model had to be adapted to suit the new design notions and the right engine had to be found. The tight schedule also meant that the shapes for the wooden blocks which would eventually give rise to the body of this car needed to be in final form no later than October 31, 1953. Faced with this time pressure, it was ul-timately to be Walter Häcker who made the decisive changes to the draft designs for the body shape, culminating in the unmistakable character of the 190 SL.

While the designers were working flat out and with great enthusiasm on the new sports car, the Board of Management were giving fundamental thought to the future model policy. One of the reports from these Board meetings consequently states that the 190 SL should be viewed as a sports tourer rather than as a racing sports car.
It also became evident that the 300 SL and the 190 SL, still referred to in-house at that time as the “Type 180 sports car, W 120 or W 121”, were genuinely breaking new ground. On January 18, 1954, Dr. Fritz Nallinger stressed that in addition to the conventional lines and radiator grille design of the brand, the SL version should be given a unique and distinctive identity, characterised primarily by the design of the radiator grille. This concept has stood the test of time and still applies today.

The only people to be left slightly behind by the rapid pace of development were the finance specialists. How were they to work out the production costs of a new sports car when new details were being altered almost every day? In the end, they simply based their figures on those of the 190 Saloon. It is difficult to tell whether this was a courageous step or one prompted by desperation. Either way, it was a rather nebulous basis calculation since the Mercedes-Benz 190 was not launched until 1956.

Double premiere in New York

Finally, on February 6, 1954, the New Yorkers enthusiastically responded to the arrival of the 190 SL with their hallmark exuberance and style. The German journal “Automobil + Motorrad Chronik” reported a “turbulent debut”. Other newspapers and magazines also marvelled at the chic sports car from Stuttgart and informed their readers of the new “Star in the Automotive Firmament”, heaping praise on its “refined elegance”. Another German journal, “Motorrundschau” then encapsulated what many people were by then thinking of the 190 SL: “A tantalising dream for the thousands of people for whom the 300 SL would always be unattainable.”

Nevertheless, for an initial period, the younger brother of the motor racing star remained no less elusive for the buying public because the 190 SL, after causing such a sensation, was simply not put on the market – not immediately anyway. The designers were still being vociferous about a range of weaknesses: in their eyes, the car still did not have quite the right look and the new engine, later used in the Saloon version of this model, still behaved in a rather idiosyncratic manner. All in all, there was no hiding from the fact that the rapid pace of development had left no time for thorough trials and test cycles. Under no circumstances was Mercedes-Benz willing to dispense with this rigorous approach to a new product.

The engineers thus set about teaching their engine better manners. They experimented with various carburetor configurations, modified the shift lever configuration, and the body first exhibited in New York was also subjected to a number of refinements. This process did away with the stylised air intake on the bonnet, the front edge of the bonnet was offset towards the windscreen, the bumpers, turn signals and tail lights were modified and the familiar “comet tail” bulges above the wheel arches on the SL models also appeared above the rear wheels of the modified 190 SL. This final version was first unveiled to an admiring public at the Geneva Motor Show in March 1955. Volume production started in May 1955, once the vehicle had completed all its technical trials and was deemed fit and ready for life on the open road.

At this point, the 190 SL appeared on a stage where, at least during its early days in Germany, it looked somewhat out of place. Back in 1955, road traffic was still dominated by two-wheeled forms of transport. Most Germans would not have dared to dream of ever owning more than the tiniest of cars – frequently no more than a modified motorcycle with stabilisers. On the other hand, the stress and worry of finding somewhere to park were still completely unknown - at this time, a total of 1.6 million cars shared a road network some 129 238 kilometres in length, of which 2174 kilo-metres were motorway. Nowadays, although the number of kilometres on the road network has almost doubled, with a five-fold increase in the length of motorway sections, the roads in Germany have to carry almost 45 million passenger cars.

Back then, dreams were therefore not in any way discouraged although life tended to teach modesty in such aspirations. Moreover, while the prices charged back in the mid-Fifties may now seem utopian when judged by modern standards, the average cost of a loaf of bread was 66 pfennigs, a man’s suit cost just DM 116 and a visit to the barber’s shop cost just DM 1.32. You must however bear in mind that the gross hourly wage for men in industrial jobs was just DM 1.96, with women only actually earning DM 1.23. In those days, it was usual to work Saturdays and the typical working week amounted to 48.8 hours.

The year which gave birth to the Mercedes-Benz 190 SL also saw the partition of Germany, when the two German states gained separate autonomy. At the same time, when the Warsaw Pact was established, the political temperature between East and West dropped well below zero – the Cold War induced fear in a great many people.

Despite all this, there was still optimism in the air. The first indistinct signs of the economic miracle were starting to emerge in West Germany, prompting the much aspired for upturn in fortunes. The shortage of workers prompted thoughts of turning to Italy as an initial source of migrant workers. At the same time, Italy became the dream destination for holiday travel.

The German population at large was certainly looking for something new to entertain and distract them. Although West Germany only had 375,903 privately owned televisions back in 1955, people did go to the cinema to see films like “The Devil’s General” or “Rebel Without a Cause”. American rock’n’ roll swept across Europe like a tidal wave and colour returned to everyday life. The arrival of the 190 SL was perfectly timed, heralding as it did a new joie de vivre – an end to the drab greyness of the grim postwar years.

While the front pages of newspapers were reporting on the worldwide fight against polio with the new “Salk” vaccine, the sports pages were enthusing about the race-track successes of Mercedes-Benz cars. They swept to victory in the Grand Prix events in Belgium, Great Britain, the Netherlands and in Argentina. Mercedes driver Juan Manuel Fangio became World Champion. The cars with the star emblem also dominated all of the world’s most gruelling long-distance races – the Mille Miglia, the Targa Florio and the Tourist Trophy.

A car for the heart

Meanwhile, the journals and magazines were busy discussing the 190 SL. “Auto Mo-tor und Sport” considered it to be an “elegant, fast sports tourer which can also be used as a perfectly normal car for everyday use,” describing it as a car with “above-average roadholding”. The same publication also went on to say that the 190 SL “was renowned for the fact that it just keeps on going.” It also praised the soft top, claiming that it was “made to a quality standard that, outside Sindelfingen, could only be matched in a very few locations in the world. The rapid and convenient operation re-quired to raise and lower the convertible roof is a major benefit of the 190 SL.”

This had an almost prophetic ring to it. At the time, no-one even imagined just how important a role this feature would come to play in the success of the SLK-Class.
“Das Automobil” struck an even more enthusiastic note. “You can only own a car like this whole-heartedly – it casts a spell on its owner” was the accolade it bestowed. This was followed by a scarcely less remarkable confession: “I was able to feel for myself how much this car enhanced my personal standing, not only with hotel porters and ladies young and old. When you acquire this car, you are purchasing more than a means of transport. You are also acquiring recognition and, over and above the value of actually using the car, you also gain the kind of good fortune that fills the child who resides in every man with delight.”

Other publications tended to focus their attention more on technical details. One such journal, the “Automobil Revue”, advised its readers: “in terms of road safety, the 190 SL is one of the very finest cars in production at this time.” Then we have “Sports-Cars Illustrated” which listed a long string of positive qualities of the Mercedes-Benz 190 SL in a sober, factual manner: “The synchromesh works every time and the transmission is idiot-proof. You can drive economically if you so wish.” At this point, the author of “Sports-Cars Illustrated” finally gave way to enthusiasm and confessed: “Where the 190 SL chassis really shines is when cornering and when driving in a straight line at high speeds. This is more than just a pleasure, it is actually a character building experience.”

Based on proven technology

Unlike the gull-wing 300 SL, the 190 SL was not of course designed as a thorough-bred sports car. Instead, it was conceived as an elegant two-seater sports coupé for touring and everyday driving. The chassis platform was borrowed from the short-wheelbase floor assembly of the 180 model with its familiar single-joint swing axle with a lowered fulcrum point. The front suspension with its subframe concept was derived from the 180/180 D models.

The 190 SL was powered by a newly developed four-cylinder 1.9-litre engine with overhead camshaft which was capable of delivering 105 hp. Depending on road conditions, this meant the car could achieve road speeds substantially in excess of 170 km/h and accelerate from 0 to 100 km/h (approx. 0-60 mph) in about 14 seconds.
The 190 SL was available as a soft-top roadster or as a coupé with removable hard-top with the additional option of a soft-top as well. Other items of optional equipment included a sports version for motor racing, featuring lighter doors with a cutout for the arm, stripped away bumpers and a small Plexiglas windshield in front of the driver instead of a windscreen. However, the Oberste Nationale Sportkommission (ONS or Governing National Sports Committee) refused to approve this sports version which was therefore withdrawn in March 1956.

Although this marked the end of any possible motorsport career for the 190 SL in Europe, it nevertheless came second at the 1956 Grand Prix in the Portuguese colony of Mação and was awarded Best in Class. In 1958 it went on to victory in its class of the Hong Kong Rally. The sporting career of the 190 SL was not even halted in 1961 when it was equipped with a diesel engine, going on as it did to break many records for diesel-engined cars.

Having said all that, the 190 SL garnered even more success on elegant city streets than it did on the race track. A broad range of prominent social figures chose this elegant sports car to complement their image, including Grace Kelly and Frank Sinatra who drove a 190 SL in the film “Ten Thousand Bedrooms”.

The Mercedes-Benz 190 SL remained in production until 1963. Many detail modifications helped to define its curriculum vitae. These included the chrome trim strips on the upper edges of the doors and large tail lights chosen for the 1956 model. From July 1957 the bumper overriders on the US version became standard equipment on all models, and in October 1959 the Coupé versions were fitted with a new hardtop with an enlarged rear window.

The clearest indication of just how much loved and successful the 190 SL was is demonstrated by the production figures: between May 1955 and February 1963, no less than 25,881 cars left the assembly lines in Sindelfingen – far in excess of the aspirations initially discussed at that decisive Board meeting back on 2 September 1953.

SLK-Class: two studies pave the way for a new roadster star

Against this historical backdrop, it seemed only logical some decades later to revisit these considerations: would it not perhaps be appropriate for the SL-Class models, now firmly established in their own right, to be joined by a younger brother? After all, in the mid-Nineties, Mercedes-Benz had launched an entirely new product initiative, to which a compact roadster could lend fresh emphasis by drawing attention to the sporting heart of the Mercedes-Benz brand.

An appropriate acronym for this newcomer was swiftly coined: SLK. These three letters form the German initials for three characteristic properties of this car: sporty, lightweight and [k]compact. Recalling as they do the great sporting successes of Mercedes-Benz back in the Twenties and Thirties, they have an almost mystical resonance.

In Turin in April 1994, roadster enthusiasts were able to gain a first glimpse of how Mercedes-Benz believed a compact modern roadster should look. A brilliant silver showstopper with a distinct aura of spartan sportiness sent the trade professionals into raptures. “We are exhibiting a forward-looking roadster study which delivers a unique synthesis of purist motoring pleasure with all the safety features for which Mercedes cars are renowned”, announced the famous car manufacturer from Stuttgart.
To find out just how seriously the people in charge at Mercedes-Benz were taking this SLK project in its earliest days, you need look no further than the Paris Motor Show held in September of the same year. Here the company unveiled its second study, this time with vario-roof and in the form of a customised version with blue paintwork, harmonising blue-tone leather and a range of luxury accessories such as automatic transmission, air-conditioning system, power windows, a stereo system and much more besides. This enabled Mercedes-Benz to demonstrate convincingly the breadth of appeal and the potential inherent in a compact roadster.

Then the automotive enthusiasts started to wait. Many viewed the SLK as a very aus-picious prospect indeed. Mercedes-Benz had done the unexpected and had demon-strated that a small and relatively inexpensive roadster was capable of offering a great deal of motoring pleasure while still being an absolutely serious and down-to-earth car in terms of safety and quality. This meant that the two roadster studies had already opened up a new market niche and the SLK had already assumed the status of a trendsetter even before it went into production.

By 1996 everything was in place: the production version of the new SLK-Class was launched at the Turin Motor Show. Especially high levels of interest were shown in the fully-lowering steel vario-roof which substantively backed up the SLK claim to being a car for all weathers. Using an intelligent electro-hydraulic system, the entire roof folds down into the boot in just 25 seconds leaving the owner free to roam under an open sky.

The SLK also fielded a convincing range of other qualities. Take safety for example: two fixed roll-over bars behind the seats protect occupants from injury if the car should overturn and, in conjunction with the exceptionally robust A-pillars, deliver a very high level of safety even when these Mercedes-Benz cars are driven with the top down. Board of Management member Professor Jürgen Hubbert summarised what distinguishes the SLK: “Its design is exciting, and it exudes an appealing charisma. In a car like this, the journey is an end in itself.”

Is this excessive praise? No, far from it: the trade press actually went even further with its accolades. “Auto, Motor und Sport” found that the “bright and breezy compact roadster” with its “muscular lines” made everyone’s “mouth water”. Then, prior to the September market launch, when Mercedes-Benz had to announce with regret that the 1997 production run was already sold out, the specialist journal judged this “to be really tough news.” It then went on appeasingly to state “this one is worth waiting for.”

Even the road manners of the compact roadster met with recognition: “As a coupé the SLK behaves just as impeccably as it does in roadster guise. The high standard of rigidity it exhibits exceeds even optimistic expectations. It steers responsively and demonstrates high precision on winding country roads.”

Engines from 136 to 354 hp

The sporting talent of the SLK will initially be unleashed by two engine variants: the SLK 200 is powered by a 2-litre four-cylinder engine with a power rating of 100 kW/136 hp. The SLK 230 KOMPRESSOR features a supercharged 2.3 litre engine, also a four-cylinder unit, delivering 142 kW/193 hp onto the road. In early 2000, the two-litre engine was also fitted with a belt-driven supercharger, boosting power to the rear axle to a new level of 120 kW/163 hp. The choice of engines was broadened by the arrival of two six-cylinder models, a 160 kW/218 hp unit for the SLK 320 and the 260 kW/354 hp powerhorse in the SLK 32 AMG.

Moreover, Mercedes-Benz substantially upgraded the level of equipment for its roadster and incorporated innovations such as the Electronic Stability Program (ESP®), a six-speed manual transmission and SPEEDTRONIC in its standard equipment package. In visual terms, a new design of bumper and side skirt gave the car an even more dynamic appearance. All the attachments and door handles were painted to match the vehicle body to enable the whole car to present an image of a unified whole in both colour and form. New tail lights, stainless steel trim on the exhaust tailpipe and a painted radiator grille gave the SLK design an even more commanding identity.

With its SLK-Class, Mercedes-Benz succeeded in developing a car which really exudes an air of freedom, independence and adventure. A car for the emotions. An attractive roadster with a strong character promising untrammelled joie de vivre to its owners. More than 40 international prizes and awards bear testament to the tremendous popularity of this compact roadster, a car recognised in its class as a real trendsetter and one whose technology, design and level of equipment satisfies the most demanding of aspirations:

- In 1996 Italian artists and art critics hailed the SLK as the “most beautiful car in the world”. The British “Car Magazine” praised the Mercedes roadster as the “Best technical concept” and “Bild am Sonntag” awarded it the “Golden Steering Wheel”.

- In 1997 alone, the SLK harvested no less than 20 international awards. These included the title “Best of What’s New” from the American magazine “Popular Science” and the title “Import Car of The Year” from the Japanese automotive press.
In 1998 the “American Marketing Association” declared the SLK to be the “Best New Product” and the readers of the German magazine “Auto, Motor und Sport” voted the Mercedes roadster the “Best Convertible”.

- In 1999, or almost three years since its market launch, the SLK was still winning highly prized titles: “Best Convertible”, “Best Gear 1999” and the German award of “Most Popular Convertible” to name but three.

Even the real optimists at Mercedes-Benz had not anticipated the incredibly high popularity rating of the SLK series. In the early days, the maximum annual production target was assumed to be in the region of 35,000 units, but even in 1997, almost 50,000 SLK models rolled off the assembly line. As a result, virtually one in three of all compact roadsters sold worldwide that year bore the letters SLK on the back. By the end of its time in production, more than 308,000 people had taken ownership of a new SLK Roadster.

The new SLK-Class aims to follow this successful lead, and production commences in early 2004. This new roadster will be even sportier, even more dynamic and will offer even greater levels of motoring pleasure. In doing so, it looks sure to satisfy the continually rising aspirations of drivers to own a car genuinely capable of inspiring the emotions.

The history of a model: Mercedes-Benz 190 SL

* In March 1956 wide chrome trim strips were fitted to the upper edges of the doors.
In June 1956 the 190 SL was fitted with the tail lights from models 220 a, 219 and 220 S.

* In July 1957 the rear licence plate lighting was relocated to the overriders on the bumper, therefore removing the last obstacle to fitting the innovative wider license plates. At this point rear bumper overriders, until then only fitted to the USA version, became standard equipment on all models. They remained as optional equipment for the front section.

* In October 1959 the Coupés were fitted with a new hardtop with an enlarged rear window, guaranteeing substantial improvements in visibility.

* In August 1960 the lock on the boot lid was modified; at the same time, a new shell-shaped boot handle was fitted, familiar from the 180 Db - 190 b models, to replace the bracket used until this point.

The history of a model: Mercedes-Benz SLK-Class

* In early 2000 the SLK-Class underwent an extensive model update featuring a new design of bumper. Other new features included the Electronic Stability Program (ESP®) as standard, sidebags in the doors, a six-speed manual transmission and the SPEEDTRONIC system. The new V6 flagship model, the SLK 320, was also fitted with an air conditioning system as standard equipment.

* At the Geneva Motor Show in March 2001, Mercedes-Benz exhibited the high-performance SLK 32 AMG. Its bonnet conceals a supercharged V6 engine delivering 260 kW/354 hp.

* In March 2003 the special “Final Edition” model was unveiled. This featured 16-inch light-alloy wheels, a nappa leather interior and chrome silver trim around the radiator grille.

2004: more power, more safety, more driving pleasure

The new SLK-Class which will make its market debut in spring 2004 aims to follow in this successful tradition. The new Roadster will be even sportier, even more dynamic and will offer even greater levels of motoring pleasure. In doing so, it looks sure to satisfy the continually rising aspirations of drivers who want to own a car that inspires the emotions.

The second generation of the SLK-Class has an even sportier edge in terms of both its design and engineering and, with its powerful engines, newly developed chassis, direct steering and precise six-speed manual transmission, delivers an even more agile driving experience. The body is 72 millimetres longer and 65 millimetres wider than the outgoing model, providing the SLK's passengers with more space and even greater comfort.

The SLK-Class offers a choice of three new engines, with outputs ranging from 120 kW/163 hp to 265 kW/360 hp. They include – for the first time in this class – an eight-cylinder Mercedes-AMG unit, while the SLK 350 is powered by a new 200 kW/272 hp V6 engine which combines driving pleasure with performance.

Once again the second-generation SLK is strong on charismatic design, which takes some cues from Formula 1 motor racing. And it more than lives up to its reputation as the trend-setter and technology leader among the sports cars in its class. Standard specification includes a new-generation vario-roof which transforms this Roadster into a coupé in 22 seconds flat, head-thorax sidebags, adaptive front air-bags and two-stage belt force limiters. The Mercedes engineers have also added even more sports refinement to the suspension, steering and manual transmission.
As a world first, Mercedes-Benz is offering the SLK with the AIRSCARF neck-level heating system, which at the touch of a button directs a flow of warm air to the neck from vents in the head restraints. This means the SLK's occupants can enjoy open-air motoring all the year round.

Styling themes from Formula 1

The styling of the new SLK-Class immediately advertises its sporty and more powerful character. Typical roadster features like the long bonnet, steeply raked front wind-screen, wide doors and short-cropped tail have been given even greater emphasis in the new models, which now feature a 30 millimetre longer wheelbase, a distinctly V-shaped front end and a wedge-shaped silhouette.

Handsome, racing-inspired features like the eye-catching nose, the radiator grille fins and the twin-pipe exhaust system are a reminder that the SLK is from a company whose great Roadster tradition stretches back exactly 50 years.

Model chronology: the compact Mercedes Roadsters

1955-1963 W 121 190 SL: four-in-line, 105 hp 25881 produced

1996-2004 R 170 SLK 200 (1996-2000 ): four-in-line, 136 hp
SLK 200 KOMPRESSOR (2000-2004): four-in-line, 163 hp
SLK 230 KOMPRESSOR (1996-2000): four-in-line, 193 hp
SLK 230 KOMPRESSOR (2000-2004): four-in-line, 197 hp
SLK 320 (2000-2004): V6, 218 hp
SL 32 AMG (2001-2004): V6, 354 hp
308000 produced

from 2004 R 171 SLK 200 KOMPRESSOR: four-in-line, 163 hp
SLK 350: V6, 272 hp
SLK 55 AMG: V8, 360 hp

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