Buyers Guide 1953-1962 Ponton Sedans

Pierre Hedary, Richard Simonds













The practical, affordable cars from the 1950s that put Mercedes-Benz back in the black.



1953-1962 Ponton Sedans
Star November-December 2012
The practical, affordable cars that put Mercedes-Benz back in the black

Most of our Buyers Guides refer to a chassis designation (e.g., last issue’s W124 series), but the series that became known as the Pontons -- distinctive for their use of a unit-body chassis and fender line extending in one continuous curve from headlamp to tail light, -- introduced in 1953 and built through 1962 carried six different chassis designations.  Thus, this is a Buyers Guide to the Ponton sedans.  The coupes and cabriolets have already been covered, so they were not included in this article.

After the postwar economy blessed Mercedes-Benz with a strong influx of cash, a new, very modern body was needed to continue the prosperity. Carefully, Karl Wilfert and Friedrich Geiger, the top bosses in the Mercedes design department, came to the conclusion that a unitized construction (or unit body), bare-bones sedan, with exceptional engineering and build quality, was needed.

The 170 models were still in production and selling well, so Mercedes carefully chose not to replace them immediately. However, the conservative company had much trepidation about making such a big change in chassis, so production began with just one model. When the new car was revealed, and a diesel model announced with it, Daimler-Benz engineers breathed a sigh of relief – everybody wanted one.

The unit-body construction became the new standard. It was lighter, easier to produce, less costly, and offered better handling because the chassis was less flexible than the body-on-frame construction from the past. The box-frame body on an X-frame chassis was phased out. The last one produced in that configuration was the 300d sedan in 1962.

Mercedes-Benz W180 BII 180a 1957-1962

The 180 (W120)

Production of the 180 (W120.010 and W120.011 with a “CoverTex” vinyl roof) began in July 1953. In February 1954, the 180D entered production. Both of these models made use of the 170’s power units, the initial 180 being moved by the M136 side-valve engine, and the 180D being pushed along with similar power by an overhead valve OM 636 engine. While neither of these accelerated fast, they could reach 70 mph if needed, and their independent suspensions and good road holding ensured that they would be pleasant to drive.

The little gasoline 180 was upgraded to the 180a in June 1957, and gained the new M121 engine. The side-valve engine made 52 horsepower; this unit made 65, and endowed the 180 with respectable power. The model was upgraded twice more in its lifetime, once in July 1959 [180b], and again in June of 1961. Production ended in October 1962.

The diesel 180D, the Daimler-Benz’s best selling model, was upgraded for the first time as the 180Db in July 1959. The final improvement to the 180D was in June of 1961 when the OM636 pushrod engine was replaced by the single overhead cam OM621 engine. The jump from 43 to 55 horsepower ensured another 10,000 sales before production ended in October 1962.

The 220a (W180)

The first 220 sedans  chassis (buiilt from April 1951 to May 1954) used the old-style W187 but did offer the 6-cylinder overhead-cam engine.  In March 1954, The 220a moved to the W180 unit-body chassis with the Ponton-shape and was built until April 1956.  The gasoline engine gained five horsepower (80 to 85) and the tires went from 6.40 x 15 to the 6.70 x 13 – a wheel size that continued for the Ponton-series sedans, coupes and cabriolets and was even used on the 190SL.

Mercedes-Benz W121 190b 1959-1961

The 190 (W121)

The 190 –  the upmarket sibling to the 180 – entered the fray in March 1956. The vinyl roof was again an option, and the quality of the car, with nicer upholstery, wood trim, and more chrome added to the image of the Ponton line. The initial version of the gasoline 190 was manufactured from March 1956 to August 1959. The 190b (noted for its front suspension improvements) appeared in June 1959, so there was overlap between the two versions. Production ended in August 1961, with the 190c (W110) fin-tail showing success as a worthy replacement.

The 190D, with the 55-horsepower OM621 engine, was built from August 1958 to July 1959 in its initial version. In its first year of sales, 20,629 found new homes. In June 1959, production of the 190Db, with the improvements of its gasoline twin, found over 61,000 buyers until September 1961. Both versions of the 190D were well loved, with nearly 172,000 gas and diesel sedans produced.

The 219 (W105)

Using the slightly more spacious front end of the 220a (W180), and the cabin and trunk of the 190 (W121), the resulting 219 made use of the M180 6-cylinder engine from the 220 series with one dual-downdraft carburetor. The 219 was built from March 1956 to July 1959.  It was a good idea, with almost 28,000 units sold. These are, by and large, the fastest of the small Pontons, but top speed was just 92 mph, and acceleration was only slightly better than a 190. 

The 219 also offered the Hydrak transmission with a hydraulic coupling, an automatically controlled mechanical clutch, and a column shift designed by Fichtel & Sachs.  It was an early idea for an automatic transmission, but was prone to burned-out clutches if the driver touched the shift lever while in motion.  As many drivers were used to resting their hand on the column shift lever while driving, it turned out to be a poor choice for an “automatic transmission.”

The 220S (W180)

This model was a further evolution of the 220a on the W180 chassis, with the M180 6-cylinder engine. Two carburetors helped produce 124 horsepower (compared with 85 for the 220a and 100 for the 219). The 220S was produced from March 1956 until August 1959 and more than 55,000 sedans were sold. The most significant options now included fitted luggage, a front bench seat instead of two bucket seats, reclining seats, whitewall tires, the large Webasto folding sunroof, and the Hydrak transmission.

The 220SE (W128)

Here we have refinements in several key areas over the 220S –including 2-plunger mechanical fuel injection, an improved rear swing axle with a load compensating spring, and better drivability – the combination of which justified the change in chassis designation from W180 to W128. The 220SE was offered from April 1958 until August 1959.  The options list carried forward from the 220S.


Reasons to Buy

  • Ease of service, especially for a do-it-yourselfer.
  • Good support network, and most parts are available in Europe, including items like a disc brake conversion to improve reliability.
  • Structurally, these cars are sturdy and capable.
  • Diesels are simple in operation, with no distributor, points, or electrical ignition, and more than 30 mpg fuel economy.
  • Interiors are comfortable and spacious.
  • Enjoyable options, such as a full-length Webasto canvas roof, are available.
  • Values are creeping up, making a refurbishment cost-effective if you can handle the labor yourself.
  • The 180D and gasoline 180, with their OM636 and M136 engines, and their simple valve trains and solid gearing, are dead simple, and are a great way  to acquire mechanical skills and knowledge.


Reasons Not to Buy

  • Rust in unit body can be hard to repair if it has spread deep into the structure of the car’s lower regions.
  • Performance is marginal on diesels, barely adequate on 4-cylinder gasoline models, and nothing to get excited about on the 219. High-speed traffic is not a good idea if you own a 180 or 190.
  • Early cars had non-servo-assisted drum brakes that require careful driving on any kind of hilly terrain.
  • Interiors usually need work at this age, which can get expensive.
  • Air conditioning and a real automatic transmission were never available on these models.
  • All of these models will require engine-machinist work if not already done, including piston rings, valve work, cylinder liners and timing chains as appropriate.
  • Small non-operational parts, such as trim, knobs, and so forth can be hard to find or expensive.

Structural Rust Checkpoints

  • Unit body structural members that integrate the front and rear boxes to the floors.
  • Attachment points between front sub-frame and body
  • Rocker areas and around jack points.
  • Trunk floor, floor pans, beneath the back seat cushions.
  • Battery box and firewall.
  • Around the compound curves of the body, or in any double-skinned curved panels.
  • Anywhere else is going to be fairly simple to repair but disassembly is necessary to make sure that all rust is found and corrected.

Engine Checkpoints

  • Monitor oil consumption. One quart every 400 miles on diesels or  every 600 miles on gasoline engines is acceptable.
  • Excessive blow-by and uneven compression indicates possible need for a complete engine rebuild.
  • On models with timing chains, especially the 190D, check the chain drive, gears, injection pump timer and chain itself for wear.
  • On models with aluminum heads (M121 and M180 engine) corrosion from wrong coolant can ruin the head casting, but can often be repaired by a competent machinist.
  • On all models with carburetors, check fuel delivery and adjustment of the Solex carburetors. These are great carbs, and when adjusted right, they are very trouble-free.
  • On the diesels, check the injection pump diaphragm and the injectors. Both of these will cause erratic running, lots of smoke and poor fuel economy if damaged.
  • The fuel tank on these should always be removed and cleaned if it has not been done yet. Replace a rusty tank with a new unit.
  • Oil leaks occur at the rear crankshaft seal and other lower engine gaskets. Rear crank seals are hard to repair.

Other Checkpoints

  • Suspension systems should be lubricated and checked for play. These are not easy to rebuild.
  • Rubber mounts for the front sub-frame and rear axle should be checked for excessive decomposition.
  • Plan on replacing all rubber parts if that hasn’t been done yet.
  • Wiring and fuse box should be inspected. Ponton wiring is fairly durable, but the environment and other factors can ruin it.
  • Interior parts are durable if they have been kept out of the weather and maintained.
  • Keep in mind the drum brake system is 50 years old. They are straightforward and easy to fix, but don’t procrastinate!
  • Common transmissions are very durable. If the car has a Fichtel & Sachs Hydrak gearbox, make sure that you really, really want one and that it operates well.


Historical Context     
The unpretentious Ponton has a special place in history. In the United States we may not really appreciate these cars, but they formed the backbone of motorized development in countries like Argentina, South Africa, the Philippines, Iran, and many other countries that demanded a vehicle able to cope with rough terrain, hot climates and steep mountain grades. Pierre Hedary recalls seeing many 190 sedans still being driven on a daily basis in Beirut, Lebanon, in the mid 1990s!

While the popularity of these rugged little cars is growing, those with an economic bias may not see the value of restoring one. They may be missing the point. The inexpensive Ponton sedan is one of the cornerstones of Mercedes-Benz history. It could even be argued that without the genius of the affordable 180D, there would not have been the funds to develop and produce the 300SL. You cannot place an economic value on such significant history, and this makes the humble Ponton worthy of restoration any day of the week. Fortunately, decent original examples abound, and with a bit of elbow grease and some spare parts bills, you too can take your place in preserving these wonderful cars. 

The Nitty Gritty

The Ponton cars are about as well-made a car from the ’50s as one could wish. They are solid and mechanically straightforward. Once you deal with any needs that these cars have, they are great drivers [albeit a little slow], and are quite reliable. Ponton cars still qualify as daily drivers in certain parts of the world, and if you can drive in an area without too much traffic, they can be driven often. In a 65mph speed zone, any Ponton (even a 180D) is adequate for daily use. In a 70mph area, with traffic moving 80mph, a gasoline 190 or a 219 is adequate, but just barely. Fuel economy on gasoline models is nothing special, but diesels are great in this department.

As far as longevity goes, these diesel engines are not as durable as the OM615, 616 and 617 engines. Cast-iron crankshafts, and rods and bearings were all made of the softer alloys available in the period and are susceptible to failure. This means that rebuilds are likely to be needed upon purchase, and, if already done, hopefully they were done well by an old-school machinist.

If you do opt for a diesel, familiarize yourself with the starting process, as they are unique. Make sure that glow plugs are working right! Otherwise, these cars will never start.

If you do elect to own a gasoline model, remember that valve guides might be worn, and that the fuel system might be contaminated with rust. Carburetor kits are available from the Mercedes-Benz Classic Center and other suppliers, as are fuel pump parts. Replacing all ignition system components is also a great idea.  Generators are rebuildable, but on these cars with their unstressed electrical systems, they are hardly ever problematic.

As far as rust repair goes, obviously one should find the best body available, but it is much easier to fix some obvious rust on a car that has been in operation regularly than to resurrect a barn find with no corrosion and a plethora of mechanical issues. Stay away from cars with structural rust, unless you or your body shop is experienced with Mercedes from this era and you have a commitment to the car that goes beyond financial reason. Any rust can be conquered, but at a minimum you will spend a lot of time disassembling things to get to all the key points and make sure they’re in good shape, or rebuilt properly. Solid Pontons with some mechanical needs can be found in the $6,000 range, so keep this in mind before you buy a restoration project.

In their day, these cars were very real – they were recognized in Europe, Asia, and Africa as some of the best cars on the market. They ran the Mille Miglia with success, and Karl Kling competed and won the Algiers-Cape of Good Hope Rally in a 1959 190D. Kling and co-driver Rainer Günzler were filmed at certain points on the route, and obviously Kling, with his driving talent, made the car effective, but he was not shy about boasting about the 190D’s abilities. The 8,700-mile trip showed everyone that diesels were indeed better under certain conditions than their gasoline counterparts, such as while crossing 120-degree deserts and fording three- to four-foot deep streams. The car’s fuel economy certainly helped, too, with Kling averaging about 27 mpg enroute.

At least in this writer’s opinion, if you ever have considered purchasing a Ponton, then fulfilling that desire with a solid example of Mercedes’ little honey badger would be a great decision. The honey badger is known in the animal kingdom for its resilience, tenacity, and ability to survive under difficult circumstances. This describes the Ponton series perfectly.

Ask an Owner

While pursuing my MBA in Portland, Oregon, in 2000, I came across this 1960 190b on the Internet on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington. It was in rough shape, the paint was faded and sad, the interior was reupholstered with industrial-grade black taxi vinyl, the passenger-side floorboard was rusted out, one fender had had a run-in with a tree limb during a storm, and the engine compartment was, needless to say, neglected. I grew up with a neighbor who had a black 1958 220s. I thought it was cool with all the wood, the red-leather interior, and the classic styling. In addition, we were a Mercedes-Benz family; my father had a 1962 190c, a 1974 280 and a 280c. Therefore, I was familiar with the engine on the 190b. It would have been grand to find a 280SL or 220SE cabrio, but being 20 years old, I was lucky to afford the 190b at $1,500 and it had that giant Webasto sunroof that nearly makes it a 4-door cabrio.

Justin Englund's 1960 190b

After graduate school  while working at my first job, coincidentally with Daimler Truck North America, I really started to dig into the car. My German colleagues were quite impressed with her, as apparently they rarely see them in Germany. The first major issue that I ran into was rust along the back deck of the firewall, particularly under the battery tray, which had subsequently caused the floorboard on the passenger side to rust out. Rust in the trunk along the front edge and the headlight buckets was an issue as well. A body shop owner who was a friend of my father’s agreed to do the body work at a reasonable cost, replacing and repairing the structure and panels as needed.

As an older vehicle, the wiring harness contained cloth-insulated wires, which had degraded, causing shorts. Fortunately, the engine had apparently been rebuilt in the ’80s, so it just required cleaning and repainting. I rebuilt the carburetor, installed a new water pump, rebuilt the fuel pump, swapped in an alternator system from a 1968 230, rebuilt the starter, had a new clutch installed, rebuilt the entire brake system, and replaced the bearings, tie rods, shocks, and the boot on the swing axle. It was difficult to find all the replacement pieces for the Webasto sunroof. Fortunately, I came across a compete set through an online auction site. The heater system had to be completely rebuilt as well, as the original cardboard heater boxes turned into compost sometime in the late 70s.

After five years of working every weekend, neglecting my family and friends and spending more than I expected, I now have the car I envisioned 12 years ago. All told, over the five years, I think I’ve spent about $30,000 on her.

Marlene, as I call her, is quite fun to drive around the city, display at local car shows and great on long road trips. Yes, she does have her limitations on acceleration and top-end speed – there isn’t much power left at highway speeds – but at 65 mph, she is quite comfortable. At the beginning of September, I drove Marlene from Portland to Whidbey Island in Washington, and over to Victoria, British Columbia, and then back home. Including the ferry, the trip was over 600 miles, though generally I put only a few thousand miles a year on her.

What I find fascinating about driving this car is its approachability. I have had so many people come up and talk about their own Ponton that they had in college, or their father or uncle or aunt drove one. When I bought her, I was unaware at the time how common these once were, but how time and neglect have taken their toll on their numbers. I find it quite fun to be that one 190b among all those SLs and Cabrios. I suppose that’s not much return on investment in terms of dollars, but the satisfaction and pleasure I get have justified every penny and every minute I have invested in her.

- Justin Englund



W120 Chassis
July 1953180 with M136 engine: production started
Feb 1954180D with OM636 engine in regular production
Sept 1955180D output increased from 40 to 43 hp
June 1957180a with new M121 engine introduced
Apr 1958180a and 180D wind wings in front doors
July 1959180b larger engine, larger brakes, wider grille; 180Db larger brakes, wider grill
June 1961180c changed valve gear; 180Dc new OM621 engine
Oct 1962180 production stopped
W180 Chassis
July 1954220a with M180 engine production started
(Earlier 220 sedans July 1951-May 1954 were body-on-frame)
Apr 1956220a production stopped
Mar 1956220S with M180 engine production started
Aug 1959220S production stopped
W105 Chassis 
Mar 1956

219 with M180 engine production started;

Hydrak transmission available as optional extra

July 1959219 production stopped
W121 Chassis 
Mar 1956190 with M121 engine production started
Aug 1958190D with OM621 engine production started
June 1959190b and 190Db with wider grille introduced
Aug 1961190b production stopped
Sept 1961190Db production stopped
W128 Chassis 
Oct 1958

220SE with M127 engine (fuel injected)

production started

Aug 1959220SE production stopped



ChassisYearsC CondB CondA Cond
W120  180/180a/180b/180c1953-1962$6,500$11,700$16,800
W120D  180D/180Db/180Dc1954-1962$6,900$12,100$17,900
W180  220a1954-1956$6,900$11,200$17,900
W105  2191956-1959$8,600$13,000$20,600
W121  190/190b1956-1959$8,000$11,400$17,500
W121  190D/190Db1958-1961$8,100$11,300$17,600
W180  220S1956-1959$9,200$13,600$21,000
W128  220SE1958-1959$11,700$16,200$24,200
  • A Condition – Potential class winner at regional concours
  • B Condition – Safe and attractive for club events
  • C Condition – Complete but requires repair or restoration