Re-creating the 190SL Exhibition Car

Jim Luikens
Frank Pierce A Southern Studio
Long-lost 190SL Exhibition Car from the 1954 New York Auto Show has been re-created.

Re-creating the 190SL Exhibition Car

Article by Jim Luikens

Photographs by Frank Pierce, A Southern Studio

Herb Shriner was a 1950s TV personality and well-known “Car Guy” in a day and age when that term had yet to be coined. Each year he promoted the International Motor Sports Auto Show in New York as a way of expanding the exposure of foreign sports cars while simultaneously enjoying his passion. His third annual event, held February 6-14, 1954, is, without a doubt, the most famous of his shows.

It was at this show that Max Hoffman and the Daimler-Benz Corporation displayed a revolutionary pair of new sports cars – the 190SL and the street version of the racing 300SL – that changed the landscape of sport driving in America, and the rest of the world, forever. The show’s long-lost exhibition version of the 190SL has been re-created so that enthusiasts can understand how it captured the imagination of the audience.

Both the 190SL and the street version of the 300SL, the brainstorms of Hoffman, were the result of the success of the 300SL in racing. The Mercedes board of directors had green-lighted production of the 190SL in September 1953, allowing designers only five months to produce the exhibition car before it had to be shipped to the New York auto show.

The better-known sports car was, of course, the legendary 300SL coupe, which came to be known by its nickname, the Gullwing. The 300SL was a full-on sports car that featured a number of revolutionary items, including a small-diameter tube frame, the first use of fuel injection in a gasoline-powered vehicle, and its famous gullwing doors.

With the Gullwing nearly ready for commercial production, Hoffman convinced the Daimler-Benz board that there was a market niche for a less-expensive, two-seat model that would share many of the design features of the more powerful car. They named it the 190SL, and it featured a 4-cylinder engine. Unlike the Gullwing coupe, they showed the 190SL exhibition car in roadster form.

With January 20, 1954, established as the drop-dead date for shipment of the two vehicles to reach New York in time for the show, the stylists and engineers only had time to design and produce an exhibition version of the 190SL – a nonoperating display version often referred to as a “concept car.”

Guenther Baeuerle, an early employee of Hoffman’s, reports that when he went to move the 190SL into position on the show floor, he discovered the car would not start. Closer examination revealed that the carburetors on the 190SL exhibition car were, in fact, carved from wood.

Baeuerle also reports that two crates, one small and one very large, accompanied the 190SL from Germany. While the smaller crate contained minor trim pieces, the larger crate contained two cut-down doors and a cut-down windshield meant to portray an even more sporting nature for the new car.

Guenther was directed, upon demand or interest, to swap the conventional doors and windscreen with the sportier components. This proved to be such a task that after the first two such exchanges, Hoffman ordered the swap discontinued. As it happened, the press-kit photos, taken in Germany, show the car in racing trim, but the official shots of the New York show stand reveal the car with the full doors, complete with wind-up windows, and the full windscreen. Even then, the exhibition car had no provisions for a top, cloth or otherwise.

After the show, the Gullwing quickly proceeded to production and was actually introduced later in the 1954 model year. Reflecting the need for further development, the 190SL was not introduced in the market until April 1955, a full 15 months after its show debut.

While the fate of the New York exhibition car is unknown, it was likely dismantled and used to develop the operating prototypes that preceded development of the production versions of the car. In any case, the only evidence that the exhibition car ever existed rested in the photographs taken during the show, and the memories of those who saw the car in New York.

Into this void stepped a dentist from the Toronto area, Dr. Larry Pappo. While attending the 2002 Gullwing Group Convention in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, Pappo came to the realization that he wasn’t interested in acquiring a 300SL. Rather, he wanted something out of the ordinary. A 190SL owner, Pappo had long admired the lines of the unusual-looking show car and was intrigued by its history. While at the convention, he discussed with Bruce Adams the possibility of re-creating this important missing link of Mercedes-Benz history in minute detail in a working car. His original idea was to build one to use for vintage racing.

Over time, the idea evolved into building a fully detailed concours-quality car as a tribute to the 190SL and its designers. Next began the process of finding a suitable car for the project, as well as researching the exhibition by collecting and studying the only real remaining sources of information – as many photos of the car as possible.

Pappo’s search eventually took him to Tim Kidder of K&K Manufacturing in Sparta, Michigan, who had an early 1956 190SL stored high in the rafters of his warehouse. After driving the car for some years, Kidder had disassembled it with the idea of restoring it, and had completed some basic body repair before literally shelving the car to pursue other projects. The shell had been sitting quietly in primer, waiting for its appointment with history. Enthusiastic about the plan, Tim agreed to sell the car. Two months later, in October 2003, Pappo moved the car with all of its collected parts to a shop in Ontario, Canada. At about that time, Adams was writing his books on the 190SL and had acquired an extensive library of original pictures from the Mercedes-Benz archives, so he and Pappo began the research necessary to plan the project.

In the process of researching everything possible on the exhibition car, Pappo and Adams found visual evidence of the two similarly bodied, working prototype cars that were completed in spring 1954. A photo of Mercedes-Benz engineer Dr. Kurt Oblander test-driving a prototype 190SL on the road in Germany shows a car with fog lights, a soft top, and different tires and hubcaps from the car in the New York auto show. Adams was able to interview Dr. Oblander about the development of the 190SL before Oblander passed away. Pappo also contacted Gregg Merksamer, author of “A History of the New York International Auto Show,” who was very helpful in providing information and photos of the 1954 show.

The restoration process started in 2005 at John Legue’s shop, Restorations Unlimited, in Blenheim, Ontario. However, the scope of the work necessary to achieve Pappo’s vision soon became apparent; extensive custom bodywork would have to be done to recreate the styling details of the exhibition car, and experience in 190SL restoration would be needed. In November 2006, the project was moved to Adams’s Mercedes 190SL Restoration Company in Southern Pines, North Carolina.

Based on their interviews and research, Adams and Pappo confirmed that the 190SL exhibition car produced for the auto show was made by hand, using various bits and pieces available in the parts bins or from other Mercedes-Benz cars that were then currently in production. The 190SL exhibition car has numerous differences from the eventual production car in the details of the body, some obvious and others quite subtle. These include a rear fender design that took cues from the 180 Ponton sedan, including a rear-fender gas door, and a lack of eyebrows over the wheel openings.

The front of the auto show exhibition car had a hood and grille design similar to one of the 300SL factory works race cars of 1953. The car also had an elongated hood with an air scoop and a double-pivot hood hinge. The grille was squared off at the top, with the top edge forming the leading edge of the hood. The perimeter outlines of the trunk, hood, and both doors are noticeably different, on close inspection, from those of the production 190SL, as are the rear jack holes.

The shift lever on the exhibition car was common to the 300S, as was the Mercedes-Benz script on the lower driver’s side front fender. The gauges on the dash all showed different markings from the production car, and included an additional gauge for oil temperature. The exhibition car also sported full chrome wheel covers, common to the 220S. The parking lights, by Hella, were rectangular in shape, as seen on Porsches and Volkswagens of that era.

The challenge of rebodying a 1956 190SL to emulate these design and engineering features can’t be understated. In addition, correct components had to be identified from the pictures and parts books of the period, and then acquired. Where one-off parts had been used, these had to be fabricated. It took Adams several thousand hours over four years to complete the work. Using only the available photographs as his guide, Adams’s work can only be described as phenomenal.

What had seemed to both Pappo and Adams a straightforward but interesting project when they first discussed it – how difficult could it be? – became something radically different. Eight years later, they know the answer. The project has been extremely challenging, but also very rewarding. The complexity of the work has been matched by the high degree of skill as well as the historical accuracy of the final product.

As Pappo introduced the car, he had kind words for all those who had been involved, but his deepest appreciation went to Adams. Just as there would never have been a 190SL were it not for Max Hoffman, this car owes its existence to Bruce Adams. Since November 2007, his involvement as restorer has been as complete as his dedication to and passion for the project. Pappo is most grateful to him and his excellent team.

Appropriately, no effort was spared for its debut. The car was displayed in a setting similar to the New York show. Pappo and Adams even prepared a press kit similar to one Mercedes would have prepared for such an event, containing factory photos, a flyer for the show, and even popular music of the day. They also re-created the original M-B show stand, right down to the hanging sign and flower boxes, and included info on the site of the unveiling (see pages 88-89).

People have asked Pappo about his plans for the car. Because they focused so intensely on having the car ready for the 2010 190SL convention, neither Pappo nor Adams looked far beyond that deadline. With the car now successfully completed and debuted, they can start thinking ahead. Naturally, they would like to show the car at some high-profile events befitting the car’s stature. Longer term, Pappo would like to have the car exhibited at the Daimler-Benz Museum in Stuttgart. That’s a lofty goal, but this project has never shrunk from its original vision, so the dream is justified.

 In retrospect, one can only wonder if Pappo would have undertaken the project had he known the challenges he would face. Fortunately, he did, and the world of Mercedes-Benz aficionados is better for it. We can congratulate all involved for a job well done.