Mercedes-Benz History – 55 Years of Open Top Driving

Words John Clark | January 20, 2011
Mercedes-Benz continues its roadster heritage with the 2012 SLK, a tradition that began with the Mercedes-Benz 190 SL
Words John Clark January 20, 2011

Orders for the new Mercedes-Benz SLK commenced on 17 January 2011. It will feature a new, exciting design, exceptionally high levels of comfort for a roadster, as well as exquisite technology and no shortage of open-air driving pleasure. As such, the agile sports car already looks set to continue a success story which started back in 1994 with a show car. Strictly speaking, however, the pedigree of the SLK stretches back even further – to the 190 SL, a vehicle which automotive enthusiasts were already dreaming about in 1955 as the economic upturn was starting in the Federal Republic of Germany.

When the SLK appeared as a series-produced car in 1996, it not only caused a stir on the road but also established a new market segment which has since grown by leaps and bounds. With the steel vario-roof, which transforms the roadster into an all-weather coupé within a matter of seconds, the roadster has been and still is the role model for many open-top cars. The success of the SLK has exceeded all expectations: to date, well over half a million owners have been delighted with their purchase of an SLK roadster.

The 190 SL – a new star in the automotive firmament in 1955

With the SLK, Mercedes-Benz continued its roadster tradition which stretches back a long way. Its direct ancestor is considered to be the 190 SL, which owes its existence primarily to the perseverance of Maximilian Edwin Hoffman. The enterprising American with Austrian roots was importing European cars into the USA as early as 1946, and in doing so demonstrated infallible instinct and tremendous flair. In 1953 he urged the executive boards of Daimler-Benz to build another affordable sports car, in addition to the 300 SL, for the American market. As an elegant sports car from a well-known company featuring an exciting design at a low price, the 190 SL was designed to charm the Americans.

After a development period of just five months, on 6 February 1954 the 190 SL celebrated its world premiere in New York, alongside the legendary 300 SL “gullwing”. Unlike the 300 SL, the 190 SL was not designed as a purebred sports car but rather as a sporty, elegant two-seater touring and utility vehicle. Its chassis was the shortened frame floor assembly from the Mercedes-Benz 180 (W 120), combined with the single-joint swing axle with lowered centre of rotation, as used in the 220 (W 180). The front-wheel suspension, including subframe design, came from the 180 model. The 190 SL was driven by a newly developed four-cylinder engine with a displacement of 1.9 litres, overhead camshaft and producing 105 hp. Depending on conditions, it could therefore reach a speed significantly over 170 km/h and accelerated from 0 to 100 km/h in 14 seconds.Series production started in May 1955.

The 190 SL was available as a roadster with soft top as well as a coupé with removable hard top, with or without a soft top as an option. 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 was built up until 1963. 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 initial aspirations.

Two studies for the new type of roadster

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 Mercedes-Benz models, now firmly established in their own right, to be joined by a younger brother? After all, 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. In German, these three letters stand for the car’s characteristic properties – sporty, lightweight and short – and, given the great sporting successes of Mercedes-Benz back in the 1920s and 1930s, 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 roadster should look. A brilliant silver showstopper with a distinct aura of spartan sportiness sent the trade professionals into raptures. Bruno Sacco, Head of Design for the brand at the time, made it clear what the company’s aim was: “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”.

To meet these requirements, some formal individuality was called for. The SLK study reflected this thanks to its compact dimensions and some evident highlights. Short overhangs at the front and rear, as well as a distinctive wedge shape, embodied the enjoyment to be had from a hands-on driving experience. And the two “power domes” on the bonnet, running parallel to the direction of travel, were acknowledgement of the originator of all SLs dating from the 1950s. The SLK study revealed a lot of gleaming metal. Only 20 percent of the interior was covered, and the high-tech cockpit was dominated by bold shapes and high-quality materials.

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 in blue, with blue-tone leather and a range of additional luxury accessories such as automatic transmission, air-conditioning system, power windows, a hi-fi sound system and much more besides. This enabled Mercedes-Benz to demonstrate convincingly the breadth of appeal and the potential inherent in a compact roadster.

The SLK sets the trend before going into series production

Then the automotive enthusiasts started to wait. Many viewed the SLK as a very auspicious prospect indeed. Mercedes-Benz had done the unexpected and had demonstrated 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 roadster studies had already opened up a new market niche, making the SLK a trendsetter even before series production had begun.

By 1996 everything was in place: the series production version of the new SLK, designated internally as the R 170, 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’s claim to being a car for all weathers. Using an intelligent electro-hydraulic system, the entire roof folded 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 protected occupants from injury if the car should overturn and, in conjunction with the exceptionally robust A-pillars, delivered a very high level of safety even when these Mercedes-Benz cars are driven with the top down.

Engines from 136 to 354 hp

The sporting talent of the SLK was unleashed by two engine variants: a 2-litre four-cylinder engine with a power rating of 100 kW (136 hp) and a supercharged 2.3 litre engine, also a four-cylinder unit, delivering 142 kW (193 hp). 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, the 160 kW (218 hp) unit for the SLK 320 and the 260 kW (354 hp) powerplant in the SLK 32 AMG.

The evolution of the SLK continues

In February 2000, 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 bumper and side skirts 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 terms of both colour and form. New taillights, stainless steel trim on the exhaust tailpipe and a painted radiator grille gave the SLK design an even more commanding identity.

Even more driving pleasure with the second generation SLK

In the spring of 2004, the second generation of the SLK (internal model series designation: R 171) was launched – offering more sportiness and dynamism, and even more driving pleasure. Thanks to powerful engines, a newly developed chassis, direct steering and a precise six-speed shift mechanism, the second generation of the SLK provided an even more responsive driving experience. As a world first, Mercedes-Benz introduced the AIRSCARF neck-level heating system. At the touch of a button, it generates warm air which is blown out of the head restraints. This now meant that drivers of the SLK were able to enjoy open-top driving and the open-air roadster experience all year round, even when outside temperatures dropped.

True to the principle of ongoing development, in 2008 the SLK underwent a comprehensive facelift. The most significant visual changes included redesigned front and rear sections and also a carefully modified interior with new instrument cluster and three-spoke sports steering wheel. The distinctive dynamic character of the two-seater was brought to the fore to particularly good effect in the SLK 350 courtesy of a high-revving V6 sports engine producing 224 kW (305 hp) along with an optional Direct-Steer system. In addition, despite their significantly increased performance, all of the engines were more economical in terms of fuel consumption and in turn therefore produced less CO2 emissions.

The new SLK sets standards once more

The new SLK, which was presented in January 2011 and designated internally as the R 172, will now also follow in these same footsteps. Thanks to new engines, among other things, the roadster will consume significantly less fuel, thus demonstrating that achieving pure driving pleasure while maintaining a clear conscience when it comes to the environment do not necessarily have to be conflicting principles. The new SLK combines nimble-footed sportiness with stylish comfort, a striking sports car design with absolute suitability for everyday use, and top-of-the-range performance with exemplary ecology. In addition, a unique series of safety equipment enables the SLK to assume the role of benchmark in this segment. Standard equipment on the vehicle will include, among other features, the ATTENTION ASSIST drowsiness detection system. Mercedes-Benz will also be the world’s first automotive manufacturer to offer the panoramic vario-roof with MAGIC SKY CONTROL as an optional extra. With this innovation, the transparent glass roof can be darkened in a matter of seconds at the touch of a button. Thanks to such a rich array of technical innovations, the SLK will once more set the standard in its class.

Model chronicle: the Mercedes-Benz SLK


  • In April, Mercedes-Benz displays the compact roadster as a study vehicle at the Turin Motor Show
  • In September a second study vehicle is unveiled, this time with vario-roof and in the form of a customised version


  • World premiere of the SLK at the Turin Motor Show


  • The SLK undergoes a comprehensive facelift


  • World premiere of the second generation of the SLK at the Geneva Motor Show


  • Facelift for the second generation of the SLK


  • Third generation of the SLK