Karl Wilfert and Walter Häcker: Capturing the spirit of youth
July 21, 2023
The global cultural influence of 1950s Americana was a force so powerful that it’s evident even to this day. It is documented in the legends of the golden age of Hollywood, in the music and fashion of the day, and in the icon of the era’s classic cars. One of the models that paved the way for a thriving American luxury car market was none other than the Mercedes-Benz 190 SL, with Karl Wilfert and Walter Häcker’s timeless body design cementing its place in popular culture.
“The International Motor Sports Show took place during a typically cold New York February back in 1954. At the time those attending didn’t know that they were to witness the birth of something very special.“
The SL Shop
Alongside the new road version of the 300 SL, the prototype for the 190 SL was first exhibited at the 1954 International Motor Sports Show. This was after the prolific European car importer and dealer, Max Hoffman, persuaded the team at Mercedes that a convertible sports car could fill a sizable gap in the market. Even more perceptively, Hoffman saw the potential for a more affordable roadster exuding confidence and sex appeal to attract young boomers coming of age. With the austerity of the second World War slowly fading, car ownership was increasing, and the self-expression of young people was being given more credence. Tapping into this insight allowed the artisans of Mercedes to craft a vehicle that encapsulated the ambitions of young Americans – to live a life of freedom and glamour at a reachable price point.
"In America, the 190 SL was advertised with statements such as ‘the sports car you’ve waited for’, ‘a dream come true’ and ‘the sweetest thing on wheels".
Mercedes-Benz 190 SL Club
Taking cues from the Gullwing, Wilfert and Häcker designed the body of the 190 SL to look sporty, yet elegant, without compromising on performance. An innovative spirit shaped the car from the outside in, introducing new tools in the Mercedes-Benz arsenal. These included a monocoque sports car chassis, a low-pivot rear suspension, an overhead camshaft-driven engine, winding windows, an all-synchromesh four-speed manual transmission and independent heating controls for driver and passenger.
The impact of Karl Wilfert’s ingenuity as head of body development at Mercedes created one of the most enduring car designs of the 20th century in the 190 SL. And throughout his career he would go on to create patents to improve the secondary safety of cars, protecting people in the event of accidents, along with some other more unique inventions. He died shortly after retiring, saying “I still have so many ideas”.
The 190 SL’s body designer, Walter Häcker led the technical design of the mass produced bodies that allowed it to be available for a larger market. As the first volume-built SL, the 190 owes much of its success to its perfect proportions. During Häcker’s career, 120 patents in the field of body design were registered in his name.
The final outcome of their work culminated in an elegant, comfortable tourer with luxurious interiors and a strikingly sophisticated silhouette that would not (and did not) look out of place in a Hollywood blockbuster. Although it could never surpass the racing legacy of the Gullwing, the beauty of the 190 SL is what set it apart. Here, the designers of the car had excelled in their goal to create an aspirational vehicle that would satisfy the younger generation’s American dream.
“An immediate success, the 190 SL earned design awards in Holland, Switzerland and at France's Grand Prix d'Elegance”.