This Barnfind Mercedes-Benz 190SL Has Become The Ultimate Barchetta Cruiser
Photography by Ted Gushue
You’re not looking at a factory special, but at a resurrection worthy of praise. Who knew that deleting a windscreen and allowing a classic to accumulate eight years of rat droppings could make a car complete?
Ted Gushue: How did you come across this thing?
Michael Potiker: I was going for a walk with my father in our neighborhood and I noticed there was a garage door open on a derelict-looking house down the road. There was a car under a cover, with a little sliver of chrome showing. Everything else was covered in dust and dirt. It was right by the ocean, and it had deposited clay and dirt from the cliffs for who knows how long. It looked interesting. Clearly someone knew that it was valuable, as it had a custom fit cover, but it looked like they’d forgotten about it long ago. I went home and thought about it, and then I went back the next day and knocked on the door. A nurse answered, which is where things got interesting.
I asked her if I could pull the cover of the car off, and she said, “Just the front”. I lifted the cover, and I saw the big Mercedes Tri-Star and was like, “Whoa!” At that point, I thought it was a 300. I turned and looked at the nurse and said, “Wow! This must be some old Mercedes or something. I don’t know much about these old cars”. Then, very quickly, put the cover down and walked away. I immediately tracked down the house phone number from his neighbor, and I called the house the next day.
I asked to speak with the owner of the car, and she told me that he was actually in palliative care and quite literally couldn’t speak. I very graciously kept prodding, and was eventually put in touch with the trustee of his estate and his attorney, who allowed me to negotiate the purchase of what by this point I realized was a 190SL. Apparently, this raised a few flags with others in the estate who had been interested in the car, but by total luck I was able to secure it.
It had been sitting for probably 8 to 10 years. The hard top was on, but the windows were open under the cover. There were a ton of rodents that had been living in it. There were droppings everywhere. Apparently, a dog had been living in the car at some point, according to the nurse.
TG: What kind of dog?
MP: Something that shed, based on what the interior looked like (laughs). It was completely disgusting. I wore a Tyvek painting suit with booties and a hood and started vacuuming. Then, I realized I was just going to use a razor blade and cut the entire inside of the car out. I cut out the carpet, and then there were these tiles with duct tape and nails in the floor. They definitely weren’t meant to be there, and I was trying to get to the floor to see how bad the rust really was. I put a screwdriver against the tile, and I hit the screwdriver with a hammer, and orange dust came up and I realized, actually, that it was asbestos tiling, which makes sense, because there were flip flops that were left in the back of the car. Obviously, the guy liked to drive barefoot.
TG: Why would someone at any point feel the need to use asbestos tiles? Was there ever a period where asbestos tiles were considered to be used as fireproofing?
MP: They’re fireproofing and heat proofing, but they’re absolutely inappropriate to be used on the floor of any car. They guy clearly had had them in his house or something at some point in the ’70s and didn’t like that his feet were getting hot when he was bombing around the beach. He just thought, “Okay, I’ll just tack some asbestos into the floor of the car, and then put the carpet over it.” There were a series of repairs like that. There was a woman’s brass bangle that had a hose clamp over it that was holding a hose on. There was ample Bondo on the floor, and even a residential window screen being used. Luckily, the body is all original and the car had never been hit, so we didn’t have to do any bodywork.
The entire floor of the car had to be cut out. I sent the car to Hjeltness Restorations, which is a ‘Gullwing’ shop. Hjeltness’ metal guy cut the entire floor out of the car, and put a whole new floor in. Amazingly, actually, after I found it, it started up. We got it home, hooked up a new battery, and put a vertical down off a fuel can and cranked it and it started. It didn’t run well, but it started.
I had Hjeltness rebuild the carbs, but the car is on its original engine. Everything’s numbers matching. It was a special export to Japan, because the guy was in the Marines. It has a different plaque in the engine that some of the Japanese cars have, but I’m the second owner and I absolutely love the car. It’s the most fun thing in the world.
TG: Do you know the name of the paint color?
MP: Yeah, it’s Mercedes DB190. It’s a dolphin grey color. The original interior was parchment, but the shop actually gave me that red interior, and I couldn’t say no. It was in a Concours-quality 190 that was the wrong color inside, and the guy wanted an original car, so I just took his interior and they slapped it in.
TG: What other modifications have you made?
MP: The wheels actually are space saver spares off of a Volkswagen Rabbit that are drilled out to fit the hub the correct way, and are painted DB190. New-Old-Stock French selective yellow headlights with halogen bulbs. There’s a big lighting relay under the dash to deal with those, and the Cibié 9″ Super Oscars which are rated for daylight brightness at a mile away. They’re really bright. Then I had the leather straps put on the trunk, but then I rebuilt the trunk mechanism anyway, so they’re just aesthetic.
The little windshield was added, and is an exact replica of the RennSport screen that Mercedes sold customers to use with the 190. The dash is extended two or three inches up, so that the tonneau can nest in a fairing, with room for the push-to-fit connectors.
It’s on a really aggressive set of coilovers that have their damping set for rally use. I can go over speed bumps or rough roads, and it’s smooth but it still grips very well. There’s also a fairly aggressive sway bar installed that’s sold by the 190 club that they have custom made. It has a new gear reduction starter and an alternator from the 190 club as well. It has Webers. The cars originally came equipped with Solex carburetors, and with the Webers, you make another 35 or 40 horses. The Webers were put on by the last owner, and I had them fully rebuilt. I re-did the exhaust as it was completely rusted through, now it’s just a straight-through stainless steel setup.
Eric Hjletness has had great suggestions, and we’re currently building a Weber linkage and planning on installing a set of new racing buckets so the seats have some bolstering. I didn’t rebuilt the transmission or the engine, and I feel incredibly lucky it’s been running as smoothly as it has.
TG: Why would you?
MP: Yeah, the thing runs after having sat for that long, until it spectacularly kills itself at some point. It’s just a great little car. It’s so fun to drive. You’re everyone’s best friend driving it around.