BUYER’S GUIDE

Mercedes 190 ‘Ponton’ Review

The first modern Mercedes of the post-war era, the charming ‘Ponton’ series combines classic looks with surprisingly up-to-date driving manners…

What Is It?

Given the devastation wreaked on Germany during the Second World War, the speed with which the country’s car industry rebuilt itself was truly staggering. The Mercedes-Benz ‘Ponton’ was a potent sign of this rebirth and perfectly in tune with the simultaneous sense of austerity and optimism.

While it started out with engines and suspension from the pre-war 170 series the Ponton was, in truth, a far more modern car. The enclosed bodywork, encompassing Mercedes’ first unitary body design, was host to many up-to-date design features and early moves into passive safety. Launched as the 180 and 180D diesel, the range developed quickly with improved engines and suspension. It even spawned a sportscar in the shape of the 190SL, this model then gifting a detuned version of its engine to the more luxuriously trimmed Mercedes 190 Ponton.

Six-cylinder Pontons of the 220 series – obvious by their longer bonnets – were also sold before fashions changed and the Fintail era dawned.   

Corrosive Areas

Inner wings

Sills

Headlight ‘bowls’

Checklist

  • While engines and other elements saw many tweaks the four-cylinder Ponton range remained divided into 180 and 180D entry level models and more powerful and luxurious 190 and 190D versions
  • Any true Mercedes fan needs to learn their model codes before committing: the 180-badged versions of the four-cylinder Ponton are known as the W120 while 190s are W121s
  • 190 models are distinguished by their additional chrome trim along the bottom edge of the windows and various other detail trim upgrades, while underneath they get additional subframe mounts and ‘turbo cooled’ brake drums
  • All Ponton models feature independent suspension all round, post-1955 versions getting the improved and more predictable low-pivot design to reduce camber changes in cornering
  • Post-1957 180a models gained a detuned version of the 190’s overhead-cam engine while in 1958 the 190D got a new diesel, adapted from the petrol engine
  • 1959 models are denoted by a lower-case -b suffix, signifying a range of updates, including improved passive safety thanks to padded dashboards and steering wheel bosses
  • Post-1961 190 and 190Ds gain new ‘Heckflosse’ finned rear bodywork while 180 models retained the rounded wings of the original version
  • As well as saloons, Mercedes sold various part-bodied Pontons for conversion into commercial vehicles, estates, ambulances, hearses and more; South African market ‘Bakkie’ pick-ups have a following of their own and put a different twist on the formula

How Does It Drive?

For a car designed over 70 years ago, the Ponton drives with incredible modernity, thanks in part to that unitary body but also for its all-independent suspension, decent brakes, smooth controls and performance that feels a lot stronger than the numbers suggest. The only quirk for a modern driver will be the column shift for the four-speed manual gearbox, but you adapt quickly and soon realise it’s a very intuitive way to change gear.

While few might reckon on the Ponton as a sporty car it does actually have some unexpected competition pedigree as well, a 180D diesel completing Mercedes’ domination of the 1955 Mille Miglia with a class win in the hands of Helmut Ritter and Wolfgang Larcher. True, their average speed of 58mph was somewhere behind the incredible 99mph of winners Stirling Moss and Denis Jenkinson in their F1-derived 300SLR, but when you consider the 180D could only hit 68mph flat out and takes a whole 39 seconds to hit 0-62mph their achievement looks perhaps even more impressive!

What’s Good?

Mercedes 190 'Ponton' front three quarters

In short, build quality. The Ponton may have been the most junior Mercedes in the range at the time but it was built as well as anything with the three-pointed star atop the grille. The pride with which they were assembled reflected in every last nut and bolt. Indeed, this is something you can appreciate even to this day, restorers relishing the ease with which an old-school Benz of this era comes apart just as much as the precision with which it goes back together.

It’s also a very comfortable car to drive, refinement impressive thanks to the engine and front suspension being mounted on a rubber-isolated subframe while the steering and other controls are all very smooth and precise. Comfy seats and plenty of space inside mean it’s a classic you can enjoy with family and friends, while the driving manners and performance are well up to regular use on modern roads.

If perhaps not as well supported here in the UK as it is back in Germany, Mercedes does keep a decent stock of original parts for its classics as well, meaning you should be able to run or restore a Ponton without too much stress.

What’s Bad?

As well-made as the Pontons were, it goes without saying that rust-proofing wasn’t up to modern standards and, while mechanically tough, a car requiring significant bodywork repairs is going to cost as much as any ‘50s Mercedes to sort out. Which, given the Ponton’s relatively humble status, means the business case for a full restoration will be a lot harder to make than with some of its more valuable relatives. As good as the parts supply is it’s also going to be an expensive car to restore if you’re going all the way, and unlikely to ever be an especially valuable commodity. Something you’d do for the love, rather than the money.

Which Model To Choose?

Mercedes 190 Ponton interior

Whichever engine you’re after it’s probably worth seeking out a post-1955 car for the improved rear suspension and its better road-holding. In terms of engine none of them are what you’d call fast so, as attractive as the 190 may seem, a post 1957 180a is probably just as usable in performance terms. The diesels are perhaps best described as a quirky choice, though remain surprisingly good to drive as that incredible Mille Miglia performance goes to show.

Given the fundamental similarities the sensible course would be to find the best you can afford at your particular price point. Imported cars from dry climates perhaps offer the best hope of scoring one free from rot. If we had to slim it down, a 180a or 190 petrol would probably be our choice.

Specifications

 

Engine

1.9-litre four-cylinder, petrol

Power

75PS (55kW) @ 4,500rpm

Torque

136Nm (100 lb ft) @ 2,800rpm

Transmission

Four-speed manual, rear-wheel drive

Kerb weight

1,200kg

0-62mph

20.5 seconds

Top speed

87mph

Production dates

1956-1959 (1953-1962 full production)

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