Sleeping Beauty – 1939 190V Roadster

Mark Masselink with Henry Magno
This rare 1939 Mercedes-Benz 170V Roadster slumbered for more than 50 years before being restored to show quality.


This rare 1939 Mercedes-Benz 170V Roadster slumbered for more than 50 years before being restored to show quality

Article Mark Masselink with Henry Magno
Images Thomas Magno

The preservation of a classic car is always a rewarding challenge for an enthusiast, but in some cases it takes a little longer than others for a car to be awakened and brought back to life. This is the story of one small automobile that waited more than five decades to return to glory.

By the time I was 16, my father and I had formed a strong bond, cemented by the old cars he loved and taught me to appreciate. It wasn’t surprising then, that in the summer of 1974 while we were repairing some apartments he owned in St. Louis, Dad decided to circle back to inspect an old car he had spotted on the back of a flatbed truck.

Discovering the roadster

Obviously old and covered in dust, the two-door roadster nonetheless sported beautiful lines and a Mercedes-Benz star on the radiator cap. Within minutes, my dad learned from its owner that the car had been in storage for more than 15 years and he would take $3,500 for her. With my agreement to own half – the money would be subtracted from what Dad was paying me for the summer work – we bought the car.

We couldn’t find out much about the car other than the seller’s comment that he thought she had been built before World War II and brought to the United States by a serviceman returning from Germany. But I was a high-school friend with Fred Kemp, whose father was an active Mercedes-Benz collector and would found the Kemp Automobile Museum in 2005 to house his extensive collection.

When I mentioned the car to him, he and his father immediately drove over to look at it. While young Fred took me for a ride in his father’s Gullwing, his father inspected the car: He was able to identify her as a 170V Roadster from the late 1930s and immediately made my dad an offer. Happy with our good fortune in finding a car worthy of that attention, my dad and I decided to keep her – with restoration in mind.

Despite our interest, college loomed for me and, with one thing and another, Dad and I were never able to accomplish the restoration we envisioned. The car sat in storage for another 36 years until 2010, when my dad was starting to simplify his affairs. A friend made an unsolicited offer of $25,000 to buy her, so Dad called me to find out what I wanted to do with our car.

Determining a plan

Remembering the interest of the Kemps, and using some information from the car’s identification plate, I searched the Internet and was able to find a similar car – a 1938 170V Cabriolet A – which had been restored and was being shown by longtime MBCA member Henry Magno of Magno Restorations in Ward Hill, Massachusetts – quite close to my home in Maine. Well-known for the quality of his restorations, Henry confirmed that our car was “a very interesting and rare 1939 170V Roadster.”

I immediately had the car shipped to Henry for closer inspection; he replied quickly with more information. Magno told us that the 170s were once key to Daimler-Benz’s survival during the depression years of the 1930s, built with the era’s best technology, but priced affordably for middle-class professionals. Introduced in 1931 and built on the W15 chassis, the line had fully independent suspensions and hydraulic brakes.

By 1936, the success of the first generation led to the improved W136 chassis – a tubular steel frame, independent suspension with hydraulic shock absorbers, and dual transverse springs on the front and a swing-axle with coil springs in the rear. The engine had rubber engine mounts and the chassis was lubricated with a pedal-operated central lubrication system.
Priced lower than its predecessor, the new 170V was available initially in sedan and limousine body styles, which proved to be very popular, selling almost 70,000 units by 1941, when the car was taken out of production due to the war.

In addition to the practical four-door cars, Mercedes-Benz also produced a small number of two-seat 170V Cabriolet A convertible coupes and roadsters on the same chassis to fill a
mid-market demand for attractive, personal automobiles. Records indicate that 794 cabriolets and 271 roadsters were built. Just over a dozen roadsters were known to still exist.

The roadsters and cabriolets emulated the lovely lines and proportions of the coveted 500K and 540K designed by Hermann Ahrens in the custom-body division at the Sindelfingen plant. By shifting the cowl and seats rearward on the chassis, Ahrens lengthened the hood and then accented the lines with a front fender line that swept into the running board.

The cabriolets are quite attractive with their tops erected, but lose some of their grace with the top folded. The roadsters, on the other hand, took a cue from the 500K design and featured folding tops that could be stored completely under the cowl behind the front seats.

The restoration

Clearly, the car my father and I bought so many years ago was worthy of restoration, so I commissioned Henry and Magno Restorations to do the work: However, the project would be anything but straightforward. Like every automobile produced in small numbers during the 1930s, most of the panels in the separate body were made of aluminum or steel tacked over a carved ash-wood frame. And quite unfortunately, leaving a wood-framed car in storage for more than five decades meant that much of that structural woodwork was rotted.

While the mechanical parts and frame of the chassis were disassembled, refurbished and replaced, we discovered the body would need laborious restoration. This first involved taking many photographs and careful measurements before metal panels were removed from the wood framing. Then, new wood pieces would have to be cut, carved and fitted back together, fastened by glue or screws, as original. Only after this was completed could original panels be cleaned or new panels fabricated to be tacked over the frame.

Moreover, parts that were missing – or were so far gone they needed to be replaced – had to be found or fabricated. These items included the entire windshield frame, rear bumper, body moldings, taillights and license plate assembly.

Once this work was completed, work could proceed to paint and trim tasks. In our research, we found a period photograph of a 170V Roadster taken by Zoltan Glass at the 1936 Berlin Automobile Exhibition. Based on that image, we decided to paint our 170V an attractive ivory-white color, accented with red leather interior and top.

Not surprisingly, the restoration extended several years, but the results were worth the wait. She has been shown at several East Coast concours events, receiving Best-in-Class awards at the Misselwood Concours d’Elegance in 2013 and The Boston Cup in 2014. Despite technically being a series-production vehicle, the roadster was invited to both Hilton Head Island 2014 and this year’s Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance events where she competed against custom classics – a tribute to her beauty and rarity. Henry and I have been proud to show her next to exotic classics such as Bugatti and Hispano-Suiza.

After this concours season, I expect to retire the car from shows and simply enjoy driving her on sunny days in Maine and Florida.

In a setting worthy of the period in which it was originally built, this 1939 Mercedes-Benz 170V Roadster clearly demonstrates the dignity of its lines, emulating the 540Ks of the day.

With the top stowed behind the seat and the second seat open, the 170V looks sporty, echoing the sleek lines originally penned for the 500K.

With the passenger door open, red-leather upholstery selected to complement the ivory-white exterior is displayed to advantage; the long tab below the windshield is the trafficator turn indicator.

From the rear quarter, the long deck and externally mounted spare tire – just like the biggest models – complete the elegant composition.

The tall radiator that was used across the entire Mercedes-Benz lineup sits between the headlights mounted to reinforcements within the fenders; this style replaced the previous 170 headlights, mounted on a bar in front of the grille.

One attraction of this car is its minimalist nature.  Gauges mounted in a center cluster include gasoline and oil pressure, with an auxiliary ammeter mounted below the dash next to the locking steering column. The long gear-shift lever projects out from the floor.

The engine is simple to understand and work on, with 38 horsepower produced from a 1.7-liter 4-cylinder configuration with a single updraft carburetor.

The 170V Roadster is a fine example of the Hermann Ahrens design aesthetic. With the top folded behind the seats and the rumble seat closed, the lines of the Roadster are simple and pleasing; one can easily imagine a young person fortunate enough to own this car driving happily down country lanes, or even occasionally at high speed on one of Germany’s new autobahns.
1939 Mercedes-Benz 170V Roadster (W136)

TYPE: Two-door, two-seat Roadster with “notsitze” rumble seat
ENGINE: M136 4-cylinder, 1,686cc side valve, updraft carburetion
TRANSMISSION: 4-speed fully synchronized manual with floor shift
HORSEPOWER: 38 at 3,400 rpm  
TORQUE: 74 lb-ft at 1,800 rpm
LENGTH: 168 in 
CURB WEIGHT: 2,420 lb
PERFORMANCE: Zero-50 mph 23.5 sec; Top speed 70 mph