My One and Only - Bob Watt's 190SL

Bob Watts
Bob Watts
In 1958, I purchased a Mercedes-Benz 190SL while I was stationed in the Mediterranean with the U.S. Navy. I have owned that car ever since – call it a lifelong love affair – though it is now into its fourth life.

My One and Only
Bob Watts 1958 190SL

In 1958, at the lowest point in my financial career, when I didn’t have enough money to buy a bicycle, I was fortunate enough to purchase a Mercedes-Benz 190SL while I was stationed in the Mediterranean with the U.S. Navy. I have owned that car ever since – call it a lifelong love affair – though it is now into its fourth life.

How did this happen? With the Korean war in progress when I graduated from high school, Uncle Sam needed to expand the military. This meant that at 18 years of age, I was eligible to be drafted into the Army to serve on behalf of my friends, neighbors, and country. I didn’t like the idea too much, so I applied for the college Navy ROTC program. Much to my relief, I passed the physical test and aptitude exam and was accepted into the program at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island.

I was deferred from service during college and commissioned as an officer in the Navy after graduating. Upon commissioning, I was assigned to serve aboard the USS Des Moines, flagship of the 6th Fleet in the Mediterranean Sea. Affectionately called the “Daisy Mae” after Al Capp’s cartoon character in the comic series Li’l Abner, our ship was a heavy cruiser with some of its large guns still in commission. I loved my assignment and all the foreign places that I was able to visit.

But then came my first love. While visiting Nice, France, I saw a Mercedes-Benz 190SL at a dealer there, and I fell in love. They tried to persuade me to purchase a 300SL with 10,000 miles on the odometer, but after taking a test drive with a racing driver on the Grande Corniche in Nice, I said, “I think I’ll take the slower one.”
With my humble savings earned as a lieutenant in the Navy, plus help from my family, I was able to come up with the $4,200 price, and so I bought my 190SL.

It was glorious, as it was in its infancy, and having a Mercedes-Benz 190SL on the French Riviera was quite a feat for me. I stored the car at our home port in Villefranche-sur-Mer while my ship was at sea, usually for six weeks at a time, and then we’d return to port and my car. What wonderful moments, driving up and down the French Riviera from Cannes to Monte Carlo.

As the Navy’s flagship, any important ceremonies in foreign ports were celebrated aboard the USS Des Moines. Upon our return to Villefranche, liberty was generally announced for all enlisted men and officers. I was transportation officer for the fleet in addition to my other duties, which meant I would be one of the first ashore to arrange the mail pickup at the airport in Nice, shore patrol, and scheduling the captain and admiral’s vehicles. But this also meant that after getting everything organized and squared away, I was free to enjoy liberty. For us bachelors, this meant going to the local restaurants and bistros. The French women were more than anxious to meet American naval officers. Perhaps their parents told them how the U.S. forces had freed Europe, or maybe it was our white uniforms that gave us a certain élan. Regardless, the United States was a magical place for them and they wanted to hear about it.

Whatever it was, you can imagine a young naval officer in a new sports car with opportunities to roam in Europe on time off. I took the opportunity to visit and photograph a number of tourist destinations, including Paris and its Eiffel Tower, on my leaves.

One of those leaves almost ended in disaster. We had just returned from exhibiting the U.S. flag in Beirut, Lebanon, as part of a diplomatic effort to stabilize what was then the Middle East’s banking center, maintaining 18-hour watches while the U.S. ambassador and the 6th Fleet Commander Admiral Brown conducted diplomatic talks. After a long evening with some young ladies whom we had met at an open house aboard ship a few days earlier, my cabin mate and I were taking two French friends for a quick ride in the 190SL (they managed to both squeeze into the space behind the seats fitted with the little child seat) before we returned to the ship.

What a mistake! As I drove down a side street next to the Hotel Ruhl in Nice and turned right on to the Promenade des Anglais in the direction of the airport, the Frenchmen shouted, “Faster,” and I went from first to second to third in rapid succession. It was dark and a slight rain was coming down and coating the streets.

All of a sudden and without warning, the straight highway I was traveling abruptly ended with a wooden barrier and concrete curbing blocking some construction work. I turned sharply to the left to avoid that barrier and the right front wheel hit the curb, flipping the Mercedes upside down. My occupants were thrown 30 feet from the car and miraculously not injured. With my legs caught under the steering wheel, I was stuck in the car. My life flashed in front of me and I was convinced that I was about to die. No one could survive an accident like this. The top of the car was completely flattened and the danger of fire was imminent.

I must have been unconscious for some time because I had a distinct out-of-body experience and dreamed I was being taken into heaven by my grandfather and grandmother to face my judgment.

But as I came to, upside down under the car, I heard people next to the car saying in French, “He must be dead. Let’s get out of here before it explodes.” My legs were numb, shattered glass was all over the car, on my clothes, and embedded in my skin. There were cuts and bruises all over my body. I was a mess.

But where the car flipped and landed was not cement or asphalt, but soft dirt. And in the dirt at this exact location was a small ditch, big enough for my head and shoulders under the car. “I have to get out of here fast,” I whispered to myself, “before it is too late and the car explodes.” Clawing through the dirt, I was able to free myself from under the steering wheel and get the car door open (thank heaven for Mercedes engineering) to climb up and out of the tomb that surrounded me.
I was alive. “Heaven can wait,” I said to myself, perhaps unconsciously parroting the title of a motion picture from the previous decade. “It’s a miracle,” someone shouted in the crowd.

The following morning, press photographers arrived and interviewed me. The headline in the Nice Matin newspaper was, “Un spectaculaire accident” on the center of the front page. “Naval officer cheats death. City fears lawsuit due to construction signs not being posted.”

But I didn’t sue; I was just glad to be alive. As a result of the accident and my experience, I decided that life was measured not in wealth, but in good deeds, and that I was given a second chance to be with family and friends – and create my own family.

However, I did decide to have the 190SL repaired (with much of it being replaced, I suspect), which a local dealer accomplished at the local government’s expense.
After my service, I returned to the United States, and my car came with me. I was still in love with the car, and as it was quite new in America, everyone ogled it and enjoyed seeing it on the street. I even got my 70-year-old mother to drive it, stick shift and all.

When I married, the 190SL was my get-away car. During the reception, my friends decorated it with the usual tin cans and a “Just Married” sign on the back. Off we went on our honeymoon.

The 190SL has stayed with me since that time and I still own it today. Many times my wife suggested we get rid of it, but I never could – it had become a part of me.
Over the years, the car began to deteriorate. Rather than sell it, I elected to have it restored – a new paint job, new leather on the seats, new steering wheel, and so forth. It was back to its original condition after 40 years; after entering it into several competitions, I won first prize.

A few years after my wife passed away, I remarried and brought the 190SL to the church to be driven off on honeymoon for a second time in the same car. It looked glorious, but after circling the parking lot, the car stopped dead.

It was time for the third restoration. The engine needed rebuilding, and the under panels and other items needed attention. That’s when Dave J’s German Car Service in Trenton, New Jersey, came into play. The company restored the car to perfection and it is once again a showpiece. It truly has been a love affair between me and my 190SL, which I’m happy to pass to the next generation.

1958 Mercedes-Benz 190SL
Engine: Inline 4-cylinder, 1,897 cc gasoline
Fuel system: Two Solex carburetors
Transmission: 4-speed  manual
Horsepower: 120 at 5,700 rpm
Torque: 114 lb-ft of at 3,200 rpm 
Top speed: 105 mph
Wheelbase: 94.5 inches
Length: 168.9 inches
Curb Weight: 2,557 lbs plus 44 lbs hardtop