Mercedes-Benz surprised the public and the press when it lifted the veil off of the 180 (w120) in 1953. Nicknamed “Ponton” today, the 180 was tasked with replacing the old-fashioned 170 that made its debut all the way back in 1935. Although the 170 was undeniably outdated by the time its replacement landed in showrooms, many of Mercedes’ customers had grown accustomed to the pre-war design and were hesitant to consider the new 180.
In retrospect, the buyers’ reaction was understandable. While the 170 looked like many pre-war cars, the Ponton was defined by a highly-innovative three-box design inspired by American cars of the era and an aerodynamic silhouette that featured headlights integrated into a set of full-height fenders. The 180 was also the first Mercedes passenger car to feature unibody construction, a design proven to increase torsional rigidity and lower weight.
Under the 180’s hood was a 1.8-liter four-cylinder side-valve engine that sent 52 horsepower and 83 lb-ft. of torque to the rear wheels via a four-speed manual transmission. It enabled the 2,535-pound (1,150-kilo) sedan to sprint from zero to 62 mph in 31 seconds and on to a top speed of 78 mph (126 km/h), respectable figures for the era.
Mercedes helped democratize the diesel engine in a passenger car when it introduced the oil-burning 180 d in 1954. It was equipped with a 1.8-liter four-cylinder rated at 43 horsepower and 75 lb-ft. of torque. The sprint from zero to 62 mph took 40 seconds and top speed was reached at 68 mph (109 km/h) but the 180 d used considerably less fuel than its gasoline-burning sibling and became a hit among taxi drivers all over Europe.
A more expensive version called 190 (w121 internally) was introduced in 1956. It boasted a bigger 1.9-liter engine that made 75 horsepower, additional chrome trim all around and larger tail lamps. The Ponton lineup was modified again in 1957 with the arrival of the 180 a, which packed a de-tuned version of the 1.9-liter found in the aforementioned 190, and in 1958 with the 50-horsepower 190 d.
Perhaps the best-known Ponton offshoot is the 190 SL that Mercedes presented to the public in New York City in 1954. Starting with a shortened w121 platform, Mercedes added a sleek body and a 1.9-liter four-cylinder engine that churned out 105 horsepower. The 190 SL went on to become one of the most popular drop-tops of its era, but that’s a different story for a different time.
Perhaps the best-known Ponton offshoot is the 190 SL that Mercedes presented in New York City in 1954. Starting with a shortened w121 platform, Mercedes added a sleek body and a 1.9-liter four-cylinder engine that churned out 105 horsepower.
The new fin-tailed w110 was introduced in 1961 and the last Ponton-bodied sedan was built in 1962. Most sources indicate about 440,000 examples of the w120 and the w121 combined were built, including over 100,000 diesel-powered models.