By on March 5, 2011

Round about midnight, Miles would take the SL train.

Miles had a little Mercedes 190SL. and one night he said to me, “Cannon, I’d like you to take a ride with me.” Which is dangerous. — Cannonball Adderley

Sergei Rachmaninoff wasn’t the only prominent musician who was willing to put himself in financial harm’s way to own the car of his dreams.

Once upon a time, being a famous musician didn’t automatically equate to money in the bank, particularly if you were African-American and primarily famous to a rather select group. One day in 1955, a very far from wealthy Miles Davis dragged his quintet into the Prestige Records studio and recorded five albums in a row for the purpose of satisfying his obligations to the label. Although Davis himself had turned away from the worst of his heroin addiction, his crew was all hooked on something — from John Coltrane, who had conspicuous tracks up both his arms, to “Philly” Joe Jones, who showed up to the session with just one drum and a hi-hat because he’d pawned the rest to get high — and nobody could have predicted that the group would settle down and turn out some of the greatest music in recorded history.

Miles hated Prestige. They famously paid $300 a record and didn’t seem to be familiar with the concept of residuals. The moment he had a chance to jump the fence to Columbia, he did so, and he celebrated by buying a Mercedes 190SL with pretty much all the money he had at the time.

A new 190SL cost about four grand — easily four times what Davis had just cleared on the Prestige session — and it was not exactly a rapid automobile. Most of them wheezed perhaps 85 horsepower back to the swing-axled rear wheels to push the 2600lb mass. The real hot ride was the 300SL, famous today as the “Gullwing” but far more popular as a convertible back in the day, but Miles would have had a hard time buying one and a harder time keeping it maintained.

Miles eventually fell in with the proverbial “fast crowd”, which included the Baroness Pannonica “Nica” de Koenigswarter-Rothschild. She rolled in a Bentley, and she was well known among the community. PIanist Hampton Hawes recalls,

[Theolnius] Monk and his wife and Nica and I driving down Seventh Avenue in the Bentley at three or four in the morning… and Miles pulling alongside in the Mercedes, calling through the window in his little hoarse voice… ‘Want to race?’ Nica nodding, then turning to tell us in her prim British tones: ‘This time I believe I’m going to beat the motherfucker.’

It’s almost certain Nica was the Johnny Tran to Miles’ Jesse in that particular street race, since even the slowest Bentleys had plenty of pace compared to a 190SL. As time went on and Miles started to effectively milk the income from his talent and reputation, his stable became considerably more interesting, culminating in his infamous Miura. He would eventually crash the Miura, and the aftermath would have a disastrous effect on his musical output.

If Miles was the first jazz man to be associated with high-end automobiles, he was also one of the last. Jazz (and blues) don’t pull the kind of money they used to, and modern players like James Carter and Joshua Redman are far more likely to be found riding the subway or holding court in the back of a cab somewhere than they would be to be tearing across 110th Street in a Murcielago. Even my brother, who has played on more than a few dozen blues and jazz records, rolls in a Pontiac G8 GT and a Chevy Equinox now instead of the Infinitis and RX-8s he used to drive. These days, being the hippest guy in the Village doesn’t do anything more for you than it did in 1953.

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21 Comments on “Birth Of The Cool: Miles Davis And His Mercedes 190SL...”

  • avatar

    Hey..the G8 GT is nothing to sneeze at!  I’d gladly “roll” in one!

  • avatar

    The 300sl “gullwing” and “roadster” (or “convertible” as stated above) were not sold concurrently, but the latter succeeded the former in 1957.

    • 0 avatar

      300 SL roadsters couldn’t have been too thick on the ground in 1955. As for their popularity, the gullwings sold 1,400 cars in 3 years while the convertible sold 1,858 cars in 7 years. I’m not sure that constitutes ‘far more popular back in the day’ before they were introduced. F-head Bentleys of the mid ’50s had nothing on the 190SL in performance too. The fastest of them could accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in 13.25 seconds and reach 101 mph, hardly discernable from the 105 hp 190SL’s 13 seconds and 99.8 mph top speed. It would probably come down to driver and who had less passengers.

  • avatar

    “These days, being the hippest guy in the Village doesn’t do anything more for you than it did in 1953.”  That’s were real art happens.

  • avatar

    The late Leon Kirchner had a BMW 2002, late ’70s, I think.
    Anyway, thanks for the history.

  • avatar

    Nothing to do with the car, but I bought a bottle of Dogfish Head Miles Davis Bitches Brew Ale today, and when I opened my browser, the page that pops up is this one!!! Could my digging the trumpet out of the attic last week to help my son with his recorder have triggered this…

  • avatar

    miles had a serious thing for clothes and cars. there is a famous story about how he was driving his yellow ferrari around greenwich village when the police pulled him over. he cursed them out about being pulled over just because he was black and driving an expensive car. the white cops didn’t like his attitude and beat him up so bad that he spent a few days in the hospital and retained injuries that plagued him for the rest of his life.

    the prestige records weren’t exactly throw away efforts. no matter how stoned and/or pissed off these guys got, they were always deadly serious about the music. this is the classic miles quintet recorded by the legendary rudy van gelder (in his parents hackensack living room, not a prestige studio and achieving an audio quality that can’t be equaled by any modern recording methods). miles and train play with perfect tonality on these sets, foreshadowing their breakthroughs in modality yet to come.

  • avatar
    1600 MKII

    As a car guy and a musician I guarantee there have rarely been times any of us could afford our taste. That’s why so many of us go bankrupt. I finally had to go into “real” business but that yellow boxer somehow still never showed up. I still play – still make records – and dream…

  • avatar

    Here, again, is the styling Q of the moment — what could be done to that car to improve its appearance? Yes, you could change it just to show that a year had passed, but i m p r o v e it? It’s just dead solid perfect as it sits. I have the die cast gull wing model on my bookshelf over there, and it’s amazing how everyone who comes into the room is drawn to it.

    The new ones look like overdesigned Asian imitations imho.

  • avatar

    That is one gorgeous car.. love the rag top the color, the color coded hubs and balloon whitewalls. Add too those chromed headlight bezels. Classic sport, extols Deutsche quality.

  • avatar
    1600 MKII

    BTW – Jack’s right. Prestige had about the same relationship to paying the artists that Chess records had.

    • 0 avatar

      That’s grossly unfair to Leonard and Phil Chess. Willie Dixon was a vice president of Chess Records. You think Muddy Waters would have hung around if he was exploited? Chess lived up to their contracts. Did Leonard show up late for contract negotiations with his artists after his secretary told them to help themselves to the bar in his office? Sure he did, but he treated musicians fairly.
      In the book Rockers & Machers, by Rick Cohen, Marshall Chess said (paraphrased):
      You can say that my father ran a plantation but the musicians who recorded for my dad wanted, most of all, to have a record on the radio. If they had a record on the radio that meant they made $450/gig on the weekends, and that meant they could drive a nice Cadillac with a fine bitch at their side, and my father gave them that.
      Say what you will about record men, but if it wasn’t for Prestige and Chess, we’d likely not be talking about Miles and Muddy.

  • avatar
    Robert Schwartz

    My grandfather drove a 190 SL for a short time in the late 1950s. I remember him driving me (about 10 yro) to Johnson’s Ice Cream (still there) on Main Street one summer evening. That was over suburb streets 25 mph, then and now. But, it was cool.

    I knew about the 300 SL then, but they were very rare. Only 1400 were ever built, and I did not see one in person until many years later. My uncle, who was a flake, used to love to tell the story of some guy who had run the length of the New Jersey turnpike in a 300 SL so fast that the cops couldn’t catch him.

  • avatar

    [Theolnius] Monk
    I hope that the “[Thelonius]” was lifted from from the source. It seems to me that if someone did not know to which Monk you were referring, they probably wouldn’t know who Miles [Davis] was anyway.

  • avatar

    Great musician, could be a jerk to audiences, but the one person that I knew who knew him said that in person he was warm and gracious. Still, don’t take my money and then turn your back on me.

  • avatar

    A friend’s wife had a 190SL in the 60’s. A rich chocolate brown with a chocolate brown rag top. A beautiful car.  She lost a hub cap and took it to the Mercedes dealer in Hollywood.  $ 45:  $ 25 for the hub cap, $ 15 to paint it, $ 5 for “installation.”

  • avatar

    I had a 1962 190SL around 1974 when I was 20 years old, except mine was very different…
    * Corvette 327 V8 
    * Muncie 4 speed
    * 12 bolt 4:56 rear end
    * Corvette hood
    * roll bar
    * no Mercedes emblem in the front grille, just outboard driving lights.
    * Pioneer Super Tuner with Mind Blower speakers! 

    Everyone thought it was some sort of Cobra.
    I drove it on the street regularly every weekend in the summer and once at Detroit dragway.
    It seemed that everytime I parked it with the top off someone would steal my Hurst shifter TEE handle!

    @ Mopar-is-subpar Yes pricey even back then to repair. I can remember spending $225 on the dual wheel cylinder front brake system parts from the dealer and only $12 for the Chevy rear end brake parts.

    I had to sell the 190SL to fund my business start-up at the time. (an electric twin post lift for my VW repair shop)
    That car was like a sexy girlfriend you can’t forget even to this day.
    I plan to re-live my youth by re-creating it’s spirit in my 73 1800 ES.  (Front end looks the same!) 

  • avatar

    Not a huge 190 SL fan.  But have been known to go gaga over type W 113 Pagoda SLs.
    I got to meet Miles Davis when i was a kid in the late 60s. By then he was MILES DAVIS and drove a Ferrari (I’m guessing it was a California Spyder.) He was good friends with my only black neighbors back in Connecticut.

  • avatar

    That car is as cool as it gets. I love that design. Modern vehicles wish they could look so good, from every angle, so easily, never mind the fact that this was very much original.
    Even the color is off-the-chart cool.

  • avatar

    Back in 1983, I bought one of these for $1000 in boxes while in high school and (sorta) restored it.  Ended up trading it for a Series 1 E-Type Coupe that I sold in 1986 for the the princely sum of $6000.  I thought I did really good.

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