Gullwing doors first hit the market in the 1950s thanks to Mercedes-Benz. They had developed the 300SL (the W194) for sports car racing from the 1952 season and the design required non-standard doors as the tubular chassis was very high – in fact it was next to the drivers seat as a safety precaution. This meant that either they had very small doors or the doors were hinged other than at the front.
To compensate for the high chassis, the designers put the door hinges in the roof to allow easier access to the car. After racing for several seasons, Mercedes were encouraged to make a version for the road as there were cashed up people wanting it. A New York importer had approached Mercedes to build road cars and when the company refused, the importer put a large down payment on the table forcing Mercedes’ hand. So the road version (the W198) was launched at the New York Motor Show in 1954. It was in production for 9 years as a coupe and convertible alongside a smaller 190SL.
The doors became known as “gullwing” because they looked like the seagull’s wings outstretched. As they don’t open outwards, a driver needs less parking space to get in and out of the vehicle and many people were concerned that if the car rolled it would be impossible to open, so you would have to exit via the windscreen, however two points come to mind.
1. If you have rolled a car you have probably just had a fairly hefty impact or have been up and over a few times so you’re probably not going to be in a position to get out anyway.
2. Because extra strength is required in the roof, it is probably safer because it won’t collapse!
After the Mercedes 300SL, probably the most famous car with gullwing doors is the 1980s DeLorean DMC-12 that was featured in the “Back To The Future” movies. Only about 9,000 were built (6 times as many as the 300SL coupes), they were stainless steel cars with a V6 from Renault/Volvo.
Since the 300SL there have been many niche manufacturers like DeLorean making vehicles with gullwing doors. Such cars include the short lived Bricklin from Canada, the Bristol Fighter from Britain and the German Isdera Commendatore 112i and Gumpert Apollo supercars.
In recent years, the new Mercedes SLS AMG with their 6.3 litre V8 has brought back the gullwing as a natural successor to the 300SL and the new Tesla SUV has foldable gullwings at the rear which can help parents put their young children into the car with more space. It is quite theatrical watching a Tesla open it’s doors – thanks to its unconventional movement. Tesla though, call their doors: Falcon Wings!