Mercedes-Benz did it first with the 300SL, but skyward-opening doors became the must-have motif for exotica to follow. Here are some of our favourites
On the face of it, the gullwing door is a fantastic creation. Forget about the practicalities, they simply make any person look seriously cool upon arrival to any destination. For some reason – perhaps the cost of developing a reliable mechanism, or simply the quirk factor is too high for most – they never quite caught on.
We’ve listed some of the best loved gullwing-doored icons here, along with a few you might not remember...
Mercedes 300SL ‘Gullwing’
At its launch in 1954 the 300SL introduced the world to the concept of the supercar, and super it still is. Very super. Even today it is an arresting sight, and the angry bark of the fuel-injected straight-six as it hits its stride above 4000rpm remains utterly exhilarating. That its performance can still thrill should be no surprise: the roadgoing 300SL was derived from the W194 competition car of 1952, and even as it was ‘civilised’ for street use it grew more powerful than its parent car. Without this, who knows if we’d ever have seen a gullwing door...
Northern Ireland’s finest sports car is arguably even more famous than anything Merc has ever achieved with its doors-open stance. You’ve simply got to love the car with its Back To The Future connections and the trash-novel back story. Rumours persist that the doors could trap you in a rollover, although no such emergency has been reported. With luck, replacing the gas struts every two years will get round the worry that the mechanism can sometimes fail.
Much of its body bristles with active aerodynamics and so the gullwing doors on the Huayra are almost one of its more mundane features – except, of course, for that all-important entry at the world’s most expensive hotels, marinas and race tracks, where your arrival will be enhanced immeasurably by them. It’s a tribute to the amazing strength of the car’s carbon-titanium structure that the substantial doors open down to sill level, giving a true idea of how far sports-racing car design has progressed since the arrival of the 300SL 64 years ago.
Serial entrepreneur Malcolm Bricklin barely managed to make 3000 of these luxury coupes in 1974/75 before the venture ate up all the finance provided by Canada’s somewhat naïve if well-intentioned New Brunswick government – a portent of what was to befall the Delorean DMC-12 shortly afterwards. The gullwings here remain unique – the only ones on a production car to open electrically at the touch of a button. It wasn’t long before Malc bounced back, though, this time foisting the crappy Yugo 45 on a bizarrely receptive America.
Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG
The iconic doors were, of course, one of the key design themes to Merc’s 21st-century ‘300SL’ revival. The company, however, considered them all over again with the utmost care. For one thing, these doors are fully manual, because AMG engineers chose to avoid the 41kg weight penalty of electric motors and mechanisms. Meanwhile, as a safety fallback, if the car detected violent, pre-accident g-force, the door fixings were automatically loosened so they could be easy to remove, should stricken occupants need to be dragged out. Which is comforting to know.
Marcos GT Xylon
A boffin-mobile if ever there was one, and Jackie Stewart’s first racing car, the first three dozen Marcos cars made up to 1963 were mostly equipped with tiny gullwing doors – only the second production cars in the world to have them. They gave decent access to the cockpit of this zany, plywood-hulled sports-racer with its four-piece windscreen and bug-like headlights. As on the 300SL, the gullwings allowed Frank Costin’s design to achieve excellent rigidity for frenzied club-racing dogfights.
Trying to pick just one kit car with gullwing doors is quite a task – there’s an awful lot of rickety glassfibre detritus from the ’70s and ’80s to rake through. The Eagle SS, hailing from Lancing in West Sussex, is largely an original, although it was derived from an American kit that itself was copied from Britain’s own Nova. Under all that showy, shovel-fronted plastic was the usual Volkswagen Beetle platform with air-cooled flat-four, so the joke factor very nearly makes the car endearing.
De Tomaso Mangusta
Don’t be fooled by the knee-high stance and stunning Giugiaro-at-Ghia looks. The Mangusta was a brute with its rearward weight bias and abundance of horsepower from its Ford V8. It must, however, be applauded for its clever gullwing adoption, not for the passenger doors but for the dual engine compartment covers that lifted up, ice cream freezer-style, either side for servicing of the mid-mounted engine and access to the spare
wheel and minuscule luggage compartment.
More gullwing windows than doors, these two curved shutters were raised to admit drivers Derek Warwick, Mark Blundell, Mauro Baldi and others to Peugeot’s World Sportscar Championship challenger in its glory days between 1991 and ’93. The V10-powered car grabbed Le Mans victory in 1992, with another one coming home third. Incredible aerodynamics were the key; the lack of conventional door structures played its part here, allowing a heavily gathered, sweeping side profile that helped knead the airflow to the car’s advantage.
Much the rarest of all the interesting Kei sports cars, more usually represented by the Suzuki Cappuccino or Honda Beat; fewer than 5000 were made, a tenth of them wearing Suzuki Cara badging rather than Mazda’s Autozam branding. The tiny two-seater with its turbocharged, 657cc, mid-mounted engine had a tubular steel structure to support those lift-up entrances, with unstressed fibreglass panels. Much of its development took place in the UK but the timing of its introduction was terrible: it emerged in 1992 straight into a recession and was axed after just two years, more’s the pity.
Plus the concepts…
Lamborghini Marzal –
It is, perhaps, more penguin than seagull with its doors open, as they’re hinged along the roof edges rather than in the middle. Yet the Marzal is nonetheless an unforgettable show car. It was a huge four-seater, the whole of the glazed passenger compartment sides flipping up to allow access to both front and rear seats. The 1967 Marzal show car led directly to the Lamborghini Espada
, although the doors – its most characteristic components – were the one part not to make the transition.
Aston Martin Bulldog – Aston sought to grab the limelight with this ultra-wedge-shaped supercar at the 1980s Los Angeles motor show, powered by a twin-turbo version of its faithful 5.3-litre V8 engine and featuring enormous gullwings. This fully functioning car was an impressive feat, styled by William Towns and engineered by Aston’s own tiny in-house team. Not quite so impressive, though, was their dry-cleaning bill. Every time the car ventured out in the rain, testers got coated in road grime which dripped off the gullwing doors whenever they were opened. The idea was to make 25 cars, but it never happened.
Words: Giles Chapman/Octane