Skip to main content

How the iconic Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Gullwing captured hearts and minds, and influenced auto design forever

Mercedes-Benz shocked the world 70 years ago

Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Coupe on display at the Mercedes-Benz Museum view from the left side of the car with gullwing doors open.
Mercedes-Benz-Museum / Mercedes-Benz-Museum

When The International Motor Sports Show opened in New York on February 6, 1954, Mercedes-Benz introduced a new sports coupe that is still one of the most recognized cars ever. The Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Coupe doors opened upward, with hinges on the roof rather than on the door front or rear. This unique feature was later employed on the Delorean DMC-12 in the 1980s, the Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG from 2010 to 2015, and the contemporary Tesla Model X.

A crowd of people looking at the Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Couple gullwing at The International Motor Sports Show in New York on February 6, 1954.
Mercedes-Benz Museum / Mercedes-Benz Museum

Why the Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Coupe matters

According to the Mercedes-Benz Museum, Mercedes intentionally revealed the 300 SL Coupe along with the 190 SL Roadster, another new car with traditional front-hinged doors, in the U.S. because the automaker built them specifically for the U.S. market. The design with upward-opening doors immediately made an impression on car lovers, who nicknamed it the “Gullwing.” The French thought it looked more like a butterfly and called it “Papillon.”

From 1954 to 1957, Mercedes-Benz produced 1,400 300 SL Coupes. Despite the car’s relatively short production run and low number of units produced, the Gullwing immediately achieved icon status. Any auto enthusiast who saw one on the road probably remembers the experience.

I had a Gullwing sighting in 1991 at Lime Rock Park racetrack in Litchfield, Connecticut. I drove my 1971 VW Karmann Ghia convertible to an event for Car & Driver magazine subscribers to test the new, unusual, short-lived Subaru SVX luxury performance coupe. Another attendee drove his silver Gullwing. I’m sure most of the 50 attendees would have rather ridden in the Mercedes than driven the Subaru- a sprightly car and fun to drive.

The Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Coupe race car space frame necessitated the gullwing doord - on display at the Mercedes-Benz Museum.
Mercedes-Benz Museum / Mercedes-Benz Museum

Why the Gullwing’s doors fold up

Upward-opening doors on later cars were a design choice, but that wasn’t the case with the 300 SL Coupe. The production 300 SL’s design was built around the 1952 Mercedes-Benz 300 SL racing car’s spaceframe, which had stunning victories in major sports car races, including the Mille Miglia, Le Man’s 24-hour race, and the Carrera Panamericana. The race car’s lightweight spaceframe extended relatively high on the sides, which made front or rear-hinged doors impossible. Mercedes-Benz describes the gullwing-style doors as an”engineering necessity.”

Getting into and out of the Gullwing was also unusual. The driver had to step over the relatively high side of the car. The steering wheel had a lever that allowed the driver to move it out of the way temporarily for easier access. The vehicle also had removable windows because the doors had no space to lower them.

Performance features of the 1954 300 SL Coupe

The Gullwing’s light spaceframe dictated the door configuration, but that wasn’t the 300 SL Coupe’s only sporting element. The sports car’s six-cylinder motor was the first in the world to use direct fuel injection with a four-stroke engine in a production car. The 300 SL’s engine output is 215 hp, which could drive the vehicle to a previously unheard-of top speed of 155 mph.

Today, the 300 SL Coupe is the most photographed vehicle on display, according to the Mercedes-Benz Museum. Many museum visitors take photos of the car from all angles, but few leave the building without taking at least one photograph as a personal record of the experience.

Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Coupe on display at the Mercedes-Benz Museum view from the right side back of the car with gullwing doors closed
Mercedes-Benz Museum / Mercedes-Benz Museum

Editors' Recommendations

Bruce Brown
Digital Trends Contributing Editor Bruce Brown is a member of the Smart Homes and Cars teams. He also writes technology news…
The 1924 Bugatti Type 35: The inspo for 100 years of performance and handling
The Bugatti Type 35 set a mold for record-breaking performance that continues today
Left front three-quarter photo of a Bugatti Type 35 race car,

If cars had DNA, a paint chip or drop of engine oil from the beautiful blue Bugatti Type 35 in the images above and below would prove ancestry to every Bugatti in the past 100 years. Designed and engineered as a pure race car in the early 1920s, the Type 35 set a mold for record-breaking performance that continues to guide the Molsheim, France-based automaker.
Why the 100-year-0ld Bugatti Type 35 matters today

Previous

Read more
A new poll suggests F1 2024 has a viewership problem — here’s why
Red Bull's Max Verstappen's domination bores some fans
Max Verstappen driving a Red Bull F1 race car.

The 2024 F1 Grand Prix racing season has barely begun, but a recent F1 viewership poll by Race.com suggests fans are less enthusiastic now than before the season began. Citing nearly 150,000 votes, the poll results claim 61% of respondents voted they were less excited about the rest of the F1 season than during the pre-season, with only 7% more excited and 32% unchanged. More recent events might swing a new poll in the opposite direction.

According to the poll report, the most common reason for fan disenchantment was Red Bull's Max Verstappen winning the first two races virtually unchallenged, continuing a winning phenomenon of the past two seasons. Well, Max didn't win the third race, the Australian Grand Prix, on March 24. In fact, he didn't even finish the race but retired the car when his right rear brake caught fire.
Why F1 viewership matters

Read more
What is a sprint race in F1?
Sprints add excitement for spectators
Haas F1 team Formula 1 race car on the track.

Formula 1 Grand Prix races are three-day events starting Thursday or Friday. Starting with the 2021 season, a few events have also included a Sprint race. An F1 Sprint race is relatively short and includes the minimum laps required to complete 100 kilometers (62 miles). Most Sprint races last 30 to 45 minutes and, according to FIA F1 Rules and Regulations, must finish within an hour of the race start time.

In contrast, F1 Grand Prix races are longer, consisting of the fewest laps to cover 305 kilometers (190 miles), except in Monaco, where the distance is 257 km (160 miles). Grand Prix races are supposed to finish in two hours unless they are suspended during red flag conditions, which can extend the time to 3 hours.
Why are Sprints important in F1 racing

Read more