Mercedes-Benz is a company with one of the longest continuous histories in automobildom, so much so that it even often likes to claim it built “the first automobile” even though this is in no way true. It also tends to get credit for inventing gull-wing doors, even though this claim doesn’t seem to be completely true, either. Let’s see who really had these first.
I think we can safely say that Mercedes-Benz was the first carmaker to build a car with gull-wing doors in any sort of quantity since it cranked out about 1,400 300SL gull-wing roadsters between 1954 and 1957.
Those streetcars were in turn based on the racing W194 cars designed in 1952, and which utilized an innovative tube-frame design with lots of interconnected triangular sections. The frame was extremely light (180 pounds!) and strong, but those tubes did take up a lot of vertical room on the sides of the car, leaving very high sills.
On an open car, this is no biggie, but add a roof and you’ll find conventionally-hung doors just leave a mail-slot type opening for the driver to enter, which is no good.
So, the clever Benz engineers and designers decided to make a bigger opening by extending it into the roof and hinging it from the top, creating the gull-wings that we all know and love today.
Before that, though, other designers had experimented with similar door designs. Bugatti designed the Type 64 in 1939, and that design featured what the French called papillon doors — butterfly doors in English, but visually pretty much the same idea as the Mercedes gull-wings.
Now the problem here is that while three cars were started in 1939, only two of them ever got fully bodied, and I don’t think any of those had the papillon doors that Jean Bugatti sketched back in the day.
Eventually, Peter Mullin, who owns the largest private collection of Bugattis on Earth, finished the body on the surviving Type 64 chassis and used the original sketches of the papillon doors to complete it.
So, I’m not exactly sure if we can say these gull-wing-type doors actually beat Mercedes or not—they were designed before the 300SL’s doors, but they may not have actually been built until 2012 when Mullin finally realized them.
So maybe Mercedes should get the credit?
Well, hold up. There’s one more entry here: the 1945 Jamin-Bouffort JB.
Built on a modified Citroën Traction Avant chassis, this very streamlined three-wheeler seems to have had gull-wing-type doors after Bugatti’s unrealized design and before Mercedes actually made them in quantity.
The car was designed and built by an aeronautics engineer named Victor-Albert Bouffort, which likely explains the tail-dragger design of the car, which is extremely aircraft-like at the rear, right down to the inclusion of a vertical tail.
The Traction Avant mechanicals are all upfront, driving the front wheels, so from the hood back this was likely fairly simple, mechanically.
Three cars seem to have been built, all with slight differences, but all seem to have had the gull-wing doors, and it appears at least one has survived and looks to have been at least partially restored and painted two-tone silver and red and later, I think, yellow, though I’m not entirely certain about the order of those colors. I do think that’s the same car, though.
The Bouffort’s doors seem to have incorporated an extra upper window as well, though not on all the examples.
Now, is it possible the Mercedes designers were aware of either the Bouffort or the Bugatti when they were coming up with the gullwing design for their racing car? Maybe. Familiarity with the Bugatti seems a bit more plausible, even though it didn’t yet exist, but Bugatti would have absolutely been known to them, and talk of these designs may have been going around the postwar auto-design world.
It’s also possible they came up with it independently — it’s a logical outcome considering the problem they were trying to solve, after all, and they were no dummies — but I still think it’s worth a reminder that they weren’t really the very first to have this idea, and, let’s be honest, they get enough accolades as it is.
So, the next time some Tesla-stan brags about how their Model X’s falcon wing doors are inspired by one of the most legendary old Benzes, feel free to seize them by the arm and rant about how, no, they’re really inspired by a wonderful blobby thing built on half a Citroën.
I’m certain they’ll appreciate that.