15 November 2013

Flight of the Gull Wings

Radical doors and two seats were about all these three outrageous cars had in common

If you want a car to stand out from the crowd, give it crazy doors. Over the years, that maxim has given us cars with scissor doors, suicide doors, and sliding doors. Unconventional doors are an expression of a company’s intent, of the engineering prowess behind a particular machine. Anyone could use a normal door. Not many companies could build a gullwing door. And not many have.

Of all the options for creatively hinged ingress and egress, gullwing doors are among the most difficult to execute, and the engineering approach presents a cascade of engineering challenges. So it figures that post-war Mercedes-Benz was the company that made it work, with the 1954 300SL debuting the doors that would become synonymous with the car.

Since that iconic car’s run ended in 1957, the gullwing club has inducted very few new members — most notably, the 1974–75 Bricklin SV-1 and the 1981–83 DeLorean DMC-12. It wasn’t until 2010 that Mercedes-Benz revived the gullwing with the SLS AMG. We convened an example of each at the former Packard Proving Grounds outside Detroit to find out why these cars exert such a powerful pull on the imagination.

Ron Gulette owns a 1975 Bricklin SV-1. He also worked at Bricklin from 1974 to 1975, charged with producing the SV-1’s body, which presented technical challenges that would have confounded well-capitalized companies with plenty of experience. “We thought we knew about fiberglass, but this is acrylic,” Gulette says, gesturing to his white SV-1. “They should’ve hired a bathtub guy.”

The car’s doors — its signature feature — were not only hinged at the roof but power-actuated. The power mechanism was hydraulic, which meant that the doors opened and closed at the leisurely pace of the power convertible top from which the system was adapted. Gulette’s car uses an aftermarket pneumatic system that’s admirably quick but requires an underhood air compressor that fires up at regular intervals. Gulette seems to be in the unique position of appreciating his car’s eccentricities while remaining skeptical of the decisions that led to many of those features — because he was there when those decisions were made.

Consider the SV-1’s full side glass. “We tried to get Malcolm Bricklin to go with a window-within-a-window, like DeLorean,” says Gulette. “He wouldn’t go for it, so the door is really heavy — and even harder to open when the window’s down. If the power system fails, you can manually push the door open, but it isn’t easy.” In a 1975 Car and Driver review, Don Sherman described manually opening an SV-1’s 90-pound door as “climbing out of a manhole while a semi-trailer is parked on the cover.”

Mercedes-Benz has been known to indulge in complication for complication’s sake, but the 1956 300SL parked across from the Bricklin in the Packard courtyard is elegantly simple. Essentially a race car for the street, the Mercedes arrived at its gullwing design because its competition-derived frame didn’t allow for conventional doors. The Mercedes addresses one of the chief design challenges of a gullwing — the weight of the door itself — by relying on race car reductionist philosophy: If a door is too heavy, you need less door.

When he first saw a 300SL coupe at age 16, Steve Blankenbeckler was mesmerized. Years later, he bought one, “because there’s nothing like a Gullwing. They’re just beautiful and so usable, and they’ll always get you back to your garage.”

The 300SL’s sills rise much higher than those of the Bricklin or DeLorean, resulting in a gossamer pair of stubby doors that are easily supported by modest struts. Sitting in the Benz’s driver’s seat, peering out of what is essentially a glass bubble supported by thin spindles of metal, you gain a new appreciation for the madmen who raced these things. The large-diameter, thin-rimmed wheel and body-color dash scream 1950s, but this is a 150-mph car, which Blankenbeckler prefers to his 300SL roadster. The fact that the 300SL was so ahead of its time helps explain why it inspired two other cars with such futuristic miens. And it is hard to mention DeLorean without, at some point, invoking the word “future.”

In terms of overall execution, the DMC-12 appears to incorporate lessons learned from both the 300SL and the Bricklin. The DeLorean’s doors are long, like the Bricklin’s, resulting in a low sill that eases ingress and egress. But they’re unpowered, as in the Mercedes, relying on a hidden torsion bar to counterbalance their heft. The window design, which eschews full retractable side glass for a small window within a fixed frame, minimizes leverage on the hinge by reducing the weight of the glass. “DeLorean called it the ‘smoking window,’” says Gene Kopczyk, owner of our 1981 DMC-12. “It’s pretty much for smoking and paying tolls.”

Kopczyk’s car is one of the lowest-mileage DeLoreans on the road. Its interior looks brand new because it essentially is; when Kopczyk pulls onto the Packard campus, the DMC-12’s odometer reads 900 miles. “I found it for sale at a used-car dealership in 1995. My guess is that the car was tied up in legal issues when the company went under, so it only had 285 miles on it.” He paid $16,000 and brought home a car that is stunningly original.

However, in the world of DeLoreans, “original” is somewhat subject to interpretation, simply because the company issued so many fixes and modifications during production. Kopczyk’s car, for instance, has DMC-logoed rubber caps covering the dashboard ventilation ducts that originally routed air from the HVAC system to the side window vents in the doors. “That design never really worked, because the system would bleed air out of the joint between the dash and the door,” Kopczyk says. “So they issued these caps to just force the air out the central vents.”

Another on-the-fly DeLorean fix concerned the spare tire, which was mounted in a well in the front trunk. The DMC-12 made it to production before anybody realized that the rear tires — larger than the fronts in both width and diameter — would neither fit in the well nor the trunk space above it. “If you got a flat on the front, you were OK,” Kopczyk says. “If it was on the rear, you’d say, ‘Honey, can you ride with this tire on your lap till we get home?’” DeLorean’s “solution” was a retrofitted luggage rack that mounted above the rear louvers. Kopczyk has one, new in the box, at home.

Now that I’ve scrutinized all three cars, it’s time to do some driving. I grab the keys to the Bricklin and Gulette climbs in beside me. I let him activate the finicky rocker switch that closes the door. I also keep a wide berth of the door lock switch, which is mounted in the vicinity of your right elbow. Gulette’s dog once hit that switch and locked himself in the running car, thus leading to an educational experience about how to break into a locked Bricklin (you’ve got to slide a slim jim under the door and use it to push the unlock switch on the console). Presumably while yelling at your dog.

While the SV-1’s shark-nosed bodywork and exotic doors imply speed, performance was never Bricklin’s goal for the car: “SV” stood for “safety vehicle.” Gulette has his doubts about that, though. He says the company conducted one crash test, using the same car for both front and rear impacts. “Some guy bought that car, fixed it and put it back on the road!” Gulette says. “The frame is a battering ram, yet your feet are sitting in this plastic bucket right down by the road. And if you rolled over, you were supposed to climb out through the trunk.”

We head onto the Packard access roads and I ease into the throttle. The car leaps forward rather enthusiastically, which Gulette says is more a function of a hair-trigger throttle than outright power. “You can chirp the tires by accident, but the Ford 351 Windsor was never a high-performance motor like the Cleveland,” Gulette says. “It’s two-barrel, kind of a family car engine.” Still, the Bricklin’s performance was comparable to a period Corvette, which at that point came standard with a 350 V-8 that made 165 horsepower. The SV-1 feels torquey and powerful, if not fast. The Bricklin might be one of Canada’s only homegrown cars, but its driving experience is distinctly mid-’70s American.

The DeLorean, on the other hand, drives a lot like a Lotus Esprit, which makes sense given that Colin Chapman designed the suspension for both cars. The unassisted steering feels direct and lively, and Kopczyk’s car is one of the desirable five-speed models. As in the Bricklin, the car’s power doesn’t quite live up to the promise of its outrageous styling, but the 130-horsepower V-6 is entertaining enough in a car that weighs only 2,600 pounds. And that is the point: Driving a DeLorean is as much about the sensation it causes as it is about the car itself. “The only dangerous thing is people trying to take pictures of it while they’re driving,” Kopczyk says. “The reaction that it causes is amazing.” I only add two miles to the car’s odometer, but in that distance there are more than a few double takes and at least one camera phone flash from a passing car.

The Benz is the only car here that I won’t get to drive — something about insurance and that million-dollar price. But I do score a ride in the passenger seat while our photo car’s caretaker, Paul Green, pilots it around the campus.

Everything about this car speaks to speed. The 3.0-liter straight six — which, amazingly, uses direct injection — issues a low guttural rumble, like some sort of menacing aircraft. The trunk contains a brass hammer for the knockoff wheels and the frame’s jack mounts are accessed though holes in the bodywork beneath each door. If one of the skinny 185/15 Pirellis goes flat, you’re equipped not just to change it but to do so in a major hurry. With gear like this, it’s as if Mercedes expected every tire change to happen under a green-flag pit stop.

How many cars in 1956 featured 180-mph speedometers? Moreover, how many really needed one? Every time he drives his, Blankenbeckler can’t get over how modern it seems. “You think about all the engineering in the car and you feel very fortunate to have one.”

As great as Benz’s modern gullwing is, it’s doubtful that the SLS will ever ascend to the same coveted plane as the 300SL, though Blankenbeckler considers it “a great car” and “started to buy one a couple of times.” It’s also unlikely that either the Bricklin or DeLorean will follow the 300SL to immortality or astronomic prices, although those strange, wonderful doors still help the cars recruit new fans, decades after the companies that built them went out of business. “There are literally days when I could go out to my garage and just stare at that thing for hours,” Kopczyk says of the DMC-12. “I can’t believe I own this car.”

Now nearly four decades removed from the drama at his one-time employer, Gulette understands why Malcolm Bricklin insisted on taking the 300SL inspiration to a wild new level. “Two things we all tried to talk him out of were the power doors and glass that rolls all the way down,” Gulette says. “But thank god he kept them. I’ve got to give him credit. Those doors created problems, but they also made the car a lot more interesting.”

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