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Gullwing Group’s 55th International Car Show Races the Rain in Montecito

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The world’s very first supercars Mercedes-Benz 300 SL and SLS filled the parking lot at the Rosewood Miramar Saturday afternoon for the car show portion of their 55th annual international convention. The highlight of every Gullwing group gathering is the annual convention put on in unique locations in the U.S. or Canada. The convention features technical sessions, driving experiences, a car show, and an annual banquet. 

Participants from around the world gathered in Montecito on April 13, just before the rain, with a shared passion and appreciation for the iconic cars that lined up for judging and viewing before quickly disappearing as fast as they had arrived to avoid the downpour.  

Chair John Willott at the 55th Annual Gullwing Group International Car Show at the Rosewood Miramar, April 13, 2024 | Photo: JL Cederblom

The Gullwing group was founded in 1961 by Ernie Spitzer and it currently has more than 600 members with around 500 cars worldwide. It has evolved over time, initially starting with two types of cars: the Gullwing and the Roadster. These cars have become known as the world’s first supercars due to their high speed and performance, making them iconic in the automotive industry. In 2011, Mercedes-Benz introduced the SLS in both the Gullwing and Roadster variations that are now also included as participants.

Current chair of the Gullwing Group John Willott, shared that these cars came out initially in 1954, and they are very complicated cars. There were no Mercedes dealerships in the U.S. at that time. Customers would buy a Mercedes through a Studebaker store. In 1961, 18 driving enthusiasts gathered together to share technical and maintenance information and the Gullwing group was formed in San Francisco. There were only two types built initially. The first is called the Gullwing (built between 1954 and 1957)  because when the doors are up it looks like a gull. They were hard for ladies and men to get in and out of, so the Roadster (built between 1957 and 1963) was designed with doors that open much easier. The car itself, the frame, and the engine are absolutely the same. They are known as the world’s first supercars because they first came out in 1954 and would go 160 miles an hour. 

The SL stands for “Super Light” because the frame of the car is made out of tubes like a bicycle; the whole frame of the car weighs 150 lbs. The whole car weighs 2,800 lbs with 35 gallons of gas. 

The Gullwing Group Judging at the 55th Annual Gullwing Group International Car Show at the Rosewood Miramar, April 13, 2024 | Photo: JL Cederblom

It was a Mercedes race car that convinced the New York importer of Mercedes, Max Hoffman, that he could sell them in the U.S.  Clearly they didn’t want to do it, but Hoffman wrote them a check for a million dollars in 1953. It was not far after the war, and Mercedes decided they would go into production. Max wanted a thousand delivered in the U.S and they only made 1,300 of those cars. They are a classic car; they have a wonderful ride with four-wheel independent suspension that was completely unheard of. It was only a three-liter engine, so that is 180 cubic inches that puts out 250 horsepower. They do this because of what’s called direct fuel injection: injecting gasoline mechanically directly into the cylinder at 750 psi. When these cars stopped being made, the next time there was direct cylinder fuel injection was by Porsche in 2010. From 1963 to 2010, no one else did it — so it was way ahead of its time.  

And how did John Willott get involved with Gullwings? Willott convinced his dad to purchase his Gullwing in 1966. His father had an interest in nice cars and he always said they were the most beautiful cars he had ever seen. Willott had gone off to summer school at UCLA before his freshman year and one day picked up an L.A. Times and saw an ad for the Gullwing. He drove to check it out in his 1957 Chevy and went home the next weekend and convinced his dad that they needed to go look at that car. It’s very special, he told his dad — what’s special about it is that it’s not only just the normal six and the fuel injection, but this one had all the pieces and parts with a belly pan for aerodynamics. 

Willott’s dad purchased the car and began making it his own. He thought Mercedes should have had a wood dash option, so he created one. (The beautiful wood dash still looks brand-new against the blue interior of Willott’s 1955 silver Gullwing.) John’s dad was a master mechanic and he recalled moments of seeing the car completely apart in the ’70s at his parents’ house while he was at college — the engine on a sheet over there, the gearbox over there, parts in the oven that would stink up the whole house — he chuckles through the memory of it all. 

Gullwing member Joey at the 55th Annual Gullwing Group International Car Show at the Rosewood Miramar, April 13, 2024 | Photo: JL Cederblom

He also recalls taking his wife for a ride in it in 1969, before they were married. This was before his father had started working on it. He recalls asking his wife what she thought of it, and her reply was, “Doesn’t it go any faster?” He recalls answering that they were “doing 70 in a 35; how much faster do you want to go?”  

When you close the doors on this car, it is so aerodynamic that you get almost no road noise, so it’s a very smooth ride. 

Willott’s dad gave him the car in 2003 and he has had it since, making his own additions like air conditioning, because the car is made…

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2024-04-18 21:18:44

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