Suicide doors are doors that are hinged at the rear. These doors swing open backwards, as opposed to conventional front hinged doors that open forwards. This design is more formally known as rear hinged doors, and unlike their intimidating nickname would suggest, actually offer some unique advantages.
But how were they so disliked, that over the course of two decades they had almost completely vanished from automotive design? And just how did they become known as ‘suicide doors’?
Rear hinged doors originated from the era of horse drawn coaches.
Coaches were often built with luxury in mind, and the dramatic style of rear hinged doors fit this ideal.
So they were stylish, but they were also convenient for the people at the time.
Women of the era tended to wear long skirts, so to climb into the seats of a carriage with normal doors would have been difficult. But with suicide doors, they could simply rotate and move backwards into the carriage.
This style of door carried over to automobiles simply because that’s how it had been for decades.
Rear Hinged Doors Aren’t all Bad.
From a practical perspective they are a great design, and have some advantages over conventionally hinged doors.
They make accessing a vehicle much easier, as you literally step out without the obstruction of an open door. And to enter, you just sit down into the vehicle.
Also, the driver can open the rear doors easier as the handle is just behind their shoulder. Some taxi drivers were even able to open the rear doors for customers through the driver’s window without having to leave the vehicle.
Most cars using this design had conventional front doors, and suicide rear doors.
These cars lacked a centre ‘B’ pillar between the front and back doors, allowing for much greater access to the interior. This feature in particular was well liked by users.
So why are They Known as Suicide Doors?
Unfortunately the morbid name’s origin can’t be exactly traced to a single point. But, it’s most likely from the many ways they can bring death or harm to the occupants of a vehicle. Even today, suicide doors are synonymous with death.
They worked great on slow moving horse drawn carriages, but early suicide doors were simply not suited for the speeds automobiles can reach.
At highway speeds, it requires super human strength to push open a front hinged door, as the oncoming wind will force it closed.
However, if you open a rear hinged door the wind will violently fling it open. This is made worse by the fact they were used at a time where seat belts were still decades away. Without a seat belt, the person holding onto the handle or leaning against door could experience a rapid unexpected departure from the vehicle.
They were known to open themselves, too. Oncoming wind alone could pull open the rear hinged doors of the 1958 Subaru 360 if they weren’t properly locked.
Also, when open, suicide doors can swing into the passenger if they are hit by traffic travelling past the car. However a front hinged door will simply be torn off away from the passenger.
So while its not exactly understood where the gruesome nickname came from, clearly the significant injury this design can cause had at least some influence.
Once they earned this reputation, suicide doors’ days were numbered.
The Fate of Suicide Doors
By the 1950s, the industry began to notice the potential danger, and began phasing the design out. Only expensive luxury brands like Cadillac and Rolls Royce still held on to the doors.
However, the 1960s and 70s saw automobile safety improve. New sensors would automatically lock the doors when travelling above 8mph, and better mechanisms meant they couldn’t be accidentally opened. Also, passengers were secured in place during crashes and door openings by newly mandated seat belts.
The design would appear here and there over the coming decades, like the Saturn SC in the late 1990s, but it was mostly abandoned.
The major come back was by Rolls-Royce in 2003 with Phantom VII, the ultimate luxury car at the time. The doors are electronically locked to prevent them being opened accidentally. Also, because of the far away handle location, rear passengers have a button on the C pillar that opens the doors for them when pressed.
Rolls-Royce calls these ‘Coach Doors’ in an effort to break the stigma around them. Mazda is attempting a similar approach with their ‘Freestyle’ doors.
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Today, suicide doors are still rare, and almost exclusive to luxury and concept cars. While in some ways they are a more convenient design, it remains to be seen if they can ever shake their unenviable association with death.