The Suicide doors' backstory - Why are they called Suicide Doors?
Why are rear-hinged doors associated with ending one's life?
Suicide doors usually refer to doors hinged at the rear that open outwards in the opposite direction compared to conventional doors. They can be found in some cars today such as the Mazda RX-8, the Opel Meriva, and most famously, in Rolls-Royce's entire lineup. They are more prevalent in concept cars compared to road-legal cars though for a reason.
However, the question that lingers in the head of most car enthusiasts alike is why are they called suicide doors? Why do doors that are hinged at the rear and open outwards in a different direction associated with suicide, the act of ending one's life? How could something so seemingly innocent associate with the worst form of self-harm? Lets take a look back at the history of the suicide door, and why it isn't so innocent after all.
The Mazda RX-8 with its clamshell doors open. (Source: Retro Rides)
The Suicide door dates back all the way to the first half of the twentieth century in the early years of the automobile. Back then, horse-drawn carriages were more common as the car was still a high-end niche reserved for the wealthy. Carriage designers would usually look to architecture to get some inspiration as well as other modes of transportation.
Back then, many big houses feature French style doors, where two adjacent doors open outwards from the center with doors hinged on either end of the door frame. French doors were associated with the higher class, as many mansions and big houses feature such doors. Because carriage designers wanted their designs to act as a status symbol, they built doors with a similar mechanism to a French door. Horse-drawn carriages used today to transport royal families still incorporate this design.
After the introduction of the internal combustion engine, cars in the early twentieth century were referred to "horseless carriages" as their bodies are similarly shaped to a horse carriage, only being powered by the Internal Combustion Engine instead of being drawn by a horse. The French Door design carried over to cars built in the early 20th century still as a status symbol signifying wealth because the automobile was very expensive and was still inaccessible to most of the general public, reserved mainly for the higher class.
French Style Doors
French style doors, or "Suicide Doors" found on a Lincoln Continental. (Source: Lincoln)
French doors gave carriages, coaches and early cars an elegant look while serving some function, as they were easier to enter and exit, especially for higher-class women who wore long dresses and gowns attending a special event. They also gave occupants more room to walk into, as early carriages didn't have a B-pillar.
However, the automobile slowly took over the horse-drawn carriage in terms of practicality, power, reliability and popularity. As the Internal Combustion Engine continues to evolve with higher displacements and power outputs, the average speeds of cars increased with it. Of course, safety measures had to be put in in response to the higher speeds to keep drivers and pedestrians alike safe and unharmed.
A Saturn Ion Coupe featuring suicide doors. (Source: Consumer Guid)
It was the 1960s. The Horsepower Wars were in full swing in the United States with auto manufacturers competing against each other, trying to create the fastest, most powerful car on the road powered by the biggest and loudest engine possible. American cars were big and bulky, with powerful and very high-displacement engines powering them. Of course, as a result, they could accelerate very quickly and reach breakneck speeds.
However, one man, Ralph Nader, was concerned about road safety back in the day. In response, he published a book, Unsafe at Any Speed: The Dangers of the American Automobile, accusing auto manufacturers for their unwillingness to put safety features as standard such as seat belts, along with the reluctance to spend money to improve safety.
The U.S government responded to Nader and his book by implementing new safety measures, making automobile regulations way stricter to force automakers to increase their standards when it comes to safety. Nader's book also pointed out many design aspects of cars found during his day that could seriously harm or even kill its occupant, one of them being rear-hinged doors.
Why they're called "Suicide Doors"
Porsche's Mission E Concept with suicide doors. (Source: Porsche)
Rear-hinged doors earned its nickname "suicide doors" from many of its design flaws that could injure or even kill the occupant. The doors, when open, had a high chance to seriously injure anyone exiting or entering the offside of the car door if its hit by a passing vehicle. Suicide doors were also very prevalent during the time where seat belts weren't as common, so the chances of falling out while opening up a rear-hinged door were greater.
If a rear-hinged door gets hit by a vehicle, then the door will hit the passenger, causing serious injury, unlike a front-hinged door where the door swings forward, reducing possible passenger injury. Aerodynamic forces could also potentially force a rear-hinged door to open while moving if the door isn't closed properly. The Subaru 360 had that problem in 1969, based on a report done by Consumer Reports.
People who open rear suicide doors by themselves also have a huge risk of hitting a pedestrian or a bystander standing behind the door if the occupant is unaware of their surroundings. But hey, opening a door that opens outwards in the rear direction is very impractical, and owners of cars with suicide doors have a chauffeur to do it for them anyways.
Car companies addressed these hazards by implementing safety features such as seat belt and locks in order to reduce the risks of falling out of a car with suicide doors. The risks of getting hit by a suicide door slamming into you by another car or hitting a pedestrian standing behind the door is still pretty high though.
Advantages of Suicide Doors
Suicide doors on a Lincoln Continental. (Source: Inside Hook)
Despite its name, suicide doors have a few advantages compared to conventional doors. Rear-hinged doors allow easier access entering and exiting the car, allowing the passenger to enter by just turning to sit and to exit by stepping forward and out. Suicide doors allow chauffeurs easier access to the rear door. In the London Cab, drivers reached for the rear door handle through their window without the need to get out of the vehicle.
Rear-hinged suicide doors also serve a benefit to parents with infants, as it is easier to install a child seat in the back of a car with rear suicide doors. They're also cheaper to manufacture and have a simpler mechanism compared to sliding doors commonly found in minivans. A van that features suicide doors is the Opel Meriva B.
The combination of doors hinged at the edges of the door frame allow for a design not needing the B-pillar, increasing interior entry space and creates a large opening for entering and exiting the vehicle.
Suicide Doors Today
The BMW i3 with clamshell doors. (Source: selectcarleasing.co.uk)
For a while, suicide doors were dead, as many auto manufacturers decided not to go with them due to safety concerns. The last mass-produced car with suicide doors was the Ford Thunderbird. Suicide doors were also popular with pickup trucks thanks to the benefit of a larger opening, allowing larger things to be loaded on. However, the trend of suicide doors in trucks slowly died down, with the last truck sold with suicide doors being the 2002 Toyota Tundra.
In 2003, Rolls-Royce unveiled the Phantom, featuring independent suicide doors. Suicide doors can be found throughout Rolls-Royce's current lineup along with many other luxury cars such as the Spyker D8 and the Lincoln Continental Coach Door Edition.
In recent years, rear-hinged rear doors that cannot be opened until the front doors are opened have appeared on a number of vehicles, such as in extended-cab pickup trucks, the Saturn Ion Quad Coupe, the Honda Element, the Toyota FJ Cruiser, the BMW i3, and the Mazda RX-8. They are more properly referred to clamshell doors.
Suicide doors are more prevalent in the world of concept cars and custom car trade. Usually, they're marketed under different names by auto manufacturers, as the term "suicide doors" doesn't give a good ring to it. Mazda calls theirs "freestyle doors", Opel calls them "FlexDoors" and luxury automakers such as Rolls-Royce and Lincoln tend to call them by their original name, "Coach Doors". The general technical term for suicide doors are "rear-hinged doors", but many people just call them suicide doors thanks to its history.