This technical article mostly relates to vehicles built prior to 1945 although some recent models have design features that hark back to the good old days!
The topic is Suicide Doors. What are they? Well they are doors that are rear-hinged rather than the normal front hinged. Why do they call them suicide doors? Because it is easier to part company with the car should a rear hinged door open. If you think about it, as you drive along the air flow past the car is constantly pushing at objects that stick out from the body. A front hinged door will be pushed shut whilst the rear hinged will be pushed open. Now add in no seat belt, a corner and some speed and bingo, you have the ingredients for a driver or passenger to unexpectedly leave the vehicle before arriving at the intended destination!
Suicide doors were popular during the 1930s and 1940s and can be seen on many gangster films of that era – when safety was a secondary thought in car design. They started to be phased out as firstly safety but also practicality prevailed. The structure of the cars meant that the B pillar was a strength point of the body and with this strength came the ability to hang both doors off them.
In the 1960s and even today on some models, designs reduced the need or strength of the B pillar again and this time designers made only the rear doors open from the front. The third generation Lincoln Continental of the early 1960s and several convertibles used this design concept for ease of getting in and out of the rear seats.
Probably the most recognised use of suicide doors has been in the classic London taxi – the FX4. This was to enable the passenger to get in easier to the large rear and be able to talk to the driver as they entered. The manufacturers even built a version for private purchase – still with the suicide doors. It was intended for people who had a chauffeur, subsequently they didn’t sell a huge number because the concept of a driver was so passe!
In recent years, we have seen a return to this style but with a difference. Mazda on the RX8 and the Mini Clubman have rear hinged doors for access to the rear seats but these doors can only be opened when the front ones are opened first. This is a good safety feature as the car has to be stopped before they will open.
As you can imagine, the manufacturers don’t like the phrase “suicide door”, so they give them a more appealing name in marketing: freestyle doors was one that I think Mazda dreamt up.
I’ve read a lot of articles that discuss the disadvantages of having these types of doors on modern cars – things like the passenger being hurt if the door is opened in traffic, but the same issues apply to all types of doors. It’s inherently unsafe to open a door without looking!
This article first appeared on the Motoring Weekly Patreon page.