How suicide doors manage to survive

Porsche recently made news with the Mission E concept, said to preview an upcoming uber-performance electric car. Most reports focused on the car’s claimed performance and range. But one feature received less attention: rear-hinged rear doors, just like those on a 1961-1969 Lincoln Continental, also known as “suicide doors.”

To be clear, no carmaker has ever called rear-hinged doors “suicide doors.” That would have been, well, marketing suicide. As car buffs, though, we love latching on to such pieces of jargon.

Common on American and European cars before WWII, sedans’ center-opening doors carried over to some immediate postwar cars. These were merely refreshed pre-war models. However, a few brands continued the doors with their first new postwar designs, too, including Ford, Mercury, Lincoln and Studebaker. Since the 1950s, many concept cars have used the door design, as well; designers clearly favor them.

Lately, the rear-hinged door style has been making something of a comeback. Rolls-Royce uses what it calls “coach doors” on all current models. The term has historical roots; the door style was once used on some luxury horse-drawn coaches. The company’s explanation for fitting its Dawn two-door convertible with the doors crosses into the realm of pompousness. This comes right from the company’s own media materials:

“The rear passengers do not merely ‘get out’ of a Rolls-Royce Dawn, but rather stand and disembark as if from a Riva motor launch onto a glamorous private jetty in Monaco or on Lake Como.”

Coach Door Fanfare for the Common Man
BMW, parent of Rolls-Royce, uses the door style on its funky i3 electric car to make cabin access easier, also calling them “coach doors.” The boxy 2003-2011 Honda Element crossover used the door style for the same reason, but Honda called them “side cargo doors.” To make its 2004-2012 RX8 sport coupe more like a sport sedan, Mazda used “Freestyle Doors” in the back.

GM’s defunct Saturn brand and MINI (owned by BMW, too) have used similar doors on some models, and you’ll also find them on some four-door pickup trucks and the out-of-production Toyota FJ Cruiser SUV. The terms “clamshell doors” “and “access doors” have been used to generically describe some of these modern interpretations, which in most cases require a front door be opened before a rear door can operate.

Now, About That Name
So where did the name “suicide doors” come from, then? You’ll find multiple explanations, none definitive. Perhaps the person who coined the term took the secret to the grave.

Dark humor aside, some sources point to a safety issue as the name’s source: If a rear-hinged door unlatched at speed, the wind rushing could tear it off its hinges and cause a passenger to be ejected. In the days when such door designs were common, and when build quality was uneven and seatbelts didn’t exist, that scenario could have occurred. But that’s not suicide, is it?

Another urban legend maintains that 1930s gangsters liked the door design because it made pushing someone out of a moving car easier. If that were true, though, wouldn’t the correct term be “homicide doors?”

Still other sources say the “suicide” label stemmed from the possibility that a passenger exiting the car on the street side could be crushed if a passing car hit the door. Whatever the origin, and whatever carmakers prefer to call rear-hinged doors, car enthusiasts are unlikely to stop calling them “suicide doors.” Following is a look at some notable examples of postwar cars that used the design.

1947-1952 Studebaker Land Cruiser: Studebaker touted its ’47 line as “First by far with a postwar car.” At the top of the line, the Land Cruiser sedan rode on a 123-inch wheelbase for added rear seat room, made more accessible by rear-hinged back doors.

1948 Tucker: Preston Tucker packed his vision of a modern postwar car with innovative ideas, so perhaps he thought center-opening doors would be best for access.

1949-1951 Lincoln and Mercury: When the all-new ’49 Ford, Lincoln and Mercury models debuted, the Lincoln and Merc sedans continued rear-hinged back doors, as used on their predecessor models, and looked decidedly elegant with them.

1949-1964 Rover P4 series: In Britain, Rover was among the first with a new postwar design, a frumpy looking sedan supposedly influenced by the 1947 Studebaker.

1957-1958 Cadillac Eldorado Brougham: The limited-production Eldorado Brougham was one of the most advanced cars of its day, yet Cadillac gave it classic elegance with the rear-hinged back doors. This was quite the feat, since the Eldo Brougham also lacked a B-pillar.

1958 Facel Vega Excellence: From France came another big luxury sedan with center-opening doors. Like the Eldorado Brougham, it was also a pillarless design. The company made just 156 of these luxo sedans, powered by Chrysler V-8s.

1961-1969 Lincoln Continental: Probably the best-known postwar car with “suicide doors,” the ’61 Continental would influence American luxury car design for years, although none copied its door design. The doors gave a dramatic effect to the four-door convertible, which was discontinued after 1967.

1967-1971 Ford Thunderbird Landau Sedan: When adding a back seat sent Thunderbird sales soaring in the late 1950s and 1960s, Ford must have figured that doubling the door count would have helped, too. Sales of 25,000 in 1967 were encouraging, but the number steadily declined, with just 6,500 takers for 1971. The total for five model years was about 77,000.

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