Cleveland, Ohio – A blast from the automotive past may also be a sign of things to come. Next year, Ford plans to produce 80 Lincoln Continental vehicles with coach doors – rear-seat doors that open toward the back of the car instead of the front.
Known popularly as suicide doors (a phrase you will never see from Ford or any other automaker), the design cue was popular in the early days of the automotive world and survived in some form through the 1960s. Convertible Continentals with such doors became highly collectible throughout the past decade after being featured in the HBO series “Entourage.”
“The center-opening doors became synonymous with the Lincoln Continental, even though they were only featured primarily in the ’60s,” says David Woodhouse, Lincoln’s design director. “But they struck such a chord that they’re still remembered so fondly today.”
While the doors are highly exclusive features on a handful of 80th anniversary specialty editions of the car, they are becoming more popular on concept cars as automakers explore autonomous vehicles. Having both front and rear doors open away from the center of the car gives more room for rear-seat passengers to enter and exit the vehicle.
John Heitmann, a history professor at the University of Dayton (Ohio), and a former president of the Society of Automotive Historians, says rear doors that open away from the center of cars “are to be very exclusive, like someone whom an observer can see with a better angle as the door opens and there is a frontal view. These design features evoke elegance and tradition. Just what Ford wants us to believe in the new car.”
The downside, historically, was safety. If latches on doors that open toward the front of the car fail, wind from the car moving forward keeps them closed. If a suicide door latch failed, the door could open wide at highways speeds – in the days preceding mandatory seatbelts.
In an oncoming car hit a wide-open door, the collision could tear off the door and/or send the vehicle into a dangerous spin (again, in the days preceding seatbelts).
That’s where the name suicide came in.
Heitmann says those safety concerns are easier to address today. Seatbelts and airbags should do a better job of keeping people safe if doors fail, and the likelihood of failure is much lower now.
“I don't think safety will be an issue,” he says. “Locks are much better now, and sensors can respond to almost any anticipated event.”
There have been a handful of cars since the 1960s to use the doors, but most modern designs require a tiered closure system – the rear door cannot open until the front door has been opened. BMW’s i3 electric compact car, for example, uses open-toward-the-rear back doors, but the edges of the front door overlap the rear ones. So, even if the rear latches fail, the front doors keep the rear ones closed. The since-discontinued Mazda RX-8 used a similar system.
As Heitmann notes, future vehicles could eliminate such overlaps and use sensors to detect if doors are not properly latched – preventing the car from moving if they detect unsafe conditions. Emergency door brakes could be used in cars of failure at higher vehicle speeds.
With the push toward self-driving vehicles, designers are putting a higher premium on vehicle comfort, and better doors are a big part of that. Recent concepts with suicide doors include the Chrysler Portal, Volkswagen I.D. Vizzion, and BMW iNext.
If the safety concerns can be addressed in way that are affordable and acceptable to safety regulators, expect to see more of them. As Lincoln’s Woodhouse notes, they offer an easier way in and out of the rear seat. Passengers can turn to sit to enter, then exit the car by stepping forward and out.
“People appreciate elegance and glamour,” says Woodhouse. “And they want the easiest way to get in and out of a vehicle. These doors answer to both.”
About the author: Robert Schoenberger is the editor of Today's Motor Vehicles and a contributor to Today's Medical Developments and Aerospace Manufacturing and Design. He has written about the automotive industry for more than 18 years at The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, Ohio; The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Kentucky; and The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Mississippi.