Rear-hinged doors make comeback

ByChris Woodyard, USA TODAY

— -- Reappearing on several cars are doors hinged toward the rear of the vehicle, instead of the usual front-hinged variety. Most car nuts know them as "suicide" doors.

Call them freestyle doors, coach doors or club doors.

Just don't call them suicide doors. Not unless you want to see an auto executive come unhinged.

The latest is the Rolls-Royce Phantom Coupé, unveiled last month in Geneva by the BMW-owned brand and to be displayed in the USA for the first time at a collector car show in Carmel, Calif., in August. The big, rear-hinged "coach doors" on the two-door let "all passengers enter and exit more gracefully," Rolls says.

Other Phantom models already on sale, including the Drophead (aka convertible) version of the Coupé, have the same feature and cost upwards of $400,000. On the four-door, the back doors are rear-hinged, while the front doors open forward.

Modern versions of suicide doors also are featured on Honda Element, Mini Clubman, Toyota FJ Cruiser and Mazda RX-8 as the rear doors. The advantage of the design: Opening a pair of doors in two directions makes it easier to get into the back.

The "freestyle door" (as Mazda calls it) on the RX-8 was made necessary because designers wanted a car roughly the same size as a Porsche 911 sports car — yet one with a comfortable way to get into the back seat, says Robert Davis, senior vice president of Mazda's North American division.

Designers added a half-sized, rear-hinged door and eliminated the pillar that's normally between the front and rear doors, creating open space. It works, says RX-8 owner Jason Isley, an editor for SportsCar magazine, who says he has squired 6-footers around in the back seat.

There's another side benefit. "It really works well for corralling the kid," he says. Two open doors help herd his 3-year-old daughter, Jessica, into the car in the mornings: "I open the door, and she has nowhere else to go."

Suicide doors are nearly as old as cars, says Leslie Kendall, curator of the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles. They probably gained the most notice in the USA on 1960s Lincolns, models today considered the epitome of cool.

"The Lincoln was a little shorter than a Cadillac or a (Chrysler) Imperial. The suicide door seemed to suit the chassis better," he says.

And that ghastly name? The doors got their name, Kendall says, from the theory that if a rear-hinged door came ajar while the car was moving, the wind would suck it completely open and suck the passenger right out, Kendall says. While it's unlikely that scenario, clearly hatched before seat belts ever happened, the image persists, he says.

As a consequence, automakers' officials are quick to point out safety features of modern, reverse-opening doors.

•Mini. "You can't open that (rear-hinged) door when the car is moving," says Mini spokesman Andrew Cutler about the Clubman's "club door."

•Honda. The "side-opening cargo door" — the term "suicide door" is off-limits as a "legal thing" — stays shut unless the front door is open as well, says Honda spokesman Sage Marie.

•Rolls. The Phantom will halt before taking off if the doors aren't secure. To be sure the doors are properly latched, passengers close them with the press of a button after they get in, says Paul Ferraiolo, president of Rolls-Royce Motor Cars North America.

Like many recurring automotive themes, the unusual doors may mutate but show no sign of going away.

"Suicide doors have been around almost (as long as) people had a choice," Kendall says. They make it "easier to get in and out of a car."

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