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The Garage: Focus on autos

'Suicide doors' resurrected by car designers despite safety concerns

September 15, 2007|Martin Zimmerman | Times Staff Writer

From "Animal House" to "Entourage," reverse-opening car doors have long been Hollywood code for cool.

Automakers have once again gotten the message about "suicide doors" -- though you're not likely to see that phrase in any advertising campaigns.

After all but disappearing from car design in the 1970s, the distinctive clamshell-style doors are staging a comeback, led by popular vehicles such as the Honda Element and the Toyota FJ Cruiser. More are on the way from brands as diverse as Mini and Rolls-Royce.

The revival has come despite the persistence of a moniker derived -- rightly or wrongly -- from the fear that doors hinged to open toward the rear were more dangerous than conventional doors.

"They were called suicide doors for a reason," said Dick Messer, director of the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles. "Riding in one of those cars was considered suicidal because they were made in the era before seat belts."

The thinking was that a reverse-hinged door, if accidentally opened in a moving car, would be flung wide by the road wind, making it easier for a passenger to fall out.

They were also considered dangerous in parked cars: If an opened door was clipped by a passing vehicle, it would slam back into the car -- and potentially the passenger or driver -- rather than be torn away.

The style was common on cars and trucks in the 1930s, '40s and '50s, especially on European nameplates such as Mercedes-Benz, Fiat and Peugeot. They were also featured on several well-known American cars, including the ill-fated Tucker and the '60s-era Lincoln Continental sedans and convertibles.

"Animal House," a hit 1978 comedy, featured a 1964 Continental sedan. And a 1965 Continental convertible stars in the opening credits of "Entourage," HBO's popular show about a young Hollywood actor and his, well, entourage.

"It was a neat thing for our generation," said 48-year-old Element owner Steve Mairet. "We were like, 'Oh man, look at this car -- it has suicide doors.' "

But practicality has been the main driver behind the doors' return.

By doing away with the so-called B-pillar (a support structure located between the front and rear doors), reverse-hinged doors create a yawning space when opened -- ideal for loading and unloading cargo.

"The doors were one of the things I really liked about it," said Barbara Baker of Pismo Beach, Calif., referring to her 2007 Honda Element. "I liked how it opens up. You can get into it really easily."

Baker, who uses her Element to ferry stock to her daughter's retro gift shop, California Blonde, in San Luis Obispo, added, "And it's cute."

The ease of loading and unloading cargo also appealed to Mairet, whose printer sales and service business in Orange, A1 Tonertech, counts The Times among its clients. His company has four Elements.

Suicide doors have proved popular as a novel way to provide easier access to the back seats of small coupes such as the Mazda RX-8 and Mini's new Clubman version of its popular Cooper coupe. The style is also familiar to owners of big pickup trucks equipped with crew cabs.

Then there's the 2008 Rolls-Royce Phantom Drophead Coupe, which starts at $412,000 and features, you guessed it, suicide doors. (Incidentally, Mini and Rolls are both owned by BMW.)

The revival has posed something of a marketing challenge for the car companies.

"Automakers are looking for various ways they can talk about it with out using the word 'suicide,' " said Alexander Edwards, head of automotive market research for San Diego-based Strategic Vision Inc.

Toyota Motor Corp. prefers the term "clamshell" when describing the FJ Cruiser; Mini uses "Clubdoor." Honda Motor Co., in its news release for the 2007 Element, simply says, "The side cargo doors provide a large opening for ease of loading."

"I don't think it really hurts us," Honda spokesman Chris Martin said. "Just because it's called something colloquially doesn't mean people take it seriously."

But should they?

The advent of seat belts has soothed concerns that passengers -- at least the 80% who regularly buckle up -- are at risk from suicide doors. In addition, many models are now equipped with a safety feature that prevents the rear doors from opening while the front doors are closed.

Getting rid of the B-pillar would appear to pose more of a problem because it lessens protection for occupants in a side impact collision. But auto safety experts say advances in chassis design and the introduction of side air bags can compensate for the loss.

For example, when tested without side air bags, the Element got a "poor" rating from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in side impact crashes.

Newer models with standard side air bags, however, received a top five-star side impact rating from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

"The bottom line is that it is more challenging to design these clamshell or suicide doors to protect people in side impact crashes because of the lack of a central B-pillar," said Russ Rader of the institute.

"But we expect that it can be done with good crash engineering."

In any case, it's doubtful that such concerns have been much of a factor in the showroom, said Karl Brauer, editor in chief at Santa Monica-based Edmunds.com.

"I think most consumers are completely oblivious to the supposed problems," he said. "Too much time has passed."

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martin.zimmerman@latimes.com

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