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Old 07-11-2003, 09:32   #1 (permalink)
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United States :Don't Call Them Suicide Doors

New York Times
By NORMAN MAYERSOHN

In the automobile industry, it's boom time at the Department of Euphemisms. Around the world, carmakers have been coming up with inoffensive phrases for describing a newly rediscovered old feature: the so-called suicide door.

New models are arriving in showrooms with doors in this old-time design — hinged at the rear, the opposite of the usual current practice.

Understandably, no car company is using the S word in touting these new doors' benefits. In the Saturn Ion quad coupe, they are the RAD feature, for rear access doors. Mazda has named the rear-access door on its RX-8 sports car a freestyle door. Rolls-Royce calls them coach doors, and Volvo pointedly has no name, saying only that the doors are hinged at the rear instead of the front.

On the other hand, some drivers are enthusiastic about suicide doors by their original name, associating them with tradition and retro style. PTeazers in Westminster, Calif., which supplies parts to customize Chrysler PT Cruisers, spent four months recently converting one to suicide doors; the job required fabricating supports to hold the hinges. "It's an expensive ordeal," said Ray Newton, an owner of PTeazers.

Rear-swinging doors showed up in the early days of the automobile's history and were popular through the 1930's. The Lincoln Continental and the Ford Thunderbird had them in the 60's.

Exactly how and when suicide doors acquired their tragedy-freighted name is unknown, but the logic is apparent to Kit Foster, a past president of the Society of Automotive Historians. "I think it's obvious," Mr. Foster said. "If the latch is opened, the door gets ripped open by the air flow."

What happened next hardly needs to be said out loud. In the era before seat belts, if the passenger was leaning against the door, out he went.

The suicide doors appearing now are not nearly so perilous, since car designers have invented ways to make them safer. The ones on new models are only rear doors, generally with the front door overlapping the rear. The front door must be opened first, so that even an unlatched rear door cannot easily fly open.

Now, carmakers are embracing the suicide door. For Honda's Element, a boxy crossover vehicle designed to be seen as part S.U.V. and part teenager's room, the rear-hinged door (called the sidegate or side cargo door) is a key feature. Art St. Cyr, a lead engineer on the project, said that designers wanted to open up the interior, offering a hangout for young buyers and their friends. The team engineered a body that incorporates the roof supports behind the front doors, or B pillars, into the rear doors themselves, removing a visual barrier and presumably, an obstruction to social interaction. The goal might have been achieved with a minivan-type sliding door, but Honda rejected that as "reminiscent of a mommy-mobile," according to Mr. St. Cyr.

The intent was altogether different for the designers of the 2004 Rolls-Royce Phantom.

Though Rolls is now owned by BMW, the chaps in charge haven't lost one bit of their Britishness; they designate the portals as coach doors, after the sort on horse-drawn conveyances. Think of the footman opening the door for Her Majesty and standing discreetly behind, hewing to protocol. The rear doors on the Phantom do open independently of the front ones, and a safety interlock electronically secures the rear doors when the car is moving.

Lest anyone conclude that this trend is limited to the fringes of the auto market, consider the Volvo station wagon — with suicide doors — that appeared at the 2003 New York auto show. Yes, Volvo, that bastion of vehicular safety, included a rear-hinged door for backseat occupants on its Versatility Concept Car, designed to demonstrate futuristic thinking.

José Diaz de la Vega, Volvo's creative director for strategic design, said in a telephone interview that the purpose was to offer an unobstructed display of the vehicle's interior details, which he likened to "actors on a stage," and that the design, while not headed for production, would not be discarded.

About the only aspect of reverse-opening doors that won't be making a commercial comeback, it seems, is that name. It may have been tongue-in-cheek anyway, according to Dave Brownell, the former editor of Hemmings Motor News. Noting the design's popularity in the gangster era of the 1930's, Mr. Brownell pointed out, "It's a lot easier to shove somebody out with the wind holding the door open."

(Photo on left)Josh Laronge for The New York Times
A 1967 Lincoln Continental, top, displays a similarly designed escape hatch. (Photo on right) 04 Mazda RX-8
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