Answer Man

Answer Man: How did ‘suicide doors’ get the name?

Q. Recently, a few friends and I were talking about the old Lincoln Continentals with the passenger doors that opened opposite each other. In other words, the rear doors were hinged at the back and opened backwards while the front doors opened normally. My friend said the rear doors were called suicide doors. Do you have any idea how they earned that name? — Tina Setterlund, of Mascoutah

A. I’d say it was an open-and-shut case: Whatever designer first decided to put them onto cars may have had the artistic half of his brain working overtime while the reasoning part remained in snooze mode.

Think about it. Imagine trying to open a conventional front door while you’re driving 70 mph. It’s going to be increasingly difficult because of a simple fact of physics: air pressure. The farther you open the door as you’re sailing down the highway, the more air is going to hit the door, forcing it back. Hopefully, the end result is that it never opens far enough for you to fall out.

Now, imagine accidentally unlatching a door that opens the other way. Instead of working to keep the door shut, the road wind serves as an accelerator, helping to fling the door open and maybe you with it as you grab for the handle in a panic to close it. To add insult to injury, you’ll likely be whopped by the door as you fall out. In addition, such doors were prone to pop open in head-on crashes, too, throwing unrestrained passengers into the roadway.

Get the picture? Now, truth be told, I cannot find any statistics on how many people may have been killed or injured by this stylish automotive option or if it was merely an overblown concern by safety experts. However, they supposedly were particularly popular during the 1930s, because it was an easy way for gangsters to jettison their rivals from moving vehicles, according to Dave Brownell, former editor of Hemmings Motor News.

In any case, they wound up with the label “suicide doors,” presumably because anyone who rode in a seat by such doors was asking for trouble. I suppose it’s sort of like those middle left-turn lanes on three- and five-lane streets often being called “suicide lanes” because they can lead to nasty crashes if not used judiciously.

Naturally, auto designers were not trying to help a mobster with nefarious intent on his mind when they first offered them. Instead, they were harkening back to slower days when such doors were common on horse-drawn carriages. They were extremely convenient, because they allowed women with their long, full skirts to enter and exit the carriage much more easily. They could back onto the seat, turn and make themselves comfortable. Then, they could exit by merely stepping out.

Of course, there was a big difference between riding behind a few trotting horses and a car with dozens or hundreds of steeds roaring away under the hood — especially before seat belts became mandatory. Even so, as you note, Lincoln continued to use them for its rear doors on its Continental model — including the SS-100-X edition in which President John F. Kennedy was shot and killed in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963.

Perhaps car buyers thought they had seen the last of them after Ford stopped putting them on its mass-produced Thunderbird in 1971. Not so. Since 1998, the novel doors have popped up on everything from extended cab pickup trucks to the Rolls-Royce Phantom — and many buyers swear by them because they usually eliminate the pillar between the front and rear doors that can impede the loading of both passengers and cargo.

“The doors were one of the things I really like about it,” Barbara Baker of Pismo Beach, Calif., told the Los Angeles Times in 2007 about her new Honda Element. “You can get into it really easily.”

Of course to avoid lawsuits, modern cars have come with added safety features. Already in the late ’60s Ford and Lincoln made it impossible for anyone in the rear to open the door once the car hit 8 mph. Now, the rear doors usually can’t be opened until the front doors are.

As a result, manufacturers understandably have tried hard to bury the old “suicide doors” reference. Now you’ll find such killer names as “RAD” ( for “rear-access door” on the Saturn Ion), “freestyle doors” (Mazda RX-8), “coach doors” (Rolls Royce), FlexDoors (Opel), and Clamshell (Toyota). Even Volvo, that bastion of auto safety, showed them off on a concept car at a 2003 auto show.

Today’s trivia

In his biography, what well-known entertainer said that he came close to dubbing Lauren Bacall’s singing part in her debut film, “To Have and Have Not”?

Answer to Sunday’s trivia: Despite the name’s long and colorful history, it’s a good bet you probably never heard of the last national leader who had “Caesar” as part of his name or title. Give up? It was Simeon Borisov Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, who was tsar of Bulgaria from 1943 to 1946 even though he still was a child. If you hadn’t considered it, the title “czar/tsar” is a contraction of “tsesar,” which dates to the Old Church Slavic “kaisar” and ultimately back to the Latin “Caesar.” (As you now could have guessed, the German “kaiser” also has its roots in the famous family name of Roman emperors.) Now 77. Simeon is one of the three last living heads of state from World War II and one of only two monarchs in history to have become the head of government through a democratic election as he became prime minister from 2001 to 2005. (Cambodia’s Norodom Sihanouk also served as king and the country’s first prime minister.)