Suicide Doors

Automotive Mileposts
1967 Ford Thunderbird Fordor Landau with rear suicide doors

A gentleman opens the rear "suicide door" for a lady riding in the back seat of a 1967 Ford Thunderbird Fordor Landau. The 1971 model of this car was the last American production automobile to feature rear suicide doors.

A functional, stylish, and convenient means to enter and exit an automobile, rear hinged "suicide doors" became a drawback in safety conscious late '60s America

When automobile transportation and design was in its infancy, designers often looked to architectural sources as well as other then-current modes of transportation for inspiration. Some Horse-drawn coaches of the time featured doors similar to the French Doors found in homes, where two adjacent doors are hinged on the outside edge and open from center. This design was incorporated in some of the early "Horseless carriages," a name given to very early automobiles since they were no longer moved by a Horse.

Center-opening doors gave these coaches and carriages an elegant look, and they were convenient to enter and exit, especially for ladies wearing long skirts. As automobile engine displacement grew over the years, so did the speed at which automobiles were driven. This ushered in the era of automotive safety, as government regulators became more concerned about the cars people were driving. Perhaps the biggest motivator behind this movement at the time was Ralph Nader, whose book, Unsafe At Any Speed was largely critical of the automobile industry, and many of the car designs that Mr. Nader felt were unsafe for motorists.

Automobiles built in the decades that followed the Horseless carriage era continued to offer rear-hinged doors, both as a convenience and as a styling touch. One of the dangers of this design was the possibility of a door coming open at speed. The theory is that the forward motion of the car could cause the door to fly open, possibly causing the unlucky person sitting next to the door to be pulled out of the car, or the door itself could be ripped from its hinges. It's debatable as to whether this was speculation or reality, but cars of this era did not have seat belts, so there was nothing to hold a passenger in the car. The term "suicide doors" was therefore placed on vehicles with the rear-hinged door configuration, the theory being that anyone inside was on a suicide mission because of the design.

As the early fifties rolled around, horsepower and high speeds were all the rage. The center-opening, rear-hinged doors retained their "suicide doors" nickname due to the possibility of them coming open in a crash, throwing occupants onto the street. Door latching mechanisms at the time were not as secure as they would be a few years later, and it wasn't uncommon at the time for doors to open in severe crashes.

Until recently, the last American automobiles to utilize center opening rear doors were the 1961-1969 Lincoln Continental, and the 1967-1971 Ford Thunderbird. Latching mechanisms on these cars were greatly improved, and after 1967, doors could not be opened at all if they were locked, even from inside the car. This prevented a panicked passenger from accidentally grabbing the inside door handle in an accident, and opening the door. In fact, the 1967 Thunderbird and Lincoln Continental incorporated a "rolling door lock" feature into their optional power door locks. This included a sensor on the transmission that locked the doors automatically at 8 mph, and would not allow the doors to be unlocked until the car speed dropped to below 8 mph. Surprisingly, this convenience was only offered for one year.

Real or otherwise, rear hinged door safety became a concern, and the design was not used for many years. But it appears that this design may be making a comeback, as several new models have debuted in recent years with this feature. In 1998, Saturn introduced a coupe with a rear hinged door, and they are now appearing on some extended cab pickup trucks as well. However, there is a major functional difference. Most new vehicles require the front door to be open before the rear door can be opened, eliminating any danger of the rear door flying open as the vehicle speeds down the road.

It's a shame that manufacturer's must take extreme steps to protect the public, as everyone knows the most important safety consideration is one that can't be built in: the vehicle occupants. If people drove more defensively, talked less on their cell phones, paid more attention to their driving, and obeyed traffic laws, we wouldn't need many of the safety features we have today. Ultimately, the safety of a vehicle and its occupants rests solely on the people operating those vehicles.

1961 Lincoln Continental Sedan with rear suicide door open

1961 Lincoln Continental Sedan interior view with rear suicide door open.


1946-1948 Lincoln Sedan

1946-1948 Mercury Sedan

1946-1948 Nash Ambassador Sedan

1947-1952 Studebaker Champion, Commander, and Land Cruiser Sedans

1948 Tucker

1949-1951 Lincoln Sport Sedan and Cosmopolitan

1949-1951 Mercury Sport Sedan

1949-1954 Crown Imperial Limousine by Chrysler

1953 Cadillac Orléans (show car)

1957-1958 Cadillac Eldorado Brougham

1961-1969 Lincoln Continental Sedan

1967-1971 Ford Thunderbird 4-Door Landau