Return of the 'suicide doors'

29th July 2003, Comments 0 comments

Car doors with the hinges at the rear are here again. But how safe are what were once known as "suicide doors"? Heiko Haupt talks to some German car designers who have spoken out against the trend.

Car doors with the hinges at the rear are the latest thing for many car designers — which mean the doors swing open towards the rear of the vehicle.

The reason is that this sort of back door is said by the specialists to make it easier for passengers to get in and out — especially if the column between the front and back doors is eliminated.

But what is today being touted as a new idea went through an earlier boom in the 1950s — and won infamy as a "suicide door".

Martin Kraut is the vice-president of the Federal Association of German Motor Veterans Clubs (Deuvet) based in Frankfurt. He says: "Basically, such doors have been banned here since 1961."

The principle employed by the door had, in its original version, dangerous disadvantages.

Kraut: "The lock could spring open while the car was in motion. If the driver then tried to hold the door, the wind pressure on it could drag him out of the car."

The traditional type of car door opens against the headwind.

Bert Korporal, from the TUEV vehicle checking organisation in Hanover, points out dangers that could arise if someone has to push-start their car on their own by pushing at the side. It means that, if the push start succeeds, the pusher could be hit by the door.

But for car makers, these dangers are a thing of the past. They are offering competing studies and concepts for cars with doors which open the other way. Some models have even got beyond the study stage.

One is the Rolls-Royce Phantom, from the BMW subsidiary based in Goodwood, south of London. In the case of the Phantom, the designers have not dispensed with the column between the front and back seats. But despite this, getting in and out of the back seat is reputed to be easier.

To meet legal requirements and make possible permission in spite of the general ban, preventing the doors from opening while the car is in motion must be done. To do this an electronic safety system has been developed. Rolls-Royce maintains that the doors cannot open when the car is travelling at more than four kilometres (about two and a half miles an hour) an hour.

Other car categories are also getting the treatment. Mazda, for example, is using the so-called "freestyle door system" which is being installed in some B-series pick-ups as well as in the Wankel sports car RX-8, which is coming on to the market from the summer.

Mazda, unlike Rolls-Royce, has dispensed with the pillar between the front and back doors. One of the firm's technical specialists in Germany, Juergen Buekeer, says: "Any danger of the door opening during travel can be ruled out. The back doors are so constructed so that they can only be opened when the front doors are opened."

But specialists do not all agree with the carmaker view that doors that open the other way make climbing in any easier.

Korporal says: "It is above all dependent on the design. Getting in a car is principally dependent on the angle of the door opening. Using these doors is in my opinion the wrong thing. Sliding doors are more suitable."

Hubert Paulus, a technician with the ADAC motor club in Munich, is also critical. He considers the idea as "playing with design".

He also sees a danger in cases where the column between the doors is eliminated. In the event of a crash where a car is hit on the side, the doors must take the bulk of the impact, thus reducing safety.

The risks are not unknown to makers. Mercedes-Benz has been planning in a study to produce in 2004 a Grand Sports Tourer (GST) without the columns and fitted with "butterfly doors".

But it is doubtful whether the vehicle will come on to the market. Mercedes spokesman Joerg Zwilling said in Stuttgart: "The engineers are checking whether the problem can be solved by construction."

March 2003


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