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Rolls-Royce turns suicide doors' dark past into an elegant tradition

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A spectacular coach door by another name

At The Verge, we recognize that great design is about paying attention to the details. Here we call out just one thing, a design element we appreciate on the cars we test drive that is brilliant, simple, or a mere marvel.

When I drove the Rolls-Royce Dawn, I was smitten by many of its fine details: cashmere headlining, lambswool floor mats, the retractable Spirit of the Ecstasy adorning the hood. But if I had to pick to one element that gives this cabriolet a stately presence, it’s the British brand’s choice to include doors hinged at the rear that swing out in a dramatic flourish. Rolls-Royce calls the distinctive design choice “the coach door.” But I prefer the iconic pop cultural terminology: the suicide door.

When you pull up in a Dawn, it’s clear, you are no mere UberX passenger. From the interior, you pull the thin handle with a gentle nudge, and the heavy door swings out at dramatic, yet measured angle. It’s a delicate exercise in firm but subtle craftsmanship, and shows off the company’s exemplary craftsmanship. As the door gradually swings, you get a peek of the sidewalk, which allows you pause to straighten your skirt or smooth your sport coat. It is in the studied design execution that Rolls-Royce shines: the handle itself is light to the touch and though the door is substantial, it doesn’t fly out in a manner that causes you to stumble and scrape the curb. In other words, in this architecture, Rolls-Royce has perfected the effortless departure.

Because you are in a Rolls-Royce, it’s likely that you are being chauffeured, and you may never even touch a door handle. The driver or the valet will hold your door open, taking hold of the gleaming stainless steel exterior handle centered below the exterior mirrors and the edge of the windshield. The handles are actually worth noting — elongated, thick, and shaped in the form language of late art deco sculpture. Rolls-Royce says that 80 percent of the panels on the Dawn are original to the car, so placement of the doors accentuates the seamless and smooth A pillar. The handles draw your eyes to the center but taper neatly into the rear quarters and onward to the high wheel haunches. Because of the position of the door, it’s almost as if your driver is forced to step aside and make way for you in the exercise of opening it. Once completely open, there’s no awkward shifting or hoisting yourself out. You swivel, rise, and exit. When you show up in the Rolls-Royce Dawn, the suicide doors swing open and you have arrived.

It’s understandable that Rolls-Royce and other carmakers continue to resist the pop cultural slang reference to this age old, yet distinctive feature. A current debate rages on over minimizing the taking one’s life, fueled by the Netflix drama 13 Reasons Why. We’ve moved beyond the punk rock era when it was in vogue to name your band after the act of self-harm (see Suicide Machines and Suicidal Tendencies) and films like Heathers that made suicide satiric folly. It was only last year that the Marvel-inspired Suicide Squad hit the big screen. But as Jim Kocs reported for the classic car insurance company Hagerty, car companies always avoided this term in official press materials. “To be clear, no carmaker has ever called rear-hinged doors “suicide doors.” That would have been, well, marketing suicide. As car buffs, though, we love latching on to such pieces of jargon.”

And the fact that no historian can verify the origins of this bit of slang only adds to the mystique, which is cool, but emo-tragic, dating back to an era when cars had no seat belts, and fatal accident rates were much higher. If the door became unlatched, the results could be perilous. Norman Mayersohn wrote in the The New York Times, “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.”

Other theories about origins of the suicide doors continue to fuel rumors. “Another urban legend maintains that 1930s gangsters liked the door design because it made pushing someone out of a moving car easier. If that were true, though, wouldn’t the correct term be “homicide doors?” Kocs wrote.

Before cars, horse carriages used this rear-hinged design. Suicide doors were favored in pre-war automobiles throughout the the 1930s. Ken Gross, an automotive historian, explained their evolution in an interview with the Verge. “They were fairly common on many domestic and imported car makes in the 1930s — even Ford used them on some models. A forward-opening door — either in front or back -- permitted easier access and egress — especially for women in long skirts or dresses. Hinging the front door at the rear also facilitated a more slanted windshield.” Rolls-Royce used suicide doors on many of its cars including the round doors on the original Phantom produced in 1925. Other bespoke luxury automakers favored this statement making design. “Besides Rolls-Royce, Figoni and Falaschi coachwork on Delahaye, Talbot-Lago and Delage, with forward-opening front doors accounted for many gorgeous cars,” Gross said. Yet it was the 1961 Lincoln Continental wins the unofficial award for the most iconic suicide door design.

Photo: Rolls-Royce

Modern day examples of suicide doors show more practical applications to maximize the use of space such as the BMW i3, the foregone Honda Element, and many four-door pickups.

But in the ultra luxury field where Rolls-Royce plays, suicide doors are about making a statement. When Rolls-Royce joined forces with parent company BMW in 1998, it resurrected the coach doors on its 2004 Rolls-Royce Phantom. Rolls-Royce continues to own this feature across its product line. But if you’re in the delirious state of mind to drive this hand-built sculptural object of beauty around town, the Dawn has stunning impact when the six-layer cloth top is dropped. And when the doors are open there’s something particularly decadent about a convertible car that includes a discreet storage system in the door panel to store an umbrella.

The piercing presence of a Rolls-Royce convertible is not meant to be about discretion. It’s about being noticed. On the Dawn, suicide doors slay.