Rear Entrance, Door Furniture, Re-Evaluation No. 13 (or Should We Call It Mind The Doors?)

Hidden door handles – see what you did there…

(c) Auto evolution

The Alfa Romeo 156: when I clapped eyes on that car, well, it really was love at first sight. Those looks, that stance, look at the wheels! The aura surrounding the badge, the singular, front door handle… hang on. Where is the rear door handle? This a four door saloon..

Rewind to the car’s Frankfurt Motor Show introduction, to the world and everyone who was anyone waxing lyrical concerning that hidden rear door handle. This, momentarily, having already eulogised over those svelte, Italian lines. Those lines and looks have faded, and while no longer wowed when one is (increasingly rarely) seen out and about, I can still appreciate the lines. Too quickly do my eyes flit from grille to that rear door handle, secreted away – the pastiche that was initially deemed so exciting has become meretricious.

The 156 was the pioneer, with a proving, correct manner. Tribute acts and sequels rarely, if ever emulate the original. But that doesn’t seem to bother stylists trying over and again these past twenty some years. Imitation being part of the flattering brigade, other manufacturers had to follow suit. The Chevrolet Spark (read Daewoo Matiz), GM’s supermini with its own challenging looks was an early Alfa devotee. Purely down to that handle alone, it was a sales explosion – in some other alternate universe.

But not for everyone. Seat UK’s product manager, James Buckell, ruefully reflecting upon the Second Generation Typ 1p Leon (presumably the price paid to onetime design chief, Walter de Silva), “We just didn’t appear on people’s radars. To the enthusiasts, yes, those wanting a three door coupé look with five door practicality but I hate to think how many sales we missed because people thought it ‘just a three door‘.

Seat’s next iteration ditched the hidden handles, building a proper three door for those enthusiasts, whilst its five door sibling gained a normal, visible handle.

(c) DTW

That hidden trend continues. Renault’s Mk4 Clio brought it’s tackily plastic friend along with possibly the smallest side rear window in history, though the brand new Fiesta runs it close. By saving money in one aspect by deleting the rear door furniture, that tiny pane of glass must have been the veritable nightmare to design, price up, then make. Most things small and fiddly are a pain (pun intended) and how does one get the fingerprints, however jam laden (or not) off? Access to (and visibility out of) this tiny window is terrible.

Our gaze now falls on wares from the Rising Sun; Honda’s Civic. Another five door/three door effort. Two out of ten. The two is for the estate shape. To me, no longer using its given name of Juke, the Bratachian is wrong on so many levels. Zoom in on that rear door. Cheap N’ Nasty Corporation™ must’ve made a killing here for a very similar looking example was also supplied to Suzuki’s Swift, this time with a vertical rendition of one found on an ancient refrigerator.

Yep, even the estate got the “no door ‘andle” gig. (c)

When seen on brand new vehicles, these items jar. Once sullied by time, weather and the inevitable scratches that arrive by use, their aspect takes on a patina encompassing all the grace of a wheeled photocopier; that and said fridges being the supposed devices on which these framework concerns were devised.

More Japanese examples primed for slating being the current Nissan’s Micra and the C-HR from Akio’s bunch. Both are mountainous in the use of upward ticks to the C pillar, with the Toyota using the rear lights as a form of mantelpiece. This pairing hide the handle quite drastically – one does not need to reach for the spyglass.

Whereas the Micra in looks overall, borderlines cute in its inimical way, the C-HR, which stands for Curmudgeonly Hidden Rear (door handle) crosses borders fit only for those those employed by the military as Sappers. Should the colour scheme be white, the door handle area resembles a Sheridan’s bottle. For the uninitiated, this is an alcoholic coffee based drink.

Kazuhiko Isawa’s take on the sub-compact crossover produces that uncomfortable feeling when one is in a crowded lift. Or standing near to Nissan’s frog. A visible door handle along with radical thinking whose lines of useable internal rear space could have transformed this car into a decent looker as opposed to a corresponding Transformer character.

Yet these aggravated carriages sell in handsome numbers, the de- rigueur choice of almost everyone not reading this site. Perhaps I need to re-evaluate; to differentiate from those whose recoil at the thought of a hidden door handle from the ones searching for that hidden rear door handle, in the dark, when it’s pouring down and the kids are screaming? Bit of advice for the designers out there – place door handles where they should be – most folk know where they are. Leave the trinkets well alone.

Author: Andrew Miles

Beyond hope there lie dreams; after those, custard creams?

18 thoughts on “Rear Entrance, Door Furniture, Re-Evaluation No. 13 (or Should We Call It Mind The Doors?)”

  1. Thank you for that article that also might form the base of a contribution to the intended ‘misguided facelifts’ series as the red car in the picture shows all the tragedy of Giugiaro’s cack handed attempt at facelifting a car that couldn’t be facelifted.

    I remember well a hot summer day in 1997 when I had to visit my Alfa dealer because my GTV 916 was once again giving trouble (it was impossible to close the electric sunroof because the motor was burnt, I think).
    The parking space at the dealer was blocked with half a dozen 156s, all painted ivory with a dark green corduroy interior. They were perfectly camouflaged with a strip of black sticky tape along the crease in the flanks and some tape over the logos in grille and boot lid, but not on the wheels, so you never would have guessed it was an Alfa. They seemingly came from some interesting testing at the Nürburgring.
    The look of this car instantly had me on my knees (just as the 916 had three years before) and two days later I signed a contract for the not yet officially available 156 – and I definitely didn’t buy it for the door handle.
    One of the first passengers with that car once was standing at the side and pondering loudly “there’s a door, I can see it because there’s a panel gap. There has to be someting to open the door, I know it but I can’t find it.” This happened a number of times when car illiterates were trying to open a rear door. My sister once was looking for the door handle when her husband told her he was disappointed she didn’t know the running gag of the car he liked…

  2. I always got the rear door handle gag on this car and admired the cunning deceitfulness of it as part of this most elegant and beautiful of mid range saloons. It remains unsurpassed – I liked the 159 too, but it was overly butch and pumped in comparison with the more feminine 156.

  3. Well argued, Andrew, and I couldn’t agree more with your conclusion. I just don’t ‘get’ hidden rear door handles, either on aesthetic or practical grounds. Aesthetically, the deceit that the car is a two-door or coupé never works. The shut-lines of the rear door are always clearly visible and the front doors are too short for it to be a genuine two-door model.

    Practically, the hidden handle is (almost?) always the ‘wrong’ way round and forces you to use the wrong hand when opening the door. You naturally use your left hand to open doors on the left side of the car and vise-versa, since this facilitates easy entry once the door is open. Just imagine for a moment how unnatural it would be to use the other hand.

    On the 156, the crime of omission was exacerbated by the fact that the front door handle was, if I recall correctly, a lovely aluminium item, not some bit of plastic tat.

    Which would you rather, er, handle?

    1. The front door handles with their anodised satin surface were a tactile delight if somewhat cold in winter weather. Their push button had just the right amount of mechanical resistance to feel substantial and give the impression you were working something mechanical. The rear handles were nasty flaps of cheap plastic.
      The biggest problem was that in wintery conditions you could pull the front doors open when they were frozen shut because of their wrap over window frames and the rear doors stayed shut because you couldn’t pull on the handles.

  4. Door handle design goes in cycles. In the 70s/80s/90s we had modern flush door handles. The handles on the Marina were possibly the best part of the car. My ’79 Chrysler Alpine had lovely flush stainless-steel “handles” – but the actual mechanism underneath was nylon and liable to eventually snap.
    Now fashion has dictated a return to “classic” handles, and if you hide two of them you clean-up the aerodynamics a tiny tiny bit, and if somebody wants to sit in the back seat you open the door for them.
    For the record, I love the 156, and the 156 face-lift, and the 159. I even love the Civic Wagon – though not the regular hatch.

    1. There’s a very interesting film from Mercedes showing the evolution of their door handles from the Fifties on. In Mercedes’ case that evolution was driven by security consideration, mainly for preventing the door handle to get triggered in case of a roll over accident. The first result was the pull-out door handles introduced with R107/w116 which gave rescue workers something to pull to open a door but which still could snap under etreme conditions and were perfected with the W124 with flush fitting pull-out handles and depressins in the door skins. I’m sure Bela Barenyi wouldn’t have approved the flush electronically controlled pop-out Tesla-like door handles of the next S class.

    2. Dave, your statement made me imagine a certain someone from Carlsbad, CA being asked about Barényi’s influence on Mercedes design during an interview – his response being ‘what’s Dracula got to do with our hot & cool cars?!’

  5. The 156 gets the plaudits for being ‘first’ with the hidden-ness, but in truth this really can’t be considered a legitimate accolade. Depending on how far you want to go back, you could make an argument for things like the Ferrari Daytona’s handles being ‘artfully concealed’, or the arrangements on the final-generation RX-7 or first NSX. But even assuming you want to stick to the ‘hidden rear handles only’ subset, I must still record, for the record, that the four-door Nissan Pathfinder, introduced in 1990, beat them to the punch:

    As for the 156, I do agree the operation of the front handles is really lovely, perfectly judged in terms of weight and solidity and a real uplift compared to the crummy items on so many competitors. The rear flaps are indeed a bit crummy and awkward but there ain’t no style without some pain, eh? (While we are on the subject, the 156 also got its HVAC controls spot-on – the knobbly rotary dials are also beautiful to look at and operate, and are up there with Mazda’s pushbutton HVAC controls from that era in terms of yet-to-be-bettered 1990s design in my book.)

    1. An old Morgan must be the ultimate car when it comes to concealed outer door handles because it doesn’t have any:

    2. Yes, true about other manufacturers hiding them first. I think an early series 1 Land-Rover covers them with canvas flaps, which is rather charming. It’s one of those details that shows that although the vehicle is basic, it was designed by someone who cared.

      Good spot re the Pathfinder.

  6. The 1961-1963 Ford Thunderbirds also had an aesthetically very pleasing (IMHO) hidden doorhandle- the decorative chrome strip that went all along the sides of the car:

    1. Hi Bruno, I can’t top the Thunderbird for style and glamour, but offer the Corsair as another car with a similarly (if not as smoothly) integrated door handle:

  7. Gerald Palmer did it even more neatly wth the Javelin, Magnette ZA/ZB, and Pathfinder.

    1. As a teenager I found a Pathfinder in Jones’ scrapyard ( Waltham Cross ?) and had to sit in it because I was a Riley fan , and I wanted to see and feel the R/H gear-change !

  8. there was also the case of the car with 0 doors, the Y lance which had the handle hidden along the B pillar

    1. Yes, no visible door handle. Great design, the whole car. One of the best designed cars in the world, and one of the best cars ever, we own one, so I say this very impartial.

  9. I’m not sure if (a) a Wheeler-era TVR really qualifies as a production car, and (b) whether a button under the door mirror really qualifies as a “handle”, but it was certainly a concealed door release mechanism…

  10. Strangely enough, in the early 2010’s, when the 156 rear handles shouldn’t have been a novelty, I still had some instances where friends asked to “move the seats forward, so they could get in the back”. Needless to say these were not the most car savvy people. 10 years ago, even with mainstream models like the Leon, hidden door handles were still not expected by everyone. Unless their family drove a pathfinder, apparantly – thank you for this discovery.

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