Car door handles — there seems to be an endless variety. This simple device has changed and evolved over time. Some have changed for the sake of safety, some for ergonomics, others for convenience, always with the underlying objective style. Some manufacturers choose these small details to make a statement, while for many, it’s a matter of economics. Dipping into the common parts bin translates to a larger profit margin and has the added benefit of adding to brand recognition.
I’m not sure there is an official comprehensive list of door-handle types, and several have variations on a theme, but I’ll go through the basic designs as well as my memory allows and my words can portray.
In the beginning, there was the swinging latch handle, not unlike a door knob found on a house but a horizontal bar in place of a round grip. These were commonly found on early automobiles through the 1940s and Jeep soft tops through the mid-1980s. European cars through the 1950s mostly used a pull handle that looked similar but pulled outward rather than pivoted.
During the 1960s and '70s, American cars came equipped with push button door handles and chrome pulls that burned your hand when they baked in the sun and, as a kid, required two hands to unlatch and swing that cumbersome portal. These handles were phased out under Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards as a way to prevent occupant ejections. It seems that, when bumped in an accident or depressed in a rollover situation, the car door would open, allowing the passenger to exit the vehicle when, it seems, they had no desire to leave. This was when seat belts were more of a suggestion than an accepted restraint.
The pull-up handle came next on American cars. Modern by comparison to the old push buttons, some were even color keyed to match the car. They were also helpful when opening the colossally heavy doors found on some of those enormous “sport coupes” of the time — as long as you had strong fingers and no regard for manicures. Those poor, inadequate hinges didn’t stand a chance holding up those long, heavy doors, so a little lifting via the pull-up handle following the unlatching operation helped.
Flap-style door handles were a staple on American Motors Corp. cars from the 1960s through the end of AMC, and they were used on nearly every make and model, including the short-lived Eagle line. These were like pull-up handles mounted sideways.
For several decades from the 1970s to the '90s, Volkswagen, Audi and Porsche used a trigger-type door handle that you squeezed with a finger or two. They were prone to breaking when deprived of lube — ask me how I know. Some Japanese cars of the same era used a modified pull-up style that was a secondary plastic handle squeezed against the outer fixed handle.
Exotic and smaller sports cars tried to use designs that complemented the lines of the car. Often the handle was part of the door and a button was depressed or a flap was pulled that blended into the body or door edge. I had a 1972 Fiat 850 Sport Spider set up with a button and door edge pull while Renault and some other European cars used the door edge flap. Some exotic cars had small, finger-sized pull handles, and others had hidden levers that poppws out when pushed.
Current door handles are typically the type that operate when pulled and the whole handle pivots on the left side. This design is inexpensive, can be made from a variety of inexpensive materials — usually plastic — and is easy to operate on doors that are low like a smaller hatchback, as well as trucks and SUVs that sit higher.
As vehicles evolve and electric drive becomes more mainstream, door handles are following suit. Tesla has installed door handles that blend into the exterior and pop out when one side is depressed. The Jaguar I-Pace has a similar feature.
With modern, electric components able to perform the latching and unlatching functions, unlike mechanical operations of yore, the handle can be of nearly any design, its purpose only needs to act as a switch. Ford’s new Mustang Mach-E (a vehicle whose name makes me wince, but that’s a column for another day), uses an unassuming, hidden button and a very small finger grip to open the door.
The downside to all this exterior door handle variation is the time involved with figuring out how, and then getting a door open from the outside in the event of an emergency.
Further, a bad crash or electrical malfunction could have the effect of seriously delaying the rescue of a potential passenger/patient. Firefighters and first responders operating extrication tools or “jaws of life” need to know they’re not cutting through highly energized components or body structures, and lighter, stronger composite materials will pose their own challenges.
At Tesla’s recent unveiling of their Cyber Truck (of which I have another strong opinion and probable future column), the glass was meant to be bullet/shatterproof, although actual demonstrations proved otherwise.
This, in addition to door handles that don’t lend themselves to any sort of obvious functionality, means more training and maybe different tools for emergency extrication purposes — considerations that don’t seem to occur to some engineers during the design phase of a new vehicle.
Technology is opening the doors for automotive design. Let’s hope the same technology doesn’t shut the door on safety.
Eric and Michelle Meltzer own and operate Fryeburg Motors, a licensed, full-service automotive sales and service facility at 299 Main St. in Fryeburg, Maine. More than a business, cars are a passion, and they appreciate anything that drives, rides, floats or flies.