In the first years of the twentieth century, companies like Harley-Davidson and Indian began producing motorcycles for the general public. Although there is not an exact date of the first motorcycle race, you can be sure that as soon as there were two motorcycles on the road, there was racing. As more and more motorcycle manufactures started popping up across the U.S., motorcycle racing started making it’s way to more official venues. The earliest races were held on fairground dirt tracks used for horse racing.
This photograph taken by Lewis Reed shows an unknown racer at a fairground raceway in the early 1900s. In the teens, motorcycle racing on dirt tracks throughout the country, was one of the most popular spectator sports. Despite the danger to both racers and spectators, the motorcycle races became very popular and drew large crowds of spectators. Motorcycle racing continued until just after World War 1, when the focus shifted to automobile racing.
Nobody really thinks about it today. If your car is too cold, then simply switch on the “heater” and soon your car will be warm. However, it wasn’t always that way. What passengers did back then, in the early days of motoring, was bundle up as if one was outdoors. This meant heavy clothing, winter gloves and snow boots. It wasn’t long, however, before car makers realized that a few comforts, like heat in the passenger compartment, or even some type of heated seating, would help sell cars.
In order for occupants of early 1920’s cars to remain warm during the cold winter months, especially when it was snowing, it was necessary for them to dress warmly and cover themselves with blankets. Note the car in the photo below is mostly open-bodied, with no windows and certainly no heat. Tire chains are on the rear tires. I cannot say with any certainty, but I believe it is Lewis Reed’s car with his wife and baby daughter, Mary Jane, sitting inside all bundled up.
While this had been the accepted way to do things for centuries, it did not take long for automotive engineers to realize that heat from the car engine could also be used to warm the interior of the vehicle. Heaters became standard equipment on the more expensive cars and over time they were fitted to most cars. You could buy and fit after market car heaters to suit cheaper cars like the Fords and Chevrolets.
Below are some advertisements from an Automotive magazine of 1922 that show the two different ways motorists used to keep warm – the rug and the heater.
LAIDLAW MOTOR ROBES
An essential appointment in your own car. A seasonable gift for a friend.
BEAUTIFUL AND COMFORTABLE
You have your car insured against every possible contingency of accident, fire, theft, etc.,—but how about its occupants– can you guarantee their comfort against winter’s storm and cold?
LAIDLAW MOTOR ROBES are COLD INSURANCE, you pay no premiums on their price, yet you receive protection of warmth, comfort and luxury.
LAIDLAW MOTOR ROBES are made in an infinite variety of color and fabric, lined or not, as you wish. Monogrammed at but slight additional cost. Prices exceptionally low. Quality exceptionally high. Order now for holiday gifts.
Comfortable Driving at Zero!
THE KINGSTON CAR HEATER stands between you and the coldest wind that blows. It is a heater that keeps your car warm at zero weather, that warms the car with pure, fresh air, that can be instantly adjusted to meet your wants, that is beautifully and substantially built — an ornament to any car.
Note the new low price
DEALERS everywhere should order their stock of Kingston Heaters at once. Last year when cold weather came the demand was so great that some orders were delayed. This year, with greatly increased production, with a finer heater, and with the new low price the sales of Kingston Heaters will break all records.
FORD Model Complete $3.75
Chevrolet, Overland, Dodge $5.00
So why are these doors called suicide doors? Did someone commit suicide with one? What’s suicidal about a door?
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.
Think about it. Imagine trying to open a conventional front door while you’re driving 70 mph. It’s going to be increasingly difficult because of a simple fact of physics: air pressure. The farther you open the door as you’re sailing down the highway, the more air is going to hit the door, forcing it back. Hopefully, the end result is that it never opens far enough for you to fall out.
Now, imagine accidentally unlatching a door that opens the other way. Instead of working to keep the door shut, the road wind serves as an accelerator, helping to fling the door open and maybe you with it as you grab for the handle in a panic to close it. To add insult to injury, you’ll likely be whopped by the door as you fall out. 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.
Another urban legend about the origins of the suicide doors 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”?
Suicide doors were favored in pre-war automobiles throughout the the 1930s. They were fairly common on many domestic and imported car makes in the 1930s. 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.
As a result, manufacturers understandably have tried hard to bury the old “suicide doors” reference. Today, you’ll find such killer names as “RAD” or “rear-access door” (Saturn), “freestyle doors” (Mazda RX-8), “coach doors” (Rolls Royce), “FlexDoors” (Opel), “scissor doors” (Lambo), “clamshell” (Toyota), and “rear-hinged doors” (preferred technical term).
Now, About That Name…
So where did the name “suicide doors” come from, then? You’ll find multiple explanations, none definitive. The fact that no historian can verify the origins of this bit of slang only adds to the mystique.
The clipping is from the Bismarck Daily Tribune, April 21, 1915 newspaper.
Back in the early part of the last century when the motorcycle was still new and a novelty, it was often used for Kodak moments.
Lewis Reed has a number of photographs showing relatives and other unknown people on their motorcycles in the period of the early 1900s through the early 1920s. This photo taken by Lewis Reed is an unknown lady and a toddler (mother/daughter?) posing on an Excelsior motorcycle. The motorcycle was easy to identify because of the logo, but I could not pinpoint the exact year it was made. I tend to think it might be a circa 1913-1914 model Excelsior.
This is, without question, one of the best posed photos on a motorcycle that I have come across in my grandfather’s albums. The toddler’s sporty little cap and goggles make the image. Just imagine how excited she must have been to sit on that big machine.
The motorcycle seems to be well equipped with extras including: a headlamp, a handlebar-mounted Klaxon horn, and a well padded passenger seat on the back.