By on July 9, 2013

Jeremy writes:

Hi Sajeev,

G’day from Down Under. Big fan of the Vellum Venom column of yours. Car design, and more importantly the smaller details of car design have always fascinated me, even though I couldn’t design a car if my life depended on it. The first bit of design that really hit me was the first appearance of BMW’s “Angel Eyes” on the E39 M5.

Anyway, I’ve always wondered when and more importantly why have the “pull-type” door handles become the norm?

Excluding exotics, pretty much every car on sale now has this type of door handle. It’s obviously not a legal requirement, as the Civic hatch (among others) has “hidden” rear handles. I do think it’s boring though – every door handle is the same. It seems gone are the days of the NA MX-5 handles, or even the door handles on the EA-BF Ford Falcons.

Sajeev answers:

Agreed 100%, and thank you very kindly.  Your (wonderful) note poked at another one of my sore spots in modern automotive design: but while DLO FAIL is a horrid workaround, pull-out handles are merely a disappointment. But are these part of our mandatory modern automotive design lexicon, like goofy tall hoods needed to pass muster with Euro NCAP pedestrian protection standards?

Nope: along with your examples, peep ‘dat Dodge Charger SRT8 above. Two generations of the Dodge Charger wear unique, almost-flush mount door handles! For all the grief this website gives DaimlerChrysler-CerberusChrysler-FIATChrysler for their evil ways (baby) can you believe someone allowed the Dodge version of the Chrysler 300 to have unique door handles?

So Chrysler’s got themselves a mighty-fine handle.  Now take the Toyota Venza for an example of a pull-out handle.

To Toyota’s credit, their corporate pull-out handle is differentiated (by model) through unbelievably simple yet clever/unique door skin stampings: giving the impression of a different handle with just a tweak to the negative area underneath.  Not to say that Toyota has only one type of pull-out handle, far from it.  Which begs the question, why make every unit a pull-out handle casting if you’re making multiple designs for various vehicles?

I think there are multiple reasons, and cost has nothing to do with it.

First, embracing basic Physics: a door handle that pulls straight out shall open a door more efficiently than a flush mount handle with its “dog leg” hinges.  Why pull up and around when you can pull straight out?

Second, durability:  flush door handles with the aforementioned dog leg hinges are less durable.  Take the ones my Lincoln Mark VIII’s door handle (above).  The dog legs behind the plastic bezel are made of cheap pot metal, and careless user inputs mean they will shatter in cold weather…when trying to open a door as magnificently huge as said Lincoln.  They needed to be higher quality (i.e. more $$$) because of point Number Three.

Third, weight: today’s doors are larger (taller) than ever, with more side-impact protection than 20-ish years ago, more speakers, extra sound deadening material (including thicker glass) tighter weatherstripping (more force sucking shut in certain weather conditions) and more power features (power windows, locks, key-less transmitter sensors, etc.).  So, assuming similar construction and material choices (i.e. plastic, not steel) why would you work harder operating a dog leg hinge?

When you combine my three points, you have a slam dunk case for widespread adoption of pull-out handles. Assuming the same level of material quality in both designs, the pull out handles are more durable over years/decades of use.

About your “when” question: the ’00s were the era of abandoning flush mount handles, as almost every mainstream vehicle was redesigned in this decade. Except for the Ford Ranger (2011, out of neglect) and the Dodge Charger/Challenger (out of Who The Hell knows).  Am I right or wrong here?

Anyway, thank you all for reading. Have a great week.

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53 Comments on “Vellum Venom Vignette: Of Portal Handling Pleasures...”

  • avatar

    The other week I had the pleasure to open the door on a 1959 Plymouth. Wow, the solid feel of that door, the handle, all the mechanisms working, far beats any luxury car I’ve ever touched in years, and day I say probably some very expensive exotic stuff as well.

    I use to have a PT Cruiser. The car had some shortcomings, but those door handles were some of the nicest on the market when that car was out.

    • 0 avatar

      Those 1957 – 1959 Plymouth door handles worked well when they were new, but were not known for long-term dependability. But again, I never had a problem with those on the 1958 Plymouth convertible I owned for 32 years.

  • avatar

    My 2009 Mustang GT has nice pull out handles. Lucky me.

  • avatar
    Dr. Kenneth Noisewater

    They’re also easier to open in the event of an accident, which is why I figured they were on my 80s S-class. VWs had a latch trigger inside the handle rather than a handle that pulled out. I highly prefer pull handles over older styles, especially the older chrome GM flip-ups that could get pretty bloody hot in direct sunlight.

    • 0 avatar

      Those trigger-type VW latches were a pain in the butt. If you didn’t have front mud flaps, the front wheels would spray crap right up into the rear door latches. I remember regularly putting WD40 regularly on the latches to get them working again…..

      • 0 avatar

        Those trigger handles are even more fun in the winter, when the trigger gets frozen. You can pull the trigger to open the door, if you are lucky. Then when it sticks and doesn’t spring back out you can’t latch the door, not so lucky.

  • avatar

    Many European marques have been using the pure pull-type handles for years. Asian and US makers were slower to adopt, but for those paying attention, there was a LOT of design convergence around European norms in the late 90s and early 2000s, something that manufacturers seem like they’re just now trying to differentiate themselves from.

    I’m all for ergonomic and aesthetic improvements, and these handles are among the best, most overlooked examples.

  • avatar

    As a valet in college, I once opened the door of a 1980s Rolls Royce. The car was about 20 years old at the time. As far as unlocking and opening car doors go, this was the most memorable experience I’ve ever had. It was incredibly smooth, precise and perfectly weighted. It was better than any of the brand new luxury vehicles in the lot. When one spends all day twisting low-grade keys into lower-grade door locks, one appreciates the finer things.

    I wonder what the door handle experience is like on today’s Rolls Royces.

    • 0 avatar

      Open a 7-Series door to find out ;)

    • 0 avatar

      The little things. I love the way the doors open on my ’63 Thunderbird. The handle is integrated in the finned body line trim that is adorned with a chrome strip that runs the entire length of the car, with a chrome push button. Now that the door is adjsuted correctly, it opens and shuts with little effort and I never get the dreaded single latch bounce-back.

  • avatar

    Definitely not a cost issue – my Kia Soul has the flush/lift-up type of handle, although it feels extremely cheap when you pull on it.

    The handles I miss are the ones with a thumb button. Maybe a bit more awkward to use but they have the advantage of separating the mechanical action of opening the latch from the higher stress of pulling on the door. And they just look cool.

  • avatar

    When I sold Mercedes, they taught us it was easier to get the door open with a pull handle in the case of a serious accident.

  • avatar
    Kyree S. Williams

    This is sort of related, but a lot of cars have those easy-entry door handles whereby you can unlock the doors simply by grabbing one of the handles if you’ve got the key in your pocket. GM’s, however, always have this major delay between when you tug on the door handle and when the door actually unlocks itself. I know that it goes at least as far back as our family friend’s 2006 Cadillac STS-V…and I don’t think that it’s been fixed in the newer products. I wonder why that is…

    And as for the Charger, those new pull-out door handles are nice. Most people didn’t notice that they were quietly ported over to the Challenger for 2011…along with Dodge’s new corporate three-spoke steering wheel, and some other minor upgrades.

    • 0 avatar

      The handles are given to the Challenger because of keyless go. The other items that finally made it to the Challenger was a trunk button and reverse sensors.

  • avatar

    You’ve forgot the niche-y trigger style door handle! I know it didn’t go on many cars, (and maybe a VAG-only thing) but my 5000S had ’em. I only broke one. They made the greatest click sound when you squeezed it and the door popped open. The design was only susceptible to ice/breakage if there was moisture in the air and it was cooler than 40F.

    Then there was the one-sided hinge 90s Beretta-type door pull. Or the vertical left-right hinge on Nissan items (Pathfinder til this year, Armada currently.)

    My GS has a dog leg handle, mounted on a platform. It sits up so far from the sheet metal that it needs a rubber gasket around it.

  • avatar

    Interesting… and pretty much spot on with the article.

    Flush mount and dog-leg hinged handles are a pain in the arse. I look at a lot of old junk for work (and fun) and these things break like crazy. Pull-handles are much more durable and easy to use.

  • avatar

    I love the pull-out handles on my 8th-gen Civic. They’re big, solid, and capable of bearing the weight of the admittedly largish, heavy doors.

    I happen to think they’re upscale looking, though my favorite execution of them remains the handles on the Mk4 Jetta and B5 Passat.

    My old 6th-gen Civic had comparatively flimsy plastic “dog leg” handles that broke off in my hands…TWICE. The 5th gen had lovely side-opening handles, which combined with the kooky headrests and del sol trim made that a more visually playful generation.

    The handles on the Charger look, well, dated. That handle design reminds me of the nineties.

    My favorite door handles are actually the ones you don’t see…Cutlass Supreme coupe, RX-7, the rear doors of many Nissan SUVs, for example.

    • 0 avatar
      30-mile fetch

      Hated the side opening handles on our 93 civic. Just hated them. Unless you were approaching the door from behind, it was a lousy ergonomic design. Looked cool, though.

  • avatar
    30-mile fetch

    In my area I see a LOT of mid-90s to early 2000s Camries with broken flush-mount door handles. I’m guessing from hastily yanking on a frozen-shut door in winter. I can see why pull out handles are the rage now.

    • 0 avatar

      Yup those Camry handles are very failure prone. They are an “A” mover for Dorman.

      • 0 avatar

        I’m glad someone else noticed that, too. Surprisingly, I don’t see 1990s Taurii, Lumina, Accords with this problem…or perhaps they break internally and we never know about it.

        Then again, I haven’t seen a Lumina on the road in a looooong time, intact door handles or no.

        • 0 avatar

          I can’t tell you how many 90’s GM W body b-pillar door handles I’ve replaced over the years. They too are cast of a white metal and are fairly fragile.

          A 90’s Corolla I once drove for about a year had a door handle break on 3 of the doors and on the driver door twice. I have to say I was sympathetic with those since they always felt thin and flexible.

        • 0 avatar
          Compaq Deskpro

          I’m in Massachusetts, and I see Luminas quite frequently. They always seem to be have perfect paint, with the exception of a rust hole in the rear fender. Strange.

  • avatar

    The jeep liberty/ dodge nitro have fixed handles with a button to push with your thumb. Always takes first time riders a second to realize what’s going on.

    • 0 avatar

      Got some slow people riding around with you, eh? I was just trying to remember what vehicle has the push button with thumb type that I have ridden in.

      My dad’s 1980 Ford F250 dump truck.

  • avatar

    Great post! I was invited to attend the 2012 Paris Motor Show as part of a supplier – OEM technical team. One of my tasks was to survey door handle solutions from a non-specialist perspective. It was brilliant, a real eye-opener!

    The pull-type handle is by far the most popular, but the design variations on that theme are amazing, from solid-but-dull BMWs to fast-but-strangely-overblown Porsches (Cayman). My favourite of that type was the EU Honda Accord, with its beautifully fluid shape.

    The thumb-lever style is my favourite type – it feels special. And, lo-and-behold, current proponents of this are the Nissan GTR and the Jag F-Type.

    Hidden rear door handles (as popularised by Alfa Romeo) can be found on the Honda Civic hatchback (again, EU version), but also on the – well – only doors of the Cadillac CTS and cousins.

    I didn’t come across too many trigger solutions, but the wierdest-feeling door handle for me was easily the Fiat 500L’s trigger-in-a-pull chimaera. Goodness knows what they were thinking there.

    I also looked at wheelarch (fender) to A-pillar solutions and trick lighting – but those are for another comment….

  • avatar

    Great topic, Sajeev!

    My all-time favorite is the Mercedes W123 / W126. Even after 30 years, the glass-filled nylon handles look presentable, and the best thing is they protrude far enough away from the door to keep fingernail scratches off the door skin. At the same time, they present a rather smooth profile that will not snag anything. Natural pull motion, straight out FTW.

    But for the cool factor, take the ’70 Pontiac Grand Prix. It was almost flush, but pivoted in such a way that you pushed on the area where your thumb would naturally fall, and the rest of the handle would rotate just enough to let your fingers get behind it.
    Retracted picture here:

    TTAC article on the ’70 GP here:

  • avatar

    Mmmmm…this is a pet peeve of mine as well. Why all the clunky handles in an era where aero and noise considerations are so important? It really ruins the cut line on my E90 335i. My old ’98 Accord had a much nicer execution- very flush. The coolest flush handle today is on the Model S. Very sleek and aero.

    They are tough and easy to pull on- especially if your door is frozen shut, but I think there are other ways to integrate it more smoothly- even if you took a similar handle and recessed it into the door a bit more. Better yet, cover the open areas of the recess with spring-loaded doors to make it totally flush.

  • avatar

    Mini uses a nice solid door handle with a trigger underneath. It makes the handle feel much more solid vs the creaky plastic pull out kind.

    And while we are talking about door handles, how can we leave out Tesla and their peek-a-boo flush handles.

  • avatar

    Oh, and we mustn’t forget the button secreted on the bottom of the door mirrors on TVRs, which probably weren’t the sole reason TVR went out of business…

  • avatar

    Did anyone else notice that Wrangler and Liberty have exactly the same door handles? They are literally the same, although jeeps are entirely different. Of course I saw “parts bin” items on window switches and control stalks of Toyotas, but this definitely tops everything in the class.

    P.S. Those handles are push-button type, like in 1956.

  • avatar
    Dave M.

    I often equate simple & functional = classy, so I’m ok with this.

  • avatar
    bumpy ii

    The handles on the B13 Sentra (’91-94) looked like a pull-out and worked like a pull-up.

  • avatar

    I remember one of my old cars having a flush-mount handle and during a snowstorm 3 of the 4 doors being effectively sealed shut. After much strain I was barely able to crack open the rear passenger door open and climb in. From that point I learned 2 important lessons: never buy a car with flush-mount handles, and always keep the door seals lubricated (driver’s side was in tatters before the snow anyways).

    Is there any significant difference in aerodynamics between door handle types? I can imagine some engineer somewhere had to calculate the cost of a door handle part vs. very slight gain in MPGs and choosing between flush or lift out handles based on this cost calculation–only to be overridden by bean-counter management.

  • avatar

    If you want to see a nicely designed door handle, check out those on the ’61-’63 Thunderbird like I have. The handle is integrated into the body line/chrome trim that runs the length of the body.

  • avatar

    I remember back in 1989 while looking for a new car, one of the darlings of the auto mags was the Mitsubishi Galant GS. So, of course I put that car on my must-drive list.

    Nice car in many ways, but I distinctly remember it having the pull-style handles like a Mercedes. Basically no other Japanese or domestic cars had ’em yet. I loved them. Just not enough to buy a Galant over my revered 1989 Nissan Maxima that had curved & stylized, very solid flip handles with a keypad built into the handle base. A great design in it’s own right.

    But today I love the pull handles and hate the flip handles. Yet, knowing how car design goes: “What’s old is new again!”… the flip handles will come back at some point and seem cool to a new generation. I’ll hate it if that happens.

    Kinda like that god-awful 2-spoke steering wheel on the new S-Class Mercedes. Something tells me that super ugly design theme will trickle down to lesser cars and replace the great 3 and 4 spoke wheels of today that replaced the gross 2-spokers of my youth. Old is New. Yuck.

    Progress? Uh, no.

    • 0 avatar

      See 8th-Gen Honda Civic Sedans’ tillers (non-Si), pre-MMC).

      They got the three-spoke design at the MMC.

      “Good” parts-bin-engineering on the new Accords–what’s with the less-sporty four-spoke wheel from the sedans being included in the coupes?

  • avatar
    Kyree S. Williams

    Oh, now here’s something that’s interesting: most pull-out handles simply go in front of the negative space on the door, but some of them actually go through it. The examples that come to mind are the GMT900 trucks (Tahoe, Escalade, Sierra, Silverado, etc…) and the current Bentley Mulsanne. I’m not sure why GM did it, but Bentley may have done it to make a smoother transition between the old-fashioned Arnage and the neoclassical Mulsanne that replaced it. See what I mean:


  • avatar
    XYGTHO Phase3

    Thanks for answering my email!
    We obviously have a far smaller vehicle range of cars down here than you guys get…and weather is never really a consideration since a cold winter for most of us is 3 degree celcius (or 38 degrees fahrenheit).
    Of the mainstream brands, I could only think of Honda CRV and Civic hatch, and the Nissan 370Z with non pull-out handles. To be honest I always just thought it was a cost issue, but your more techy explanation makes perfect sense too…
    As for the old-school pushbutton-type of handle, I just figured they stopped using them since they might possibly maybe open since something external might hit them in the event of a crash.

  • avatar

    Slightly O/T here, but what was up with cars where you had to hold the handles to lock the doors in the days before power locks and remote fobs?

    I can remember getting out of my grandmother’s ’67 ‘Stang at five-years old and being confounded as to why the door I had just locked unlocked itself, unlike what happened on my mom’s ’71 Olds.

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