Home » We Need To Talk About The Ideal Placement Of The Oh-Shit Handle

We Need To Talk About The Ideal Placement Of The Oh-Shit Handle

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The plight of the person in the passenger seat of a car is a tricky one. The experience is entirely dependent on the whims and skills of the driver, and there’s very little provided to the passenger to change that. Maybe they’ll have access to the radio, or climate controls, or center-stack infotainment screens, or, in the case of some fancy new cars, their own little touchscreens. But, fundamentally, those can’t help a passenger from the physical motions caused by a driver wanting to learn everything they can about oversteer on a wet road, or a driver that only glances out the windshield every few seconds, then yanks the wheel in a panic. For these situations, there’s really only one relatively consistently provided tool for the passenger: the Oh-Shit Handle (or OSH). These have been around for longer than you’d think, and there’s a few common designs and locations for them. Let’s talk about what may be best.

The Oh-Shit Handle (yes, I know some company trademarked that, but I’m not giving into that shameless commercialization), more formally known simply as a “Grab Handle” and less formally known as a Jesus Handle or Chicken Handle or some other similar sort of slightly demeaning name, seems to have a history that extends nearly as far back as the automobile itself, at least in some nascent forms.

Vidframe Min Top
Vidframe Min Bottom

Oh, and if you’re skeptical about the authenticity of the “grab handle” name, here’s a nice example from a 1970s Volkswagen Type 3 owner’s manual:


While it doesn’t appear to be present on the very first automobile, the 1769 Cugnot Steam Drag, there do seem to be some very early examples, depending on how generous we are with the definition of an Oh-Shit Handle.


For example, I think we could consider this seat railing on Sylvester Roper’s 1865 steam-powered Quadracycle a nascent form of an OSH:


Was it purposefully designed to give the passenger something to clutch for support as the vehicle drove? Probably, right? Or at least to keep various buttocks from sliding off sideways, but the idea of grabbing onto it for support almost certainly occurred, instinctively. I think we can think of this as a sort of Oh-Shit Handle, and it’s worth noting that this is a Civil War-era Oh-Shit Handle, and I suspect had many similar analogs on horse-drawn vehicles before it.

By the turn of the century, I think Oh-Shit-type handles were becoming not-uncommon on cars, usually in a location on the firewall/dashboard area, like on this 1902 Mors Type Z racing car:



I realize this example is sort of an odd one because there isn’t really a passenger seat, but it is a good picture of a fairly common type of grab handle, one that was in a sort of awkward location, but likely still welcomed, especially in a car as open as this. By the 1920s and 1930s, Oh-Shit Handles, often covered in rope for grip, were becoming more and more common, especially on sporting vehicles.


Over time, the Oh-Shit Handle ended up in a number of locations inside a car, but I think we can generally classify its most common locations into these four categories:

Ohshit Classes

So, we have these four main types: Type 1 includes all dashboard or firewall-mounted handles, Type 2 is for any roof/over door-type handle, Type 3 is for handles mounted on the A-pillar or any sort of windshield-pillar mounted handle, most commonly found on larger trucks or SUVs, where they also can assist in entry and exit, and the Type 4 handles are a sort of catchall category that includes any handles mounted low, alongside the seat or on the transmission tunnel, that sort of thing.


Here’s some examples of each category:

T1 Example A

VW has long been a fan of the Type 1 dashboard handle, though, ironically, they moved it from the Type 1 position on their Type 1 Sedan (Beetle) in 1973, moving it to the Type 2 position over the door.

T2 Example

Type 2s are by far the most common on contemporary cars. They sometimes flip down, and even Jeeps without tops use this location, with Oh-Shit Handles strapped to the roll bars.


T3 Example

These Type 3 ones, as I mentioned before, are most often found on high trucks and SUVs, because they do give you something to grab onto to get in and out.

T4 Example

The Type 4 category is perhaps the most varied, including such oddballs as the Subaru Brat’s in-bed-seat terror grips and also the purposeful-seeming handles found on sports cars like Porsches.

As for which of these handles does the best job, I think. that’s worthy of discussion. I’m pretty sure I’ve been a passenger in cars with all of these types of handles, and I think all have merits and downsides; the Type 2s can work as coat hangers if needed, and can be placed in the rear seats as well quite easily, something that’s not as readily do-able with the other categories.


The A-pillar ones have their dual uses and can be in a good location to grab if you’re, say, standing on a running board. The Type 4 ones I’ve encountered seem to show up on the most extreme sort of grab-handle duty, like on-track and off-road machines, which says a lot for their ability to keep a passenger calm and in place.

But what do you think? I feel like we need to discuss this, because, like all details of cars, it’s important, dammit.




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Classic and Clunker
Classic and Clunker
20 days ago

In my social circle Down Under they’ve been known as “K’nel bars”.. as in, the passenger says “f*k’nel” as the car hurtles off the road.

25 days ago

Personally I feel that type 4 is the most useful. Type 1 & 3 aren’t great because you have to reach out in front of you to grab them, which depending on your stature, seating position, exact handle location, and the way that the vehicle is being is being hooned, it can be difficult to grab onto. Type 2 is fairly intuitive, it’s very easy to pull against, and you can push yourself down into your seat, but you can’t really push on it to keep from smacking your head into the window/pillar. A good type 4 allows you to control yourself in all directions, and most cars have one built in for free. It’s called a door handle.

24 days ago
Reply to  Clueless_jalop

When I was learning to drive, I could gauge my performance by the level of death grip my mum had on the door handle.

25 days ago

Type 2, over the door.

Type 1 is terrible. Adding the handle to the dash is strongest for only front/back support (as indicated by a line between the person’s center of mass and the handle). Front/back support is already provided by the seat back, seat belt, and legs. Using a handle way out front for lateral, side to side, support is very difficult. The force vectors are all wrong with a large moment arm between the handle and the person. The only way to get side to side support is to put torque on the handle with your hands, which is a pretty weak way to get a side to side force on the person’s center of mass so far away. [Type 1 maybe made more sense when cars had less lateral grip, and no seat belts.]

Type 4, low down, provides no additional support, no new force vectors, versus the seat, which is very close by. It might only provide some support from bouncing upwards.

Type 2, Over the door is tangent to the front/back support that the seat/belts provide (especially when the bolsters are small). So this handle is very strong both side to side and up/down (line between the handle and the person’s center of mass is about 45 deg to the side, and 45 deg vertical). This provides easy, direct, side to side force vector support, and support up/down (not hitting your head on bounces). These are support directions that are not otherwise provided. The handle is closest to your body, so if you need support in another direction (through torque on the handle) the lever/moment-arm is smaller. Also, being up high, it provides a new support point near your head, that is pretty far from all of the other support points (seat back, seat, legs, etc.), creating more overall stability.

Type 3 is lower, and is a mix of front/back and side to side support (line from CM to handle is 45 deg to the side, and 45deg to the front). This isn’t bad, but front/back is already pretty strong from the seat/belt. It provides little to no up/down support. Also they tend to be farther away, increasing the moment arm, and requiring more torque for any indirect direction forces (like up/down).

Last edited 25 days ago by Jb996
25 days ago

I’ve been thinking about this since yesterday…Type 2 feels right when I’m just hanging onto something, but don’t actually need the handle. Lower handles feel better in the moment I want a grab handle. I’d rather grab in front of me than above me if something is going wrong. Some of the Type 4 are in good positions for that, some aren’t. Type 1, though, feels like it could be dangerous with airbags.

Type 3 could be good, depending on vehicle, but it’s usually on larger vehicles where it is both a worse placement for use and additional material on an already large pillar.

I guess what I’m saying is that it all depends on the car, the handle, and the situation.

Last edited 25 days ago by Drew
25 days ago

Type 2 is an instinctive reach, so I say that? Besides, it’s a similar position for subway hangers or static line jumps.

Rob Schneider
Rob Schneider
25 days ago

I’m not sure if it’s structural or ergonomic considerations that impact this, but to me seating position matters. In the front seat, I like them on the A pillar. In the back row(s), a handle on the B/C pillar doesn’t seem right (maybe they would be too far away), so up top feels like the right answer.

Some cars have an OSH integrated into the door handle as well, so maybe that would be a type 5? I’ve been in older cars where the only apparent OSH was actually the lever that opened the door – thankfully modern cars seem to have remedied that particular design flaw.

Tom Herman
Tom Herman
25 days ago

My Grandma started driving in her 50’s, and drove way too fast. I remember my Grandad white knuckling the vent window post and screaming EMMA!!! He did that a lot.

25 days ago

Personally I like type 4 the best, but type 2 is such an archetype. If you refer to it as the Oh Shit handle, the first image that comes to mind is the scene in Initial D when Yuichi (gas station owner) grabs one above the door with one hand when Bunta Fujiwara (father of the protagonist) begins drifting. He holds on for his life, then Bunta starts lighting a cigarette mid corner drift, slowly opens the ashtray with his other hand and exclaims “I felt like I needed a smoke”. That’s when Yuichi grabs the Oh Shit handle with both hands!

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