Pillarless Pioneer: The 1949 Buick Roadmaster Riviera

1946 Chrysler Town & Country Custom Club Coupe rear 3q Chrysler HistoricalCollection
While the Town & Country hardtop didn’t go into production until 1950, Chrysler president David Wallace used one of the prototypes as his personal car at least into the early fifties. In 1949, it received a number of minor modifications, including a new paint job, a vinyl roof covering, and a Tolex vinyl interior. That car was later sold to a private owner and still survives today. (Photo circa 1946, copyright © FCA US LLC – Historical Services; used with permission)

On the other side of the pond, Britain’s Armstrong Siddeley Motors became one of the first manufacturers to launch all-new postwar models, announced in May 1945, immediately after V-E Day. The new models would be big, luxurious, six-cylinder cars, in the 16 HP (RAC taxable horsepower) bracket. For maximum publicity value, each would carry the name of a famous wartime military aircraft made by the Hawker Siddeley Group (which included aviation companies Hawker Siddeley, A.V. Roe, and Gloster), of which the automaker had been a division since 1935. The first of these was a two-door, four-passenger drophead coupe called Hurricane, which went into production in mid-November 1945. It was followed in February 1946 by a four-door sedan, the Lancaster.

Both the Hurricane and the Lancaster sold well considering their high prices, but by the early summer of 1946, orders for the saloon outpaced those of the drophead by a significant margin. The problem was that Mulliner, which supplied bodies for the Lancaster, was unable to increase its output in any economically viable manner. As a stopgap, Armstrong Siddeley’s experimental engineering department in Coventry decided to create a fixed-head coupe version of the Hurricane, trading its three-position folding top for a simple pillarless metal roof. Dubbed Typhoon Sports Saloon, the new hardtop went into regular production later that year. Despite its cost — £1,214 with purchase tax, some £63 more than the already-pricey Lancaster (and equivalent to nearly $5,000 at the contemporary exchange rate) — it was reasonably successful. More than 1,700 were produced before production ended in November 1949.

1947 Armstrong Siddeley Hurricane DHC front 3q 2009 Brian Snelson CC BY 2.0 Generic
This is obviously not an Armstrong Siddeley Typhoon, of which we were not able to find usable pictures, but the model upon which it was based: the Armstrong Siddeley Hurricane, a four-passenger drophead coupe with a three-position folding top. Like the Lancaster saloon, both the Typhoon and Hurricane were powered by a 16 HP (122 cu. in./1,991 cc) OHV six with 70 hp (52 kW), offering a choice of four-speed manual gearbox or four-speed Wilson preselector transmission. With either transmission, performance was rather sleepy, so a bored-out 18 HP (141 cu. in./2,309 cc) engine with 75 hp (56 kW) was added in 1949. (Photo: “Armstrong Siddeley” © 2011 Brian Snelson; used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license)

Since Armstrong Siddeley had no U.S. sales organization, no more than a handful of its 16/18 HP models was ever sold in the States and few Americans ever even saw a Typhoon unless they attended the Earls Court shows or subscribed to British journals like The Autocar and The Motor. The first postwar hardtop sold in America would come from a U.S. independent.

FROM CHRYSLER TO KAISER-FRAZER

By 1947, Buzz Grisinger and his colleague Herb Weissinger, both of whom had worked on the postwar Town & Countries, had departed Chrysler for Kaiser-Frazer, where their former boss, Bob Cadwallader (Chrysler’s exterior design chief from 1940 to 1944), was now chief stylist.

One of their early tasks was to create new image leaders for the Kaiser and Frazer lines. Joe Frazer and Edgar Kaiser favored a convertible, but the company’s limited capital meant that it had to be based on the existing four-door sedan. (Since it had never been intended as a convertible, K-F eventually spent around $5 million beefing up the sedan’s frame and body structure, which in retrospect was probably more than they would have spent on tooling a new two-door body.) Along with the four-door convertible, Cadwallader, Grisinger, and Weissinger also developed a four-door hardtop, the Virginian, by simply adding a permanent steel roof to the convertible. With a standard nylon roof covering, the hardtop was hard to distinguish from the convertible at a glance.

1949 Kaiser Virginian hardtop front 3q © 2010 Jerry Edmundson (used with permission)
Unlike the Armstrong Siddeley Typhoon or the early Chrysler and GM hardtops, the Kaiser Virginian had fixed side window frames separated by small glass panes. They are not roof pillars. The contemporary Kaiser and Frazer convertibles had them as well, leading us to suspect that they were added to address some problem with proper window alignment. Although the Virginian sold poorly, it was prescient, arriving nearly six years before GM’s first four-door hardtop models. (Photo: “Cruise-in” © 2010 Jerry Edmundson; used with permission)

The convertible and hardtop made their press debut in January 1949 and went on sale shortly thereafter. Although the convertible was offered in both Kaiser and Frazer versions, the hardtop was for some reason offered only as a Kaiser, with a base price of just under $3,000. That was Cadillac money for a six-cylinder car (like all big Kaisers, the Virginian’s sole engine was the flathead Continental six) of limited prestige, so buyers were scarce. Fewer than 1,000 Virginians were built and sales were so slow that many 1949 cars were re-serialed and marketed as 1950 models. Even then, Kaiser ended the model year with more than 150 unsold cars — a commercial rout. Kaiser-Frazer may have been first, but the first successful postwar American hardtops would be GM’s.

GM’S POSTWAR DESIGNS AND THE BELATED ALL-NEW BUICK

Before we talk about the Roadmaster Riviera and the other GM hardtops, we should say a little about the origins of the 1949 Buick and how GM’s first postwar designs came about.

While some rivals, including Kaiser-Frazer and Studebaker, had introduced new cars for 1947, it was not until the middle of the 1948 model year that GM followed suit. Some modern historians have suggested that the delay was part of some grand strategy, allowing GM’s all-new 1948 and 1949 models to steal a match on their rivals just as the postwar boom ended, but the truth appears to have been more prosaic. Like other automakers, GM had lost many of its stylists and design engineers to the armed forces during the war and those who remained were obliged to devote the majority of their time to military work. After the war ended, GM was beset by raw materials shortages and labor issues, most prominently a UAW strike that began in November 1945 and lasted nearly four months.

As we’ve previously discussed, the all-new 1948 Cadillac was designed at stylist Frank Hershey’s farm during the UAW lockout and was heavily influenced by Hershey’s earlier “Cadillac C.O.” prototype and the Lockheed P-38 Lightning, which some of the designers had viewed before the war. Originally, the resultant design was to become the basis of the new corporate B-body shell, used for the smaller Cadillac Series 61, Oldsmobile Series 70, and Buick Special; a separate but stylistically similar C-body was to be developed afterward for the larger models. However, the protracted strike and other complications meant that getting even one all-new body ready in time for 1948 was going to be a tall order. The design therefore became the new C-body, which would be introduced by Cadillac and the senior Buick and Oldsmobile models. Oldsmobile and Buick’s B-body cars would retain the existing body shell for at least another model year.

15 Comments

Add a Comment
  1. I’d say one of the biggest reasons for the disappearance of hardtops was the widespread application of automotive Air Conditioning.

    On of the main reasons for pillarless bodies was the fact that they opened up the whole car interior and improved ventilation, especially in the hot summers in most of the US.

    By the 70’s A/C was becoming commonplace, and the need for 2 or 4 open windows was going away as we all became comfy in our air-conditioned cocoons. Remember the Mercury Breezeway?

    today, almost every car is equipped with factory air, and there’s little need to open a window for fresh air; and the cabin air filter keeps the interior air fresh, and keeps dust and bugs out.

    While changing tastes are certainly a part of the demise of the hardtop, I propose it was the humble air conditioning compressor that killed them off.

    1. I think that was a factor, but I don’t think it was the primary reason, particularly for high-end cars like the Eldorado and Continental Marks, where the take-up rate for air was already quite high by the late sixties.

      Also, I don’t think the ability to roll down all the windows was nearly as important to the popularity of hardtops as style. Particularly on a lot of early-seventies hardtops, with their extreme tumblehome, opening the side windows even partly tended to create massive buffeting; it wasn’t that practical for ventilation unless you spent a lot of time under 35 mph.

    2. The biggest contributor to the demise of the hardtop was the strengthening of federal rollover crash standards for the 1974 model year. 1973 was the last year for hardtop coupes in the General Motors full size lines. Hardtop four-door sedans were gone by 1977. Air conditioning really didn’t have much to do with it.

      1. That is a popular explanation, although my research suggests that it’s only partly true.

        After originally posting this article, I looked up what the federal standards actually are. The standards to which people are generally referring when they talk about this are 49 CFR 571.216: Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard No. 216, Roof Crush Resistance. As actually enacted (an important point that I’ll get into in a moment), FMVSS 216 went into effect for passenger cars (i.e., vehicles with a GVWR of less than 6,000 lb/2,722 kg) on September 1, 1973, the beginning of the 1974 model year. Under the standard, the vehicle’s roof must not deform more than five inches (127 mm) when subjected to a vertical force equal to the lesser of 1.5 times its empty weight or 5,000 lb (22,240 N). Convertibles are exempt.

        The effective date of that standard means that a fair number of hardtop coupes did indeed meet that requirement. (There were no phase-in provisions, and no exemptions other than convertibles and vehicles over the GVWR limit.) Until very recently, that was also as stringent as it actually got; new rules have been enacted, but the phase-in process doesn’t begin until MY2013.

        However, from what I’ve been able to gather, the version of this standard that was originally mooted was a good deal more stringent than what was actually enacted. (The AMC Pacer, for instance, was designed with provisions for an integral roll bar through its B-pillars, in anticipation of those rules.) All of the FMVSS were the focus of intensive lobbying and occasional threatened or actual legal action by automakers, and there was considerable political pressure on both sides. Sorting out the details of what was originally proposed and how it evolved is complicated at this remove, and would probably involved some hard time in front of a microfilm reader, but it’s likely that the existing regulation was a compromise.

        In any case, I think it’s probably reasonable to say that the decision to phase out hardtops (and convertibles; I gather that the exemption in that case was a late change) was strongly influenced by the [i]proposed[/i] regulations, and by the time the somewhat less stringent actual regulations were decided, styling decisions had been made and tooling had been bought. The Pacer again is probably a revealing example — the B-pillar design didn’t change, even though the production cars didn’t actually have the roll bar. And after that, designers and product planners not in the habit of leafing through federal regulations over breakfast may have just assumed that the game had moved on, and pursued other themes.

  2. Amen, Admin on 70’s frameless glass and buffeting. GM “Collanade” intermediates being a notable offender. Practically, the mechanisms for holding the glass in place became less robust on most makes, hitting a nadir on GM mid- 80’s G bodies and 95 through 99 Neons. Flap city.
    Long after they were gone from these shores, the Germans, in the form of the lovely W124 chassis CE coupes, kept the pilarless hardtop alive.

    1. The BMW E31 8-Series was also a pillarless hardtop (as were the earlier E9 coupes), but BMW hasn’t been as consistent with pillarless models; the E63 6-Series is not, nor, I believe, is the new F13.

  3. An enjoyable entry as always – but it seems to me that the decline of “the hardtop aesthetic” deserves further analysis. It may be true that “many American preoccupations of the time [the 1970s] demanded a certain privacy” (if people wanted privacy why didn’t they go indoors?), or that something about the political nature of the 1970s was involved as you suggest. But there are much earlier instances of more “intimate” greenhouses – for instance, the two- and four-door 1962 GM full-size hardtops and sedans (versus the very similar but larger-windowed 1961s) – as well as much later examples, such as the K-car-derived New Yorker and Imperial sedans of the early 1990s still sporting opera windows (built into the rear doors) and wrap-over rear roof treatments.

    1. Like hardtops, blind quarter panels and formal roofs were not at all new — they were common on limousines, of course, and were prominently featured on a lot of the Derham customs and semi-customs of the forties and fifties. They popped up here and there on mainstream cars — the GM cars you mention, the early-sixties Imperial LeBaron, and so on — but it wasn’t until the seventies that they really became ubiquitous. Likewise, the idiom held on into the eighties and early nineties, with a whole range of Chrysler products that all looked vaguely like miniature Mark Vs, but by then, they were really rather anachronistic. You still occasionally see cars with aftermarket coach tops that blank off half the quarterlights and a third of the rear window, but they’re the anomaly, rather than the norm.

      One could always say that the transition to the seventies pseudo-landau/brougham look was a shift from cars that looked sort of like sporty convertibles to cars that looked sort of like limousines. Certainly, the desire to look affluent is a major driving factor in a lot of automotive trends. On the other hand, the eighties were nothing if not wealth obsessed, but I think most affluent Boomers tended to turn up their nose at seventies-style symbols of luxury, so it wasn’t JUST that.

      As for your other point about just staying home, well — in the seventies, people did an awful lot in discos, bathhouses, and custom vans that one might ordinarily expect to fall into the ‘privacy of your own home’ category…

  4. Hi Aaron,

    The hardtop Hillmans were the Californians (and Sunbeam Rapiers), not the 4-door sedan Minxes. The roofs on the Californians at least were effectively welded-on hardtops on a convertible body shell in those years.

    Another interesting curiosity was later versions the 1948-54 Sunbeam Talbot 90 sedan (eg Mk3) which had a suicide rear door without a C pillar, just overlapping glass.

  5. Oops! Thanks for the correction.

  6. I live in Brazil, where only two hardtop coupes have been made: the Dodge Dart/Charger (built 1969-81), based on the 1967-69 A-Body Dart, and the Chevrolet Opala (built 1971-89), based on the German 1967-71 Opel Rekord body, but powered by inline 4- or 6-cylinder Chevrolet engines (153/151 CID or 235/250 CID).
    From 1980 to 1982, my parents had a 1978 6-cylinder, dark blue Opala hardtop coupe. I absolutely loved it. When they decided to sell it, I made a drawing of it as a souvenir and, unaware of anything (I was 15 at the time), wrote its VIN at the back of the paper sheet. Thanks to this – and Google -, I was able to find the car in March 2009; it had been impounded about two years before, and was going to be auctioned and scrapped. I bought it back and restored it from the ground up. Today, I’m glad and proud to say it’s turning heads at the streets again, just as it did 30 years ago!

  7. Actually, I think everyone commenting missed the biggest factor in hardtops going away. Retractable three point seat belts. Starting in 1968 all cars had to have three point belts. In the early years they gave people separate belts, so you had 2 belts per seat and one for the center. So this would leave you with about 10 belt ends to sort through when trying to buckle up. My 71 Riviera has this problem, partially solved by having two different sized receptacles. I recently drove a 73 Lincoln Mark IV and it had a retractable bottom belt and a hole in the male end to snap the top piece into. Well, this required a lot of dexterity to pull it out, hold it, snap the top belt in and then put them together into the female end.

    Retractable three point seat-belts came out in the mid 70s and had one retractor on the bottom and a bolt in the B-pillar to hold the top. This was much easier to use. Not as many people wore seatbelts in those days, but even if only 20% of the people did, you could increase sales to those people with this system. But the system cannot work with a hardtop. It would leave an ugly belt going from roof to floor that would flap in the wind and impede rear seat access. Mercedes mounts the top belt to the bottom of the rear window frame. Because the doors need to be longer to allow rear seat access the driver would have to reach way behind them to grab the belt. Mercedes has an electric motor push the belt forward to the driver when the door closes. So this adds complication and expense.

    1. Well, the problem with this theory is that it would mean that three-point belts would also preclude convertibles, which was not the case. (Convertibles became rarer in the same period hardtops generally disappeared, but it wasn’t specifically because of seatbelts.) It’s true that some high-end convertibles do have complex and expensive “seatbelt handing” devices, but not all ragtops do: the MX-5/Miata being a prime example.

  8. While I agree its not the only reason I think it is one that was not addressed. I’m thinking about 80s cars like the Fox body Mustang where ragtop versions had seatbelts that were in the way of rear seat entry. That, on top of window sealing issues and not looking better, not being as stiff and being heavier all contributed to them never building a fox body Mustang with a hardtop even though they had a convertible. I think people would put up with the drawbacks for a convertible, but not a hardtop.
    I agree that I also cannot think of a car from the hardtop era that would look better with a pillar. But with modern window construction they have been able to make new windows more flush with the body. Then they paint the pillars black and it looks almost as good with none of the drawbacks.
    I’m curious if during the 60’s people actually rolled all the windows down. It seems to be quite a chore if you don’t have power windows and they were uncommon before the 80s. The sense of privacy issue you brought up seems to make sense. If I park in front of a restaurant I close all the windows and lock the car even if I can see the car from my seat. I think people were more apt to leave their car open in the 50’s and 60’s.
    Changing attitudes are probably the number one reason. My father built two 53 Studebakers. One in the 60’s, a hardtop. One in the 2000’s, a post coupe. He wanted the post so he could mount three point shoulder belts and he also wanted the additional structural rigidity since the car is built to handle too. He used frame strengthening parts from a hardtop frame to make the frame more stiff. When he was all finished he painted it dark red, but like modern cars he painted the door frames and pillars black. At a glance you hardly notice the post.

    1. In regards to rolling down the windows, I imagine it depended on the weather and the car. One thing about which we’ve gotten spoiled by modern cars is flow-through ventilation, which in mild weather can provide pretty good airflow in a lot of cars, even with the windows up. That wasn’t a strong point of most 50s and 60s cars, even ones that did have flow-through systems.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Click here to read our comment policy. You must be at least 18 to comment. PLEASE DON'T POST COPYRIGHTED CONTENT YOU AREN'T AUTHORIZED TO USE!
Except as otherwise noted, all text and images are copyright © Aaron Severson dba Ate Up With Motor. (Terms of Use – Reprint/Reuse Policy) Trademarks referenced herein are the property of their respective owners and are used here for informational/nominative purposes.