Pillarless Pioneer: The 1949 Buick Roadmaster Riviera

If everything had gone according to plan, Buick would have had an all-new Super and Roadmaster for 1948, debuting around the same time as the 1948 Cadillacs and the new Oldsmobile Futuramic 98. However, Buick management had reservations about the new direction. Even without Cadillac’s fins, the 1948 C-body was a considerable departure from GM’s previous forties cars. For one, it was smaller — since it had been intended as the B-body, the new shell was shorter than the outgoing body in both wheelbase and overall length, the latter by up to 6 inches (152 mm). Glass area was more than 20% greater than before and the C-body also featured GM’s first curved two-piece windshield, still a novelty at the time. (Although Chrysler had pioneered the curved one-piece windshield on the CW Airflow Imperial Custom back in 1934, its cost had discouraged any imitators. When stylist Jules Andrade proposed the curved glass for the 1948 Cadillac, Harley Earl was initially skeptical that it was even feasible for mass production.) Meanwhile, the flowing front fender theme of the prewar body had given way to a rather slab-sided look, with a higher fender line running just below the beltline.

1948 Buick Roadmaster sedanet front 3q 2009 Rex Gray CC BY 2.0 Generic
Because of Harlow Curtice’s reservations about the styling direction, Buick’s all-new models were delayed until 1949 and the 1948 Buick Super and Roadmaster were almost identical to the 1947s. With a wheelbase of 129 inches (3,277 mm) and an overall length of 217.5 inches (5,525 mm), the 1948 Roadmaster is about 3 inches (76 mm) longer than its 1949 counterpart. This car is a fastback sedanet, a body style introduced with great fanfare in 1941. The popularity of fastbacks waned rapidly after the war and the sedanet was dropped after 1952. Dynaflow was newly optional for Roadmasters this year, priced at $206. (Photo: “1948 Buick Roadmaster” © 2009 Rex Gray; used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license)

1949 Buick Roadmaster Riviera front 3q
Comparing this view of the 1949 Buick Roadmaster to the 1948 model above, the most obvious differences (other than body style — the two-door sedanet remained available in 1949) are the portholes and the substantially different front fender treatment. Less apparent is the 1949 Roadmaster’s shorter, 126-inch (3,200mm) wheelbase. This is still a very big car and is actually about 50 lb (23 kg) heavier than its predecessor.

None of these features seems particularly noteworthy today, but for the postwar era, they were fairly radical moves, particularly for a division whose success hinged in large part on its image of dependable middle-class values. Although Buick was doing well in the forties, running comfortably ahead of both Oldsmobile and Pontiac, general manager Harlow Curtice had not forgotten the division’s brush with death in the early thirties, which he had been brought in to reverse. The existing prewar bodies, designed under the auspices of Buick studio chief Henry Lauve, had been very successful (indeed, they were be the styling target for Hudson’s 1948 “Stepdown” line) and Curtice was not eager to tamper with a winning formula.

Curtice was also unenthusiastic about the styling mockups for the all-new 1948 Buicks. Aside from the controversial features already described, the new Super and Roadmaster were to have a considerably softer front end treatment than had been the Buick norm, exacerbated by a rather vacant new grille with only nine ‘teeth’ rather than the previous 21. Nonetheless, time was short and development proceeded apace. By the spring of 1947, the new models were already being tooled for production, catalog illustrations had been prepared, and Buick stylists had moved on to the 1949 and 1950 models.

In mid-1947, Ned Nickles succeeded Henry Lauve as head of the Buick studio, at which point Harlow Curtice slammed on the brakes. According to stylist Richard Stout, the story around the office was that Curtice had had a disturbing dream that convinced him the new Buick would be a commercial disaster like the Chrysler Airflow. In response, Curtice ordered Nickles to redesign the hood and grille, even though it meant delaying production even more. As it was, the all-new Cadillac and Oldsmobile 98 didn’t arrive at dealers until March 1948 and the new Buick would be pushed back to the fall. In the meantime, the 1947 Super and Roadmaster would carry over for 1948. The only significant change would be the addition of the new Dynaflow torque converter automatic, optional on Roadmasters.

1949 Buick Roadmaster Riviera front
After Ned Nickles’ last-minute redesign, the hood and grille of the 1949 Buick look much like those of the 1948, which was not the case with the softer original design. This was Buick’s first production car with a curved windshield, although it is still two pieces. One-piece curved windshields were fitted to Supers and Roadmasters for 1950 and to Specials starting in 1951.

The all-new Buick Super and Roadmaster finally arrived late that year as 1949 models. Along with a revised grille and bolder hood, the big Buicks sported one more last-minute styling change: “VentiPorts,” decorative portholes in the front fenders. These were directly inspired by a gimmick Ned Nickles had added to his own 1948 Roadmaster convertible. Harlow Curtice was very taken with them and insisted on adding them to the 1949 models (except the Special, which didn’t get them until 1950). They would quickly become a Buick trademark.

At launch, the senior Buicks were offered in four body styles: a four-door sedan, the two-door fastback sedanet, a convertible, and the wood-bodied Estate Wagon. The most newsworthy addition, the new Riviera hardtop, would not arrive until later in the model year.

1949 Buick Roadmaster Riviera portholes
The portholes on Ned Nickles’ personal car were suggested and installed by modeler Joe Funk, who included lights in each porthole that would flash as the spark plugs fired — an eye-catching if rather silly gimmick. The portholes became the subject of much office chatter, which eventually came to the attention of Harlow Curtice. Curtice asked to see the car and, to the surprise of some of his colleagues, liked the portholes so much that he ordered yet another tooling change to incorporate them onto the 1949s — albeit without the flashing lights. On early 1949 models, the VentiPorts were actually open, theoretically exhausting heat from the engine compartment, but on later cars, they were just solid pot metal. Roadmasters had four VentiPorts; Supers (and later Specials) had three.

THE 1949 BUICK ROADMASTER RIVIERA, CADILLAC COUPE DE VILLE, AND OLDSMOBILE 98 HOLIDAY

Popular legend attributes GM’s hardtop coupes to Ed Ragsdale, who was Buick’s assistant chief engineer through most of the forties and became the division’s general manufacturing manager in 1949. In 1954, Ragsdale claimed that he suggested the concept to Harley Earl in 1947 following a conversation with Ragsdale’s wife Sarah, who loved convertibles, but always insisted on driving with the top up, lest the wind disturb her expensive coiffure.

1949 Buick Roadmaster Riviera rear 3q
This Riviera sports the chrome “sweepspear,” added late in the model year. Not all 1949 Rivieras had this feature, which was apparently also available on convertibles (and perhaps other body styles, as well). The sweepspear would become another hallmark of Buick styling. It also foreshadows the shape of the distinctive fender dip Buick would adopt in 1950.

In fact, the pillarless hardtop had been developed nearly two years earlier by Ned Nickles and Jules Andrade, then working in a separate special projects studio originally created to do development work for GM’s European subsidiaries. (It had been in that studio that Frank Hershey had conceived the first iteration of what became Cadillac’s famous tailfins, first seen on a 1944 Vauxhall concept.) According to Nickles, Ragsdale did see their model and remark that the hardtop roof would be perfect for his wife, but Ragsdale didn’t actually suggest the idea.

We’re not sure if Nickles and Andrade were influenced by either the Typhoon or the Town & Country Custom Club Coupe, although if Nickles was correct about the first models being built in 1945, we tend to doubt it. Harley Earl would almost certainly have been aware of both the Town & Country prototypes and the Armstrong Siddeley — he attended most of the major European auto shows and in those days, Detroit automakers typically had a good idea of what their rivals were doing. However, Nickles’ account suggests that the scale model was created before the Typhoon was even developed and before the apocryphal new Town & Country line was announced. In any case, the hardtop was a straightforward enough idea and it’s entirely possible that all three were conceived independently.

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  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.

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