Pillarless Pioneer: The 1949 Buick Roadmaster Riviera

1949 Buick Roadmaster Riviera rear
GM’s earliest hardtops typically (but not always) had black or white painted roofs for greater visual contrast, but they did not have padded vinyl tops. Leatherette or cloth roof coverings had popped up periodically since the twenties (and were standard on the Kaiser Virginian and Ford’s pseudo-hardtop 1950 Crestliner), but in this era, they tended to be dealer or aftermarket add-ons. They were not yet the national fetish that they would become by the 1970s.

What really distinguished GM’s initial hardtops from earlier efforts like the Typhoon and Virginian was not their stylistic or conceptual novelty, but GM’s marketing approach. While the Town and Country coupe would have been just another body style (much like the prewar rumble seat sports coupes) and the Typhoon was an expedient improvisation, GM positioned its hardtop coupes as the image leaders of their respective lines. Each would be lavishly trimmed, have names intended to connote wealth and luxury, and carry prices to match.

Although we’ve been unable to pin down precise introduction dates (complicated by the fact that the cars were announced to the press months before production actually began), it appears that Buick’s hardtop was the first to go on sale, midway through the 1949 model year. Dubbed Riviera, it was offered only in the Roadmaster line, with a base price of $3,203. It was not the most expensive 1949 Buick — the woody Estate Wagon listed for over $500 more — but the Riviera was some $1,400 pricier than a Buick Special and $53 more than a Roadmaster convertible.

1949 Buick Roadmaster Riviera dashboard
In addition to luxurious cloth and leather upholstery, the 1949 Roadmaster Riviera came standard with a power seat and power windows. They were not electric, but hydraulic, powered by a pump under the hood. The system was shared with the convertibles, on which hydraulic power also raised and lowered the top. In 1950, the hydraulics were deleted from the regular Roadmaster Riviera to allow a lower base price, but they remained standard on the new Roadmaster Deluxe Riviera. Buyers opted for the latter by a margin of four to one.

The Riviera was followed in short order by the Oldsmobile version, bearing the cumbersome moniker of Futuramic 98 Deluxe Holiday Coupe, and Cadillac’s entry, the Series 62 Coupe de Ville. For customers whose budgets couldn’t stretch that far, Chevrolet and Pontiac announced that they would soon have their own editions. While the Chevrolet Bel Air and Pontiac Catalina wouldn’t arrive until the 1950 model year, prototypes were shown to the press in the spring of 1949, around the time the senior hardtops went into production. GM evidently had little doubt that the new style would be a hit with buyers.

1949 Buick Roadmaster Riviera roof interior
In addition to a generally lavish standard of trim, the Roadmaster Riviera and other early GM hardtops (even the Chevrolet Bel Air) had strips of brightwork on the headliner, intended to look like the bows of a convertible top. Touches like these were part of the reason for the high prices of these cars — the 1949 Riviera was actually more expensive than the Roadmaster convertible. The red seat uppers, incidentally, are leather, not vinyl. The lower portions are cloth.

That confidence was not misplaced. While the late introduction and high prices limited sales, all three new models were warmly received. Both the Riviera and the Olds Holiday were somewhat overshadowed by the more glamorous Coupe de Ville, but the Buick was the bestseller of the trio with a total of 3,243 units to Cadillac’s 2,150 and Oldsmobile’s 3,006.

The introduction of the Riviera was just one facet of a very good year for Buick. Although the decision to offer carryover bodies the previous year was probably the right decision in the long run, Buick’s 1948 sales had slipped by around 47,000 units, putting it behind both Pontiac and Dodge. Despite some Buick dealers’ trepidation about the new body — even with the last-minute changes — total 1949 sales soared to nearly 400,000 units, a new record, and enough to reclaim fourth place.

1949 Buick Roadmaster sedanet engine
All 1940s Buicks had straight-eight engines: 248 cu. in. (4,065 cc) for Specials and Supers, 320 cu. in. (5,247 cc) for Roadmasters. The 1949 Roadmaster, with its standard Dynaflow automatic, had 6.9:1 compression and hydraulic valve lifters, making 150 gross horsepower (112 kW) and 280 lb-ft (378 N-m) of torque. Before the war, Buick’s dual-carb “Compound Carburetion” setup had extracted 165 hp (123 kW) from the big engine, but Compound Carburetion proved finicky and overly thirsty and was soon dropped. In 1952, a modern four-barrel carburetor brought the big straight eight to 170 gross horsepower (127 kW), rivaling some contemporary V8s. The straight eight was replaced by Buick’s all-new “Nailhead” V8 in 1953.

SIDEBAR: The 1950 Buicks

The 1949 C-body ended up being a one-year-only design for Buick; both the B- and C-bodies were all new again for 1950. Compared to the 1949, the 1950 body shells represented something of a volte-face. The curved windshields and portholes were retained (now added to the Special, as well as the Super and Roadmaster), but the front fender lines were now significantly lower, dipping downward through the front doors — arguably a more natural evolution of the earlier style than the slab-sided ’49.

The 1950 models had actually been finalized before the 1949, having been completed during the tenure of Henry Lauve, who was also responsible for their most controversial feature, a new grille whose teeth extended downward through the front bumper, giving a rather ‘buck-toothed’ appearance.

Surprisingly, Buick elected to continue the previous year’s ‘downsizing’ of the Super and Roadmaster. Although the Roadmaster still rode a longer wheelbase than the Super — now 126.25 inches (3,207 mm), 0.25 inches (6 mm) longer than before — both now shared a stretched version of the Special’s new B-body shell. The larger C-body was reserved for a trio of long-wheelbase sedans, one in the Super series, two in the Roadmaster line.

1950 Buick Series 50 Super 126 tourback sedan front 3q © 2012 Andrew Bone (CC BY 2.0 Generic)
Stretching 208 inches (5,283 mm) overall on a 125.5-inch (3,188mm) wheelbase, the 1950 Buick Super 126 Four-Door Tourback Sedan, as this body style was formally known, was 4 inches (101 mm) longer than the standard 1950 Buick Super and only 0.75 inches (19 mm) shorter than the standard-wheelbase Roadmaster, splitting the difference in price. Powered by a new 263 cu. in. (4,315 cc) straight eight, making 128 hp (95 kW) with Dynaflow, the Super 126 sedan was by far Buick’s most popular 1950 model, accounting for nearly 20% of the division’s entire volume. (Photo: “1950 Buick Series 50 Super” © 2012 Andrew Bone; used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license)

There was actually very little difference between the new B- and C-bodies, which had far greater commonality than had previously been the case. The extent of that commonality was not immediately evident at the time and GM’s competitors were quite shocked when they finally figured it out. As we’ve previously mentioned, Ford’s belated analysis of GM’s latest body-sharing program was one of the direct inspirations for the Edsel program.

Why didn’t Buick simply put all Supers on the intermediate wheelbase and all Roadmasters on the larger chassis, as they had prior to 1949? We suspect it came down to merchandising. The new split-wheelbase strategy allowed Buick to sell the regular 1950 Roadmaster sedan for over $100 less than the comparable 1949 model and offer a ‘big’ Roadmaster for only $5 more than the previous year’s smaller edition. Buick Super buyers, meanwhile, could now get a Roadmaster-size car for over $400 less, a lot of money in those days. At the same time, Buick was able to maximize its use of both body shells, which kept production costs low and profits high. As puzzling as this approach may be to the modern historian or catalog reader, it paid off handsomely. Buick’s 1950 sales swelled to more than 588,000, an increase of nearly 50% over the already-exceptional 1949 model year.

1951 Buick Super (50-52) Riviera sedan front 3q © 2014 Greg Gjerdingen (CC BY 2.0 Generic)
The 1951 Buicks retained the same toothy front end theme as the 1950s, but it was more subdued, appearing as if the grille had undergone some corrective dental work between models. Power again came from a 263 cu. in. (4,315 cc) straight eight, which had been newly introduced the previous year. With Dynaflow, which most of these cars had, it had 128 gross horsepower (95 kW). (Photo: “1951 Buick Super” © 2014 Greg Gjerdingen; used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license)

1951 Buick Super (50-52) Riviera sedan rear 3q © 2014 Greg Gjerdingen (CC BY 2.0 Generic)
The 1951 Buick Series 50-52 Super Riviera sedan rode the same wheelbase as the 1950 Super 126, but was 2.2 inches (56 mm) longer, now stretching 210.2 inches (5,339 mm) overall. Like all Buicks of this vintage, it was suspended on coil springs all around and used torque tube drive. (Photo: “1951 Buick Super” © 2014 Greg Gjerdingen; used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license)

Buick repeated this strategy for 1951, but now applied the Riviera nameplate to the long-wheelbase four-door models. This was a curious decision since those models were four-door pillared sedans and Buick also continued to use the Riviera name for its pillarless hardtop coupes, which were available only on the shorter B-body. During this period, Oldsmobile and Cadillac were careful to only apply the Holiday and De Ville names to their pillarless hardtop models, presumably wary of diluting the glamour of the hardtops, but broader use of the Riviera name did Buick no great harm. The dual-wheelbase/dual-body strategy — the longer version again being called Riviera — was used to good effect through 1954, after which the Riviera name was once again applied only to pillarless two- and four-door models. That nomenclature belated disappeared after 1963 to avoid confusion with the new Riviera specialty car.

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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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