Pillarless Pioneer: The 1949 Buick Roadmaster Riviera

OPENING THE FLOODGATES

The limited sales of the 1949 hardtops served mainly to prime the pump. For 1950, Buick added a Riviera hardtop to the mid-priced Super line, with a price tag more than $1,000 lower than the 1949 Roadmaster Riviera. The Roadmaster hardtop, meanwhile, lost its standard hydraulic windows and seat, allowing its base price to be cut by over $500. (The hydraulics remained standard on the 1950 Roadmaster Deluxe Riviera, although even that was over $300 cheaper than the 1949 Roadmaster Riviera.) Buick’s hardtop sales swelled to nearly 69,000 units, almost 12% of its total production. For 1951, when the hardtop was added to the base Special line, sales rose to more than 84,000.

At the same time, Cadillac supplemented the Coupe de Ville with cheaper Series 61 and Series 62 hardtops, while Oldsmobile added Holiday coupes to the low-end Futuramic 76 and 88 lines as well as the big 98. The lower-priced divisions also got into the act with the debut of Pontiac’s Chieftain Super Catalina and Chevrolet’s first Bel Air. The latter, part of the notchback Styleline Deluxe series, sold more than 76,000 units for 1950 and more than 100,000 for 1951, despite being the second most expensive Chevy model.

The explosive popularity of the hardtop coupe left other domestic automakers scrambling to catch up. Chrysler belatedly put the Town & Country hardtop into limited production, along with a much cheaper DeSoto Custom Sportsman. Dodge and Plymouth hardtops would be added the following year. Ford, unable to offer a true hardtop until 1951, cobbled together a pair of pseudo-hardtop coupes, the Ford Custom Crestliner and Mercury Monterey, with vinyl roofs and lavish trim. (The coachbuilder Derham gave similar treatment to some Lincoln models, although the Derham editions were offered only through selected dealerships, not as a factory option.)

1950 Chrysler Newport coupe front 3q © 2006 Stephen Foskett CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported
Chrysler finally introduced its wood-bodied hardtop coupe, now called Town & Country Newport, for the 1950 model year. It was the only Town & Country model that year; the sedan had been dropped after 1948, the convertible after 1949. With a price tag of over $4,000, the Newport was very expensive, and only about 700 were sold. After this year, the Town & Country name was applied solely to wagons (and, from 1990, to minivans), but Chrysler continued to use the Newport name for its hardtop body styles through 1956, after which it became a model line instead. (Photo: “1950 Chrysler Newport Coupe woodie” © 2006 Stephen Foskett; resized and used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license)

By 1952, almost every U.S. automaker would have at least one hardtop model — except, ironically enough, Kaiser-Frazer. Although about 150 Virginians were among the 10,000-odd leftover 1949-1950 Kaisers facelifted to become 1951 Frazer Manhattans, Kaiser offered no other hardtops after 1950. By 1953, the lack of a pillarless body would be almost as serious a competitive disadvantage in the U.S. market as the lack of a V8 engine.

Although the four-door Virginian had sunk without a splash, GM subsequently introduced its own four-door hardtops in 1955. A year later, Nash even unveiled a four-door hardtop wagon, the 1956 Rambler Custom Cross Country. By decade’s end, Cadillac actually dispensed with pillared models entirely except for the formal Series Seventy-Five line.

Nonetheless, by the mid-sixties, only the cheapest American economy cars could get away without at least a pillarless coupe. Two-door hardtops were often the best-selling body style in the full-size lines that were still Detroit’s bread and butter, regularly outselling even the stalwart four-door sedan.

1965 Chevrolet Impala Sport Coupe front 3q © 2006 lv-Elouan Burneau PD
When automotive critic Tom McCahill set out to find the best-selling model in America in 1965, this was the answer: the V8-powered Chevrolet Impala Sport Coupe. That would remain the case throughout the decade, but the full-size Chevy hardtop would disappear in GM’s 1977 downsizing. Even the two-door pillared coupes would be gone after 1987. (Photo: “Impala2” © 2006 Iebruneau (Iv-Elouan Bruneau) at English Wikipedia; released to the public domain by the photographer, resized 2011 by Aaron Severson)

Pillarless hardtops were not unknown outside the U.S. A few examples from the fifties include the Hillman Californian, the Simca Aronde Grand Large, the Facel Vega, the BMW 503 coupe, the Graber-bodied Alvis TC108, and the Mercedes W128 220S coupe. However, the style never became as ubiquitous in the rest of the world as it did in the States. A major reason for that, of course, was cost. Increasingly affluent Americans could absorb the price premium of a hardtop coupe or sedan (which in any event became less as hardtops became commonplace), but those body styles remained an expensive indulgence for British and European buyers. They were even rarer in developing markets like Australia.

Hardtops would remain very popular in the U.S. until the seventies, when they began to disappear in favor of pillared coupes and four-door sedans. Around the same time, there was a vogue for two-door hardtops in Japan in the seventies, followed in the late eighties by a spate of four-door hardtops (and four-door sedans designed to look like hardtops) like the Toyota Carina ED and Corona EXiV. (See our article on Japanese four-door hardtops for more info on these cars.) However, the only automaker to regularly offer true pillarless hardtops in the U.S. market over the last 20 years has been Mercedes-Benz.

MAKING SENSE OF IT ALL

Some of the reasons for the ascendancy and eventual decline of the pillarless hardtop in the U.S. are obvious enough. Despite its minor drawbacks (including a loss of torsional rigidity and sometimes iffy window sealing, particularly on four-door models), it was practical in a way true convertibles were not and was usually far more attractive than its pillared counterparts. We would be hard-pressed to name an American car of the fifties or sixties that looked better as a pillared sedan. The hardtop’s decline, meanwhile, was attributable in part to concerns about pending federal safety standards and in part to over-familiarity. After more than 20 years, what had once seemed special was now passé.

If you’ll indulge us in a bit of dime store philosophizing, though, we think the hardtop neatly embodied the American mindset following the end of World War II. The mood of the postwar years was one of wary optimism; while the war had restored prosperity, the specter of the Depression had yet to fade and veterans of the conflict had not forgotten that victory had been achieved at a horrific human cost. The devastation of Europe and the arrival of the Bomb made a return to prewar isolationism politically untenable, but that impulse remained strong in many quarters. However, if the U.S. could no longer avoid exposure to the outside world, neither were Americans inclined to approach it in an entirely casual or carefree manner. In that sense, the pillarless hardtop was a perfect symbol of the national attitude of that era: simultaneously indulgent and conservative; outgoing but not open. Those traits would remain ingrained in the American character throughout the succeeding decades.

15 Comments

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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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