Pillarless Pioneer: The 1949 Buick Roadmaster Riviera

2010 Mercedes CLK rear 3q © 2010 S 400 HYBRID (released for all use with proper attribution)
One of the very few modern two-door hardtops: the Mercedes-Benz C209 CLK coupe. This is a 2010 model, sporting the C209’s recently facelifted styling. (Photo: “Mercedes CLK (C209) Facelift rear 20100410” © 2010 S 400 HYBRID; released for all use (with attribution) by the photographer, resized 2011 by Aaron Severson)

By the mid-seventies, that climate had changed substantially as the guarded optimism of the postwar years and the idealism of the sixties faded to a gloomy hangover of inflation and political disillusionment. The big growth areas in seventies Detroit were ostentation and intimacy: blind rear quarters (with the inevitable padded landau top), tiny opera windows, shag carpet and plush velour. Many American preoccupations of the time demanded a certain privacy — we don’t think it’s coincidental the same period was also a boom time for custom vans — and the glassy hardtops of the fifties and sixties were suddenly out of place.

The American public mindset has shifted several times since then, but hardtops, like tail fins, have yet to really make a comeback. Many modern cars still display a hardtop aesthetic — frameless door glass, blacked-out and/or glassed-in pillars, etc. — but at present, retractable hardtops are more common than the pillarless variety. Engineering a pillarless hardtop to meet current expectations for crash safety and structural rigidity is undoubtedly more challenging than it was 50 years ago, but cars like Mercedes’ CLK and CL coupes demonstrate that it’s hardly impossible. Mundane coupe versions of popular sedans like the Honda Accord and Nissan Altima have become increasingly common, and perhaps when the current public fascination with crossovers and ‘soft roaders’ has run its course, hardtops may once again become the Next Big Thing. The new federal roof crush strength standards that will be phased in for the 2013 model year (49 CFR § 571.216a) may complicate that, but stranger things have happened…

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ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

The author would like to thank Jerry Edmundson and Danielle Szostak-Viers of the Chrysler Historical Collection (now FCA US LLC – Historical Services) for providing some of the images in this article and Alden Jewell (autohistorian on Flickr) for his insights on the launch of the 1949 hardtops and contemporary GM advertising.


NOTES ON SOURCES

Our sources included “1950 Chrysler Town & Country Newport Coupe” (16 August 2008, Imperial Club, www.imperialclub. com, accessed 18 July 2011); the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, “1936-1992 Buick Roadmaster” (22 October 2007, HowStuffWorks.com; auto.howstuffworks. com/ 1936-1992-buick-roadmaster.htm, accessed 17 July 2011), “1946 Chrysler Town & Country Hardtop” (15 October 2007, HowStuffWorks.com, auto.howstuffworks. com/ 1946-chrysler-town-and-country-hardtop.htm, 17 July 2011), “1948-1949 Oldsmobile Futuramic 98” (4 September 2007, HowStuffWorks.com, auto.howstuffworks. com/ 1948-1949-oldsmobile-futuramic-98.htm, accessed 20 July 2011), “1950-1952 Buick” (11 September 2007, HowStuffWorks.com, auto.howstuffworks. com/ 1950-1952-buick.htm, accessed 20 July 2011), and Encyclopedia of American Cars: Over 65 Years of Automotive History (Lincolnwood, IL: Publications International, 1996); John Barach, “Cadillac History” (1998-2010, Motor Era, www.motorera.com/ cadillac/ index.htm, last accessed 20 July 2011); Thomas R. Bonsall, Disaster in Dearborn: The Story of the Edsel (Automotive History and Personalities) (Stanford, CA: Stanford General Books, 2002); R.P. Bradly, “Armstrong Siddeley Typhoon” (no date, ArmstrongSiddeley.org, www.armstrongsiddeley. org, accessed 27 July 2011); Herbert Brean, “’54 Car: 3 Years Old at Birth,” LIFE, 18 January 1954, pp. 80-92; Arch Brown, “SIA comparisonReport: Upper Middle Class ‘Class’: 1948 Buick Roadmaster, 1948 Chrysler New Yorker,” Special Interest Autos #167 (September-October 1998), reprinted in Terry Ehrich, ed., The Hemmings Book of Buicks (Hemmings Motor News Collector-Car Books) (Bennington, VT: Hemmings Motor News, 2001), pp. 24-33; Arch Brown, Richard Langworth, and the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, “1946-48 Chrysler Town and Country,” Great Cars of the 20th Century (Lincolnwood, IL: Publications International, Ltd., 1998), pp. 158-161; Buick Motor Division of General Motors Corporation, “Buicks: The Fashion for 1950” [brochure], January 1950; and “Buick” Smart Buy for 1951″ [brochure], January 1951]; Mike Covello, Standard Catalog of Imported Cars 1946-2002, Second Edition (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 2001); Dave Crippen’s 1985 interview with Irv Rybicki, “Reminiscences of Irwin W. Rybicki” (27 June 1985, Automotive Design Oral History Project, University of Michigan Benson Ford Research Center, www.autolife.umd. umich.edu/Design/ Rybicki_interview.htm (transcript), accessed 20 July 2011); “Debut for the ’49 Buick—Dynaflow for Supers,” Popular Mechanics Vol. 90, No. 6 (December 1948), p. 116; Jim Donnelly, “Rain Man Ryan’s Ride,” Hemmings Classic Car #61 (October 2009), pp. 14–17; Jim Dunne and Jan P. Norbye, Buick 1946-1978: The Classic Postwar Years, Second Edition (Osceola, WI: MBI, Inc./Motorbooks International, 1978, 1993); Nick Georgano and Nicky Wright, Art of the American Automobile: The Greatest Stylists and Their Work (New York: SMITHMARK Publishers, 1995); George E. Goddard, assignor to Dodge Brothers, “Design for an Automobile-Body,” United States Design Patent No. 51,979, applied 15 August 1916, published 23 April 1918; Ken Gross, “Pride of Willow Run: 1951 Frazer Manhattan Convertible,” and “The Man Who Never Failed,” Special Interest Autos #27 (March-April 1975), reprinted in Richard A. Lentinello, ed., The Hemmings Book of Postwar American Independents: Drive Reports from Special Interest Autos Magazine (Hemmings Motor News Collector-Car Books) (Bennington, VT: Hemmings Motor News, 2002), pp. 28-35; John Gunnell, ed., Standard Catalog of American Cars 1946-1975 Revised 4th Edition (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 2002), and Standard Catalog of Buick 1903-2004 Rev. 4th Ed. (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 2004); John Heilig, “Red, Ned, and Dynaflow Too: The 1949 Buick Story,” Collectible Automobile Vol. 20, No. 4 (December 2003), pp. 38-49; Franklin Q. Hershey with J.M. Fenster, “Glory Days! My 35 Years as an Automobile Designer,” Automobile Quarterly Vol. 27 No. 1 (Spring 1987): 14-31; Dave Holls and Michael Lamm, A Century of Automotive Style: 100 Years of American Car Design (Stockton, CA: Lamm-Morada Publishing Co. Inc., 1997); Tim Howley, “1950 Ford Crestliner: ’50 Ways New for “50,”‘ Special Interest Autos #119 (September-October 1990), reprinted in Terry Ehrich, ed., The Hemmings Motor News Book of Postwar Fords (Hemmings Motor News Collector-Car Books) (Bennington, VT: Hemmings Motor News, 2000), pp. 20-27; Richard Langworth, Chrysler & Imperial 1946-1975: The Classic Postwar Years (Osceola, WI: Motorbooks International, 1993), and Kaiser-Frazer, the Last Onslaught on Detroit: An Intimate Behind the Scenes Study of the Postwar American Car Industry (Automobile Quarterly Library Series) (Boston, MA: E.P. Dutton, 1975); Tom McCahill, “Tom McCahill Tests the World’s Most Popular Car,” Mechanix Illustrated February 1965, reprinted in R.M. Clarke, ed., Impala and SS 1958-1972 Musclecar Portfolio (The Brooklands Muscle Car Portfolio Series) (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 1996), pp. 80-81; Mark J. McCourt, “Buyer’s Guide: 1948-1949 Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight Series,” Hemmings Classic Car, June 2006; “New Dynaflow Buicks,” The Motor 8 December 1948, reprinted in Buick Performance Portfolio 1947-1962, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 2000), pp. 10-13; “New Steel Tops Look,” Popular Science Vol. 154, No. 5 (May 1949), pp. 134-135; Jan P. Norbye and Jim Dunne, Pontiac 1946-1978: The Classic Postwar Years (Osceola, WI: Motorbooks International, 1979); the Old Car Brochures website (oldcarbrochures.org); John Peatling, “Armstrong Siddeley 16-18 hp Model Range” (no date, Armstrong Siddeley Owners Club Ltd., www.siddeley.com, accessed 27 July 2011); Graham Robson and Richard Langworth, Triumph Cars: The Complete Story, Second Edition (Pitlake, Croydon: Motor Racing Publications Ltd., 1988); Michael Sedgwick, Classic Cars of the 1930’s and 1940’s, Second Edition (Twickenham: Tiger Books International PLC, 1997); The Classic Buick: Facts for Classic Buick Enthusiasts (no date, www.theclassicbuick. com, accessed 20 July 2011); Bill Smith, Armstrong Siddeley Motors: The Cars, the Company and the People in Definitive Detail (Dorchester: Veloce Publishing Ltd., 2005); “The New Buick,” The Motor 21 January 1948, reprinted in Buick Performance Portfolio 1947-1962, pp. 6-9; Toyota Motor Corporation, 75 Years of Toyota, Vehicle Lineage: “Carina ED Hardtop (1st),” “Carina ED Hardtop (2nd),” and “Corona EXiV Hardtop (1st)” www.toyota-global. com, accessed 18 April 2014); and the Wikipedia® entry for the Armstrong Siddeley Typhoon (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Armstrong_Siddeley_Typhoon, accessed 26 July 2011). Some additional facts on the introduction of GM’s hardtops came from emails between the author and automotive historian Alden Jewell, 22–25 July 2011.

We subsequently reviewed upcoming changes to federal roof crush requirements in “Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards; Roof Crush Resistance; Phase-In Reporting Requirements,” Federal Register, 12 May 2009, Doc. #E9-10431, govpulse.us/entries/2009/05/12/ E9-10431/ federal-motor-vehicle-safety-standards- roof-crush-resistance-phase-in-reporting-requirements, accessed 9 August 2011.

Historical exchange rate data for the dollar and British pound were estimated based on data from Lawrence H. Officer, “Exchange Rates Between the United States Dollar and Forty-one Currencies” (2009, MeasuringWorth, http://www.measuringworth.org/exchangeglobal/; used by permission). Please note that all exchange rate equivalencies cited in the text are approximate and provided for illustration and general informational purposes only; this is an automotive history, not a treatise on currency trading or the value of money, and nothing in this article should be taken as financial advice of any kind!


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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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