Pillarless Pioneer: The 1949 Buick Roadmaster Riviera

In mid-1949, GM’s senior divisions introduced a trio of glamorous new models — the Cadillac Coupe de Ville, the Oldsmobile Futuramic 98 Deluxe Holiday coupe, and the Buick Roadmaster Riviera — that are popularly, if incorrectly, considered the first pillarless hardtops. This week, we consider the origins of this quintessentially (though not uniquely) American body style and examine the development of the the 1949 Buick Roadmaster Riviera and the origins of the hardtop coupe.

1949 Buick Roadmaster Riviera roof exterior

THE UNCONVERTIBLE CONVERTIBLE

We generally believe that trying to definitively identify the first of anything in the automotive world is at best a perilous endeavor, but for those keeping score, honors for the earliest American pillarless hardtop may go to Dodge. Back in 1916, Dodge Brothers body engineer George E. Goddard filed for a design patent on a two-door sedan body with no B-pillars, although we don’t know if any such cars were actually built. In configuration, however, they would have been at least as deserving of the term hardtop as any number of sixties and seventies cars.

By “hardtop,” we mean a closed body (whether two-door, four-door, or wagon/estate) with a fixed roof and no B-pillars, often (though not necessarily) styled to look like a convertible with the top up. That sounds simple enough, but in practice, definitions can quickly become hazy. In the twenties, for example, bolt-on “California tops” became a popular aftermarket accessory for roadsters, the ancestors of the later detachable hardtop. Since the installation or removal of a California top was often cumbersome — a job for the dealer or at least a chauffeur — a fair number probably became more or less permanent features.

From there, it was a short step to the factory-built fixed-head rumble seat coupe, usually sharing its proportions and much of its sheet metal with the equivalent roadster or cabriolet, but sporting a permanent metal roof. Some carried the convertible resemblance even further by adding decorative landau irons and cloth or leatherette roof coverings.

1931 Ford Model A Sport Coupe rear 3q
Fabric roof, tiny backlight, landau irons, rumble seat — it must be a cabriolet, right? Wrong — this 1931 Ford Model A is a fixed-head Sport Coupe. We must admit it fooled us, since Ford also offered a very similar-looking Model A convertible sedan with fixed side window frames like those of this car.

Technically, many such models would qualify as hardtops. Three-window fixed-head coupes didn’t really have B-pillars and in this era, the structural differences between a rumble seat coupe and a cabriolet were seldom vast. However, the cars weren’t really marketed that way. The sport coupe or rumble seat coupe was just one more body style in a list that might run to 15 or more, usually priced somewhere above the basic roadster (which generally lacked roll-up windows), but below a true convertible coupe. Three-window coupes of this kind usually sold in fairly modest numbers and for the most part were not particularly special. Most had disappeared by the outbreak of World War II, superseded by the club coupe or two-door sedan, which was less sporty, but didn’t consign rear passengers to a rumble seat in the rain.

Excepting the occasional coachbuilt one-off, prewar five-window club coupes rarely qualified as hardtops. Not only did they have B-pillars, all the roof posts were typically quite stout, a symbol of the body engineer’s ascendancy over the stylist. There were a few exceptions — Triumph briefly offered a sleek pillarless “Flow-free” two-door sedan body for its Gloria Six in 1935 and the Lincoln Continental Coupe was little more than a convertible with a fixed steel roof, although it was not pillarless — but the ascension of the five-window, four- to six-passenger pillarless hardtop coupe would have to wait until after the war.

1937 Packard Twelve coupe rear 3q
Rumble seat coupes were not limited to low-end makes. This is a Fifteenth Series Packard Twelve, originally priced at over $3,400 — enough to buy four 1937 Ford DeLuxe cabriolets.

TOWN, COUNTRY, AND TYPHOON

Starting in 1941, Chrysler offered a small number of attractive, wood-bodied Town & Country models, built (and originally suggested) by Pennsylvania’s Boyertown Bodyworks. The earliest Town & Countries were estates, akin to Packard’s postwar Station Sedan, riding either a Chrysler Royal or Windsor chassis. Around 2,000 were built before the end of civilian production in early 1942.

1946 Chrysler Town & Country Custom Club Coupe side Chrysler HistoricalCollection
While the prewar Town & Country wagons (and most, but not all, of the postwar sedans) had six-cylinder engines and rode the shorter Chrysler Windsor chassis, the Town & Country Custom Club Coupe — as the hardtop was described in the brochure — was based on the longer Saratoga/New Yorker, with a 127.5 in. (3,239 mm) wheelbase and the 324 cu. in. (5,302 cc) straight eight. Chrysler’s semi-automatic Fluid Drive transmission was standard. (Photo circa 1946, copyright © FCA US LLC – Historical Services; used with permission)

Shortly after the war, Chrysler president David A. Wallace decided to expand the Town & Country line with a much broader range of body styles, presumably as traffic builders for dealers. The wood-bodied cars were pricey and maintenance-intensive, but in showroom condition, they were lovely conversation pieces. Chrysler’s Art & Colour Section, then headed by Henry King, quickly turned out renderings of five new Town & Country models: a four-door sedan, a two-door brougham, a roadster, a two-door convertible, and a neat pillarless hardtop coupe, all apparently chosen at the instigation of Chrysler’s sales organization. According to stylist Arnott (“Buzz”) Grisinger, who worked on the project, the designs were done in such haste that there were none of the usual scale models or clays. Except for the roadster, aborted early on, the new bodies went directly to the full-size prototype stage.

Although Chrysler issued a sales brochure for the expanded Town & Country line in June 1946, the planned line extension was hastily scaled back. We assume high production costs had something to do with it, as did the recognition that the postwar sales boom was giving dealers all the traffic they could handle without a big investment in ‘halo’ cars. The Town & County sedan and convertible went into production, replacing the estate, but only a single brougham and seven hardtop prototypes were built. The brougham went nowhere and the hardtop would not go on sale until more than three years later.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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…

# # #

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!


RELATED STORIES


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.