Pillarless Under the Rising Sun: Japan’s Four-Door Hardtops

Most English-language automotive histories will tell you that the four-door hardtop became extinct in the late seventies, a victim of American safety regulations. That may have been true in the U.S., but Japan’s love affair with hardtops continued well into the nineties, including some models you probably didn’t know you knew. In this installment of Ate Up With Motor, we present a brief survey of the Japanese four-door hardtop.

1992 Nissan Laurel Extra Diesel four-door hardtop (Q-SC33) open doors © 2001 Scott McPherson (used with permission)

(Photo © 2001 Scott McPherson; used with permission)

EARLY JDM HARDTOPS

It would be a mistake to characterize the pillarless hardtop as a purely American phenomenon, but it’s certainly true that U.S. buyers embraced hardtops far earlier and to a much greater extent than other markets. As we discussed in our article on the pioneering Buick Roadmaster Riviera, hardtops began their U.S.-market proliferation in the early fifties and by the mid-sixties had become ubiquitous, with nearly every American-made car line offering at least one hardtop body style.

1949 Buick Roadmaster Riviera hardtop roof (rear view) © Aaron Severson

The roofline of the 1949 Buick Roadmaster Riviera hardtop. (author photo)

Although other auto-producing nations dabbled in pillarless bodies, hardtops were a tough sell in most non-U.S. markets. A quick comparison of population and per capita income figures makes clear why: Particularly in the fifties and sixties, other automotive markets were not only significantly smaller than the U.S., but also had far fewer buyers with the financial wherewithal to prioritize style over practicality.

Considering all that, what’s remarkable about the Japanese hardtop craze was not that it got off to a slow start — in 1965, when Japan introduced its first homegrown hardtop, total annual Japanese passenger car production was about one-tenth that of the U.S. — but the extent to which it took off and the fact that it endured long after the U.S. had moved on.

Predictably, Japan’s first native hardtop came from Toyota, which had the largest single share of the domestic market. The RT50 Toyopet Corona hardtop, launched in July 1965, was a two-door hardtop version of Toyota’s bread-and-butter T40 Corona, priced ¥112,000 (about $320, roughly 18%) above the Corona Deluxe sedan. The hardtop was positioned as a sporty model, bolstered by the availability of a more powerful 1600S with an extra 20 PS (15 kW) and, from the summer of 1967, the homologation-oriented 1600GT (RT55).

1967 Toyota 1600GT (RT55) front 3q © 2008 Mytho88 (CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported)

Although it looks just like the regular RT50 Toyopet Corona hardtop, the RT55 Toyota 1600GT had a unique engine: the 9R, sharing the block of the 1,587 cc (97 cu. in.) pushrod 4R, but with a Yamaha-built DOHC head and 110 PS (81 kW). (Photo: “1967 Toyota 1600GT 01” © 2008 Mytho88; resized and used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license)

Despite its higher price, the hardtop caught the wave of Japan’s growing prosperity; domestic passenger car production doubled between 1965 and 1967 and had nearly doubled again by 1969. The Corona hardtop was popular enough that Toyota followed it with two-door hardtop versions of the bigger Corona Mark II and Crown, both launched in late 1968.

Second-place Nissan lagged a little behind, not adding its first two-door hardtop (in the C30 Laurel series) until mid-1970, about seven months after Mitsubishi’s Colt Galant hardtop and nine months after the rare FWD Mazda Luce Rotary Coupé. Nonetheless, Nissan was not to be outdone, soon rolling out not only hardtop versions of the Laurel, but also of the 610 Bluebird U, the C10 Skyline, the 230 Cedric and Gloria, and the new 710 Violet.

1972 Nissan Laurel (C30) hardtop front 3q © 2013 TTTNIS (PD CC0 1.0)

Nissan introduced the first C30 Laurel in April 1968, competing with Toyota’s T60/T70 Toyopet Corona Mark II (ancestor of the Toyota Mark II/Cressida) in an emerging upper-middle-class (“high owner”) segment. The Laurel combined the suspension of the 510 Bluebird with the bigger 1,815 cc (111 cu. in.) G18 engine, which Nissan acquired with its 1966 merger with Prince Motor Company. This hardtop body style was added to the line in 1970. (Photo: “1972 Nissan Laurel Hardtop” © 2013 TTTNIS; dedicated to the public domain by the photographer under a Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication, resized 2015 by Aaron Severson)

Honda added its first hardtop, a pillarless version of its diminutive Z minicar, in November 1972. Subaru joined the party the following June with a hardtop version of the first-generation Leone. The smaller manufacturers didn’t embrace the hardtop idiom to the same extent as did Toyota and Nissan — after the demise of the Z, it would be some time before Honda offered another hardtop model — but most automakers offered at least at least one pillarless model. By the late seventies, Toyota offered hardtops in nearly all its passenger car lines except the humble Tercel and Starlet.

TWO OR FOUR DOORS

Nissan introduced Japan’s first four-door hardtop in the 230 Cedric and Gloria lines in August 1972, complementing the two-door hardtops introduced the previous April. Like the two-door models, the new four-doors were true pillarless hardtops, standing about 0.8 inches (20mm) lower than the sedans. Compared to the sedans, the four-door hardtops were 5–10% more expensive and sacrificed a bit of headroom and more than a bit of torsional rigidity, but they were stylish and, for the moment, unique. They would prove highly influential.

1973 Nissan Gloria Custom Deluxe four-door hardtop (KF230V) front 3q © 2013 TTTNIS (CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported)

The Nissan Gloria was originally the Prince Gloria, flagship of the Prince Motor Company, which merged with Nissan in 1966. In 1971, the Gloria became a stylistic variant of the new 230 Cedric, latest edition of Nissan’s own flagship line. The Gloria version was sold through the still separate Prince dealer channel, but was mechanically identical to the contemporary Cedric. (Photo: “1973 Nissan Gloria 4 door Hardtop Custom Deluxe” © 2013 TTTNIS; resized and used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license)

The arrival of Nissan’s big four-door hardtops seems to have caught Toyota off-guard; a comparable version of the Toyota Crown wasn’t introduced until the debut of the S90 series in late 1974. Unlike the Cedric and Gloria, the new Crown body style was a four-door “pillared hardtop,” an idea Ford had introduced for its big cars back in 1971. The Crown four-door hardtop stood about an inch (25 mm) lower than the four-door sedan, used frameless door glass, and had a unique B-pillar treatment.

1975–77 Toyota Crown 2000 Super Saloon four-door hardtop (MS90) front 3q © 2010 TTTNIS (PD - modified by Aaron Severson)

Although Toyota did offer a pillarless two-door hardtop version of its flagship Crown, all four-door Crown hardtops were pillared, featuring an assortment of distinct roof treatments. All S90 Crown hardtops had six-cylinder engines, using either the carbureted 1,988 cc (121 cu. in.) M-C; the similar M-E with Bosch-Denso electronic fuel injection; or the carbureted 2,563 cc (156 cu. in.) 4M. (Photo: “5th generation Toyota Crown” © 2010 TTTNIS; released to the public domain by the photographer, resized and modified 2015 by Aaron Severson)

1975–77 Toyota Crown 2000 Super Saloon four-door hardtop (MS90) rear 3q © 2010 TTTNIS  (PD - modified by Aaron Severson)

This S90 Crown four-door hardtop is a 2000 Super Saloon, powered by the 1,988 cc (121 cu. in.) M-C six. It is 183.3 inches (4,655 mm) long, 66.5 inches (1,690 mm) wide, and 55.9 inches (1,420 mm) high on a 105.9-inch (2,690mm) wheelbase, very similar to the dimensions of the rival Nissan Cedric and Gloria; all these cars were constrained by the need to keep the cheaper models within the bounds of the less-expensive “5-number” tax class, although the 2600 and 2800 models fell into the pricier “3-number” class. (Photo: “5th generation Toyota Crown rear” © 2010 TTTNIS; released to the public domain by the photographer, resized and modified 2015 by Aaron Severson)

1972 Cadillac Fleetwood Sixty Special Brougham side © 2010 Lincoln Continental/Gangster Car Driver (CC BY 2.0 Generic - modified by Aaron Severson)

The roof treatment of Toyota’s first four-door pillared Crown hardtop is very reminiscent of the roof design of the contemporary Cadillac Fleetwood Sixty Special Brougham, although Cadillac advertised the Sixty Special as a sedan rather than a hardtop — go figure. (Photo: “1972 Cadillac Fleetwood Sixty Special Brougham” © 2010 1970 Lincoln Continental/Gangster Car Driver; resized and modified 2015 by Aaron Severson and used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license with modifications offered under the same license)

Whether pillarless or not, both of these cars were very popular with Japanese buyers in this class, so the four-door hardtop body style continued into the subsequent 330 Cedric/Gloria, launched in June 1975. Toyo Kogyo followed suit in late 1977 with the new edition of the Mazda Luce (a.k.a. 929) that included a four-door pillared hardtop with a roof treatment very similar to that of the S90 Crown.

It’s notable that the new Mazda Luce four-door hardtop actually replaced the previous hardtop coupe. Similarly, the 430 Cedric and Gloria, launched in June 1979, retained their four-door hardtops, but abandoned their two-door bodies. Toyota’s two-door Crown hardtop would survive for one more generation, finally expiring in 1983, but the two-door hardtop version of the Mark II (a.k.a. Toyota Cressida) expired in February 1979, a year and a half before the end of the X30 generation.

1979 Nissan Cedric 2000 SGL-E Extra four-door hardtop (332) front 3q © 2013 Ypy31 (PD CC0 1.0)

This Nissan Cedric 2000 SGL-E Extra four-door hardtop appears to be a late example of the 330 Cedric line (chassis code 332), powered by the fuel-injected L20E, a 1,998 cc (122 cu. in.) SOHC inline six with 130 PS JIS gross (96 kW). Since the hardtop weighed about 3,250 lb (1,475 kg), straight-line performance was not among the Cedric’s major virtues. (Photo: “Nissan-CedricSGL-EExtra” © 2013 Ypy31; dedicated to the public domain by the photographer under a Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication, resized 2015 by Aaron Severson)

1979 Nissan Cedric 2000 SGL-E Extra four-door hardtop (332) rear 3q © 2013 Ypy31 (PD CC0 1.0)

Unlike the rival Toyota Crown, which retained body-on-frame construction into the nineties, the Nissan Cedric was unitized. In other respects, the 330/331/332 Cedric and Gloria were thoroughly conventional, with double wishbone/Hotchkiss drive suspension and disc/drum brakes. (Photo: “Nissan-CedricSGL-EExtrarear” © 2013 Ypy31; dedicated to the public domain by the photographer under a Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication, resized 2015 by Aaron Severson)

Big two-door Japanese hardtops did not so much expire as switch to an emerging class of large personal luxury cars like the Mazda Cosmo, Nissan Leopard, and Toyota Soarer, and even some of those would offer four-door versions. Four-door hardtops, meanwhile, were becoming a mainstay of most large Japanese car lines and would remain so for the next two decades.

Never having lived in Japan, we have no special insight into the unique preferences of that market, but we will hazard a theory abut why big four-door hardtops became so popular there. Style was undoubtedly a factor, but we suspect that another consideration was that a substantial percentage of large Japanese cars like the Crown and Cedric (which were not cheap or cheap to own) went to government and commercial fleets. The mere fact that hardtops were more expensive than four-door sedans was anathema to the typical fleet buyer — whose stinginess, we presume, transcends mere cultural boundaries to become something approaching a universal constant.

1976 Toyota Crown Super Deluxe sedan (MS80) front 3q © 2013 TTTNIS (PD CC0 1.0 - modified by Aaron Severson)

The Toyota Crown and Nissan Cedric of this era were exported, but only in pillared sedan form. Although the Crown and Cedric sedans were generally offered in the same trim levels as the hardtops, a four-door sedan like this one was more likely to be a fleet vehicle than owned by a private individual. (Photo: “1976 Toyota Crown Super Deluxe” © 2013 TTTNIS; dedicated to the public domain by the photographer under a Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication, resized and modified 2015 by Aaron Severson)

Driving a big hardtop, therefore, immediately signified that you were a well-heeled private buyer, not a taxi driver, and a four-door hardtop allowed you to do that without sacrificing too much of your and your passengers’ convenience in the process. Judging by the proliferation of these cars, many Japanese buyers apparently considered that a useful compromise.

FOUR-DOOR FREE-FOR-ALL

By the early eighties, Japan’s growing affluence had opened the four-door hardtop floodgates. First up were four-door hardtop versions of the second-tier luxury cars. Nissan added a pillarless four-door hardtop version of the new C230 Laurel in early 1977 and continued that body style for the C31 series in November 1980, simultaneously dropping the two-door hardtop models.

1978–79 Nissan Laurel (C230) 2800SGL four-door hardtop front 3q © 2013 Ypy31 (PD CC0 1.0 PD - modified by Aaron Severson)

Like the rival Toyota Mark II, later iterations of the Nissan Laurel could be ordered with four- or six-cylinder engines. The latter included most of the same engines offered on bigger Nissans; this C230 Laurel 2800SGL has the carbureted 2,753 cc (168 cu. in.) L28 engine from the senior 3-number Cedric and Gloria. The C230 Laurel was not a great deal smaller than the Cedric; a Laurel 2800SGL is about the same width as the senior car and only 2.6 inches (65 mm) shorter overall. (Photo: “Nissan-Laurel2800SGL 01” © 2013 Ypy31; dedicated to the public domain by the photographer under a Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication, resized and modified 2014 by Aaron Severson)

Around the same time, Toyota introduced pillared four-door hardtop versions of the Mark II and its Toyota Chaser sibling. Mitsubishi got into the act three years later with a pillared four-door hardtop version of the Galant Sigma and Nissan added a four-door hardtop Skyline in 1985.

It was inevitable that the trend would continue to filter downward into the cheaper price classes, which, frankly, needed the help. Japan’s biggest and smallest cars, if not necessarily attractive to Western eyes, at least had some memorable eccentricities; by contrast, most middle-class Japanese sedans of the era had about as much aesthetic distinction as an empty cassette case. Hardtop body styles provided some welcome relief from the stylistic doldrums.

1981 Nissan Cedric 280E Brougham (430) four-door hardtop front 3q © 2013 TTTNIS (PD)

This 1981 Nissan Cedric is a 280E Brougham, the top grade in the 430 Cedric series, powered by the injected 2,753 cc (168 cu. in.) L28E with 155 PS (114 kW). By 1981, there was also a 200 Turbo Brougham, whose 1,998 cc (122 cu. in.) L20E-T six offered most of the power (145 PS/107 kW) with much lower running costs. The turbocharged Cedric and Gloria were the first JDM turbo cars, although they were soon followed by Toyota Crown and Soarer turbos. (Photo: “Nissan Cedric Hardtop 430” © 2013 TTTNIS; released to the public domain by the photographer, resized 2015 by Aaron Severson)

Nissan had actually taken the first step in this direction back in 1979 with the addition of a four-door hardtop to the popular new 910 Bluebird line, but while that body style continued into the U11 generation in late 1983, other automakers were slow to follow suit — even Toyota, which was perhaps preoccupied with the expensive conversion of its C- and D-segment sedans to front-wheel drive.

1988 Nissan Bluebird SSS-Attesa four-door hardtop (U12) front 3q © 2010 RL GNZLZ/order_242 (CC BY-SA 2.0 Generic)

The 1988–1991 U12 Bluebird was third generation of Nissan’s midsize Bluebird series to offer a pillarless four-door hardtop body style. FWD sedan versions of the U12 were later sold in the U.S. as the Nissan Stanza, but U.S. buyers didn’t get the hardtop or the SSS-Attesa, which featured full-time 4WD and a turbocharged 1,809 cc (110 cu. in.) CA18DET engine making 175 PS (128 kW). (Photo: “Nissan Bluebird SSS Attesa 4WD 1988” © 2010 RL GNZLZ/order_242; used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license)

TOYOTA CARINA ED

Finally, in September 1985, Toyota redressed that shortcoming by introducing its first pillarless four-door hardtop, based not on the big Crown or Mark II/Chaser/Cresta, but on the middle-class Toyota Carina. The new Carina ED — for “Exciting and Dressy,” said the press kit — shared its platform with the recently introduced FWD Carina and Corona sedans and the new T160 Celica, launched at the same time. Despite that structural commonality, the Carina ED shared neither sheet metal nor dashboard with the anonymous-looking Carina or Corona sedans and stood more than 2 inches (55mm) lower. It was also at least 110 lb (50 kg) heavier, probably due at least in part to the structural reinforcement necessitated by the pillarless roof.

1986 Toyota Carina ED 1800EFI X (ST160) hardtop front 3q © 2009 Igor Smagin (with permission)

Stretching 176.2 inches (4,475mm) overall, the pillarless T160 Toyota Carina ED hardtop was about 4.5 inches (115 mm) longer than the contemporary Carina sedan (on an identical 99.4-inch (2,525mm) wheelbase) and had all-new exterior panels; even the hoods are different. The first Carina ED was mechanically very similar to the FWD T160 Celica, which debuted at the same time. (Photo: “toyota CARINA ED 1985 07.05.09” © 2009 Igor Smagin; used with permission)

Toyota made much of the Carina ED’s coupe-like styling, and in be-spoilered G-Limited form, it looked quite sporty. (We assume it drove much like a contemporary Celica, since it shared the same chassis and most of the same engines.) However, it seems that the main appeal was not sportiness per se, but simply that the ED was considerably more stylish than the stolid four-door sedan for very little more money. The biggest sacrifice was headroom, which was 2.8 inches (70 mm) less than in the sedan.

1986 Toyota Carina ED 1800EFI X (ST160) hardtop rear 3q © 2009 Igor Smagin (with permission)

The early T160 Toyota Carina ED hardtop was available with three engines in six trim levels. This is an 1800X, powered by the 1,832 cc (112 cu. in.) 1S-ELU engine with 115 PS (85 kW) JIS gross, later restated as 98 PS (72 kW) in the more conservative JIS net scale. A five-speed manual gearbox was standard, but we suspect most Carina ED hardtops had the optional four-speed automatic. (Photo: “toyota CARINA ED 1985 07.05.09” © 2009 Igor Smagin; used with permission)

Although the Corona and Carina shared the same platform, Toyota hedged its bets by introducing the four-door hardtop only in the Carina line; the related FWD Corona got a two-door notchback coupe instead. The trepidation was unwarranted because the Carina ED was a hit, comfortably exceeding Toyota’s sales projections, while the Corona coupe appears to have been a flop.

1986–87 Toyota Carina GT-R (ST162) sedan front 3q © 2003 Takanori Hayashi (PD)

For comparison, here’s a contemporary Toyota Carina four-door sedan, in this case an ST162 2000 GT-R with the 1,998cc (122 cu. in.) DOHC 3S-GE engine. The four-door sedan stands 2.2 inches (55 mm) higher than Carina ED and looks taller still thanks to shorter front and rear overhangs and more angular styling. (Photo: “Toyota carina st162” © 2003 Takanori Hayashi; released to the public domain by the photographer, resized 2015 by Aaron Severson)

The Carina ED was followed by a host of other moderately priced four-door hardtops: a pillared hardtop edition of the Toyota Vista (a twin of the V20 Camry) in late 1986; Nissan’s U12 Bluebird in September 1987; a V-6 Camry hardtop, the Camry Prominent, in August 1988; and the Mazda Persona (a hardtop version of the GD Capella) and Eunos 300 that October.

1989 Mazda Persona 1800 Type B (MA8P) hardtop front 3q © 2010 Reallyloud (CC BY 2.0 Generic - modified 2013 by Mr.choppers and Aaron Severson)

Launched in October 1988, the Mazda Persona (and the mechanically identical Eunos 300) studiously followed the formula of the Carina ED: a pillarless four-door hardtop based on a midsize sedan (in this case the GD Capella/626) with unique interior and exterior styling, a choice of 1.8- or 2.0-liter engines, and lots of luxury features. Unlike the Toyota, the Persona and 300 were commercial flops and survived barely a year and half, expiring without replacement in early 1990. This is a Persona 1800 Type B with the SOHC 1,789 cc (109 cu. in.) F8 engine, making 97 PS (71 kW). (Photo: “Mazda Persona” a modified version (created 2010 by Mr.choppers) of “Mazda Persona” © 2010 Reallyloud; further modified 2015 by Aaron Severson, resized, and used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license with modifications offered under the same license)

The second-generation (T180) Carina ED arrived in September 1989, now accompanied by a Corona version, the Corona EXiV (pronounced “ecksiv,” according to Toyota, for “Extra Impressive”), replacing the short-lived two-door coupe. Honda, which had largely abstained since the demise of the Z hardtop in the seventies, also entered the fray in 1989 with four-door hardtop editions of the new DA Integra and the five-cylinder CB Accord Inspire and Vigor.

PILLARS OF THE INDUSTRY

As far as we’ve been able to determine, the T180 Carina ED and Corona EXiV were the last new pillarless four-door hardtops to be launched in Japan. While the popularity of the style had not diminished, achieving it while maintaining an acceptable level of structural rigidity — to say nothing of collision protection — had never been easy and was getting harder as safety regulations became more stringent. As a result, a growing number of these cars were now pillared hardtops.

1988 Toyota Camry Prominent V-6 (VZV20) hardtop front 3q © 2009 Kuha45545 (CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported)

A pillared four-door hardtop version of the VZV20 Camry Prominent V6 (the JDM name for Camrys powered by the DOHC 1,992 cc (122 cu. in.) 1VZ-FE engine) debuted in August 1988. The same body style had already been available in the mechanically similar Toyota Vista line (a Camry twin sold through the JDM Vista channel) for two years, but the Vista was available only with four-cylinder engines. The Camry Prominent hardtop later became the basis of the North American Lexus ES250. (Photo: “Toyota Camry Prominent 1988” © 2009 Kuha455405; resized and used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license)

When that type first appeared in the mid-seventies, automakers had applied the term “hardtop” to almost any four-door with a roof treatment different from the standard four-door sedan’s. By the late eighties, the pillared hardtop had become a clearly defined body style with several distinct characteristics:

  • Frameless door glass
  • Narrow B-pillars partially or fully concealed behind the side glass
  • For four-door models, a low, coupe-like roofline, usually with “faster” sail panels and often (though definitely not always) with a four-light rather than six- or eight-light side profile.

All of the new hardtops introduced from 1990 on followed this format, including the Mazda Sentia (which replaced the Luce as Mazda’s flagship in May 1991), the Honda Ascot Innova (another spin-off of the CB Accord), the Toyota Corolla Ceres and Sprinter Marino (four-door hardtop versions of the E100 Corolla/Sprinter), the Nissan Presea (based on the compact Sunny), and the Galant-based Mitsubishi Emeraude. The Mazda Lantis coupe introduced in September 1993 (sold as the 323F in some export markets) had all the characteristics of the type, but Mazda didn’t describe it as a hardtop.

1992 Mitsubishi Emeraude front 3q © 2007 Mytho88 (CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported)

Based on the Galant sedan, the short-lived Mitsubishi Emeraude (it survived only three years) was another unsuccessful attempt to cash in on the market for medium-price four-door hardtops epitomized by the Toyota Carina ED and Corona EXiV. Like the Toyotas and the equally unsuccessful Mazda Persona/Eunos 300, the Emeraude offered a choice of 1.8- and 2.0-liter engines, but unlike the Toyotas, both the Emeraude’s 1,829 cc (112 cu. in.) 6A11 and 1,998 cc (122 cu. in.) 6A12 engines were 24-valve V-6s, boasting up to 200 PS (147 kW). Full-time 4WD was optional. (Photo: “1992 Mitsubishi Emeraude 01” © 2007 Mytho88; resized and used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license)

During the same period, the pillared hardtop gradually displaced the remaining pillarless models. Nissan’s big Cedric and Gloria hardtops went from pillarless to pillared with the arrival of the Y32 generation in June 1991. The U13 Bluebird hardtop (now called Bluebird ARX) did the same in September and the Laurel followed suit with the C34 in January 1993. Toyota switched to a pillared configuration for the T200 Carina ED and Corona EXiV that October. (Toyota’s bigger Mark II/Chaser and Crown had always been pillared.)

1992 Nissan Laurel Extra (SC33) and 1997 Nissan Laurel Medalist (C35) © 2001 and 2015 Scott McPherson (used with permission)

Top: The final pillarless Laurel hardtop, the 1989–1992 C33 (seen here in base Extra form with the 2,825 cc (172 cu. in.) RB28 diesel). Bottom: The similar-looking but pillared C35 hardtop, here a 1997 Laurel Medalist. (Photos © 2001, 2015 Scott McPherson; used with permission)

SIDEBAR: Export Hardtops

Japan had exported a fair number of two-door hardtops in the seventies and early eighties, but the pillarless four-door variety had always been reserved for domestic consumption. Semantics aside, the pillared four-door hardtop was functionally a sedan, and that, combined with the popularity of pricier Japanese cars in North America, created new opportunities for export. As a result, some of these cars were sold outside Japan, although they were seldom identified as hardtops in other markets.

A non-exhaustive list of Japanese four-door pillared hardtops sold in the U.S. includes:

  • 1990–1993 Acura Integra sedan: Based on the Honda DA Integra hardtop, but with 1.8-liter (113 cu. in.) engines rather than the 1.6-liter (97 cu. in.) fours offered in Japan.
  • 1990–1991 Lexus ES250: Essentially a VZV20 Camry Prominent V-6 hardtop with minor cosmetic changes, trading the JDM car’s 1,992 cc (122 cu. in.) 1VZ-FE for the bigger 2,508 cc (153 cu. in.) 2VZ-FE engine from the U.S. Camry V-6.
1990–91 Lexus ES250 front 3q © 2008 IFCAR (PD)

When the Lexus ES250 was launched in the fall of 1989, it was much criticized for its obvious relationship to the contemporary (and aging) V20 Camry sedan, although the ES250 was based on the four-door Camry Prominent hardtop not otherwise sold in the U.S. (Photo: “Lexus ES250” © 2008 IFCAR (modified by the photographer 2011); released to the public domain by the photographer, resized 2015 by Aaron Severson)

  • 1991–1994 Acura Vigor: The wide-bodied, 2.5-liter (150 cu. in.) CC Vigor was actually introduced first as an Acura and subsequently replaced the smaller 5-number CB Vigor in the Japanese market in early 1992.
1991–92 Acura Vigor (CC) front 3q © 2012 IFCAR (PD - modified by Aaron Severson)

The first Honda Vigor, launched in 1982, was a straightforward mechanical twin of the contemporary Accord, sold through Honda Verno stores. In late 1989, the four-cylinder Vigor sedan was replaced with a new pillared hardtop model with a longer wheelbase and a longitudinally mounted 1,996 cc (122 cu. in.) five. (There was also a similar five-cylinder Accord Inspire.) A mechanically similar but somewhat larger Vigor with a bigger 2,451 cc (150 cu. in.) five debuted as an Acura in mid-1991 and in Japan in January 1992. JDM versions of the wide-body CC Vigor and Inspire offered either the 2.5- or the cheaper 2.0-liter engine. (Photo: “Acura Vigor — 03-21-2012” © 2012 IFCAR; released to the public domain by the photographer, resized and modified 2015 by Aaron Severson)

  • 1992–1995 Lexus ES300: A pillared hardtop version of the wide-body, U.S.-market (VCV10) Camry (known in Japan as Toyota Scepter to distinguish it from the JDM Camry). The ES300 was actually designed in the U.S. as a Lexus, but a RHD version was sold in Japan as the Toyota Windom.
  • 1992–1995 Mazda 929: A federalized Mazda HD Sentia.
1993–94 Mazda 929 (HDEP) front 3q © 2008 IFCAR (PD)

With the arrival of the HD generation in May 1991, Mazda’s flagship sedan was renamed Sentia in the Japanese market, but retained the 929 badge abroad. The final Mazda 929 was very similar to the JDM version of the HD Sentia, but used only the bigger 2,954 cc (180 cu. in.) JE-ZE engine — Sentias were also available with the 2,494 cc (152 cu. in.) J5-DE — and weren’t offered with the Japanese car’s four-wheel steering. The HD 929 wasn’t a commercial success and the final HE Sentia, introduced for 1996, was not exported. (Photo: “Mazda 929” © 2008 IFCAR; released to the public domain by the photographer, resized 2015 by Aaron Severson)

  • 1993–2000 Subaru Impreza sedan: The four-door GC Impreza was advertised as a hardtop sedan in Japan.
  • 1994–2000 Acura Integra sedan: A federalized Honda DB Integra hardtop.
  • 1995–1998 Acura TL: A federalized Honda UA Saber (successor to the Vigor).
  • 1996–2001 Lexus ES300: Although it no longer exactly qualified as a pillared hardtop (the Japanese press release called it a sedan), the second-generation (MCV20) ES300 was again sold in Japan as the Toyota Windom. Amusingly, Toyota’s home-market advertising and publicity materials made much of the fact that the Windom was the JDM version of a model sold elsewhere as a Lexus!

THE END OF THE ROAD

The four-door hardtop, pillared or otherwise, slowly faded out in the nineties. Some of the offerings hadn’t done well: the Mazda Persona/Eunos 300 was a commercial failure, as was the Mitsubishi Emeraude. The Corolla Ceres and Sprinter Marino, which would seem to have had great potential, apparently didn’t meet sales expectations, although both models lingered for three years after the rest of the E100 Corolla/Sprinter line had been replaced. By 2001, most Japanese four-door hardtops would be gone or replaced by conventional four-door sedans.

1994 Toyota Carina ED (ST200) 1.8 front 3q © 2015 Scott McPherson (used with permission)

The final T200 Carina ED and Corona EXiV were now pillared hardtops. Despite some interesting options (including Super Strut, described in our MacPherson strut article) and the Corona EXiV’s success in Japanese Touring Car Championship competition, the third-generation cars weren’t as popular as their predecessors were and expired in April 1998 without replacement. (Photo © 2015 Scott McPherson; used with permission)

There were several reasons for the decline. One was a shift in tastes from sedans and coupes to SUVs. Another was the growing popularity in Japan of European luxury cars and the emergence of Japanese-made cars made to compete with the Europeans, most of which were conventional four-door sedans. (It’s noteworthy that high-end JDM cars of this period, like the Toyota Mark II and Nissan Laurel, were usually hardtops while export-oriented models like the Toyota Celsior/Lexus LS400 and Infiniti Q45 were not.) Beyond that, the four-door hardtop style may also have become a little old hat. The idiom was more than 20 years old, after all, and the demise of the pillarless models — combined with the growing ubiquity of the pillared style — made it less special than it once was.

1998–99 Toyota Harrier (U10/U15) front 3q © 2007 Two hundred percent (CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported)

At least some of the responsibility for the decline of four-door hardtops in the Japanese market in the late nineties can be laid at the feet of SUVs like the Toyota Harrier. The Harrier, sold abroad as the Lexus RX300, was based on the contemporary Toyota Camry platform, but had the height and stance of a sport-utility vehicle. The Harrier/RX was enormously popular in Japan and became a surprise hit in the U.S. (Photo: “Toyota Harrier (first generation) (front), Kuala Lumpur” © 2007 Two hundred percent; resized and used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license)

It probably wouldn’t be impossible to create new pillarless four-door hardtops, as evidenced by the continued existence of compact MPVs with sliding doors on each side (e.g., the Ford B-Max). However, achieving that style while complying with current roof crush and side impact standards would no doubt be expensive, so any future pillarless four-doors are likely to be high-end luxury cars rather than mid-price models like the original Toyota Carina ED.

There’s no particular reason the pillared four-door hardtop couldn’t make a comeback either, but barring a major turnaround in the Japanese economy, it’s unlikely to happen in Japan any time soon. The Japanese industry is currently struggling to stay competitive in the face of limited development funds, unfavorable exchange rates, and a shaky domestic market that seems primarily interested in the tax savings offered by hybrids and kei cars. Since the pillared hardtop body style didn’t make much impression on the U.S. market (most of the four-door hardtops marketed in North America weren’t even identified as such), there’s little incentive for a revival in the near future.

1981 Nissan Cedric 280E Brougham four-door hardtop (430) rear 3q © 2013 TTTNIS (PD)

According to some accounts, Nissan turned to Pininfarina for assistance with the 430 Cedric and Gloria, which would be a curious choice considering that Pininfarina’s previous Nissan designs (for the 130 Cedric and 410 Bluebird) had not been very successful in Japan. During this same period, Nissan also looked to Giorgetto Giugiaro’s Italdesign for proposals for the Sunny, Violet/Stanza, and March. (Photo: “1981 Nissan Cedric Hardtop 2800 Brougham” © 2013 TTTNIS; released to the public domain by the photographer, resized 2015 by Aaron Severson)

For the time being, Japan’s four-door hardtops remain something of a curiosity. Four-doors of any stripe seldom seem to attract the same kind of fan loyalty two-doors do and the limited exports mean that many of these cars are quite obscure. Nonetheless, they are intriguing — particularly the pillarless models — as unusual variations on otherwise familiar themes.

# # #

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

The author would like to extend special thanks to Don Andreina and Scott McPherson for their assistance with this article (and the use of Scott’s photos) and Igor Smagin for the use of his photos of the Carina ED.

If you’re viewing this article page by page, see the next page for the (lengthy) bibliography.


NOTES ON SOURCES

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“New Mark II” [brochure 111346-5510], October 1980; “The Chaser” [brochure 171114-6308], August 1988; “Toyota 1600GT: Corona 1600S/Corona Hardtop 1600S” [brochure 20030-428], August 1967; “V6 Prominent: New Camry V6 4-door Hardtop” [brochure 141104-6308], August 1988; “Windom” [brochure CH0013-9608], August 1996; “World Prestige Class Windom (V6 3000-4Door Hardtop)” [brochure CH0018-9109], September 1991; “2.6-liter Toyota MK II,” Road & Track Vol. 24, No. 12 (August 1973): 71–72; Mark Wan, “Ford B-Max,” AutoZine.org, 8 October 2012, www.autozine. org/Archive/ Ford/new/ B_Max_2012.html, accessed 12 February 2014; and Jack K. Yamaguchi, “Agony of Prosperity,” L’Editrice Dell’Automobile LEA, World Cars 1973 (Bronxville, NY: Herald Books, 1973); Hattori Yoshi, “Lepoard [sic] Has Teeth Too,” CAR May 1981: n.n., Peter Young, “Performance restored,” Modern Motor February 1983: 95–97.

The online dictionary Jisho (jisho.org) was also a big help in deciphering Japanese-language information.

Some historical exchange rate data for the dollar and the yen came from Lawrence H. Officer, “Exchange Rates Between the United States Dollar and Forty-one Currencies” (2011, MeasuringWorth, http://www.measuringworth.org/exchangeglobal/, used with permission). Exchange rate values cited in the text represent the approximate dollar equivalent of prices in non-U.S. currencies, not contemporary U.S. suggested retail prices, which are cited separately. Please note that all equivalencies cited herein are approximate and are provided solely for the reader’s general reference — 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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  1. A wonderfully well-written and informative article Aaron on an aspect of automotive design that has long interested me – hence my owning two of the pictured Laurels. I’m honoured you included the photos; thank you.

  2. It should be noted that Subaru continued the pillared hardtop look with the Legacy and Outback until 2010. I’ve owned a 90 Integra sedan, 98 3.2TL, and 07 Outback… all great and loved the frameless windows except in very cold temps!

    1. Yup — the style is certainly not extinct, it just became kind of passé.

  3. The information would probably be hard to come by, but I often wonder how the Japanese automakers arrive at those quirky (to Western ears) model names.

    1. The manufacturers are typically pretty upfront about that, although it doesn’t necessarily make the names sound less odd. “Cedric,” for instance, is a reference to <em>Little Lord Fauntleroy</em> by Frances Hodgson Burnett (the title character’s first name) while “Fairlady” is a reference to the musical <em>My Fair Lady</em>.

  4. The pillared hardtop has made a comeback thanks to premium German manufacturers. The Mercedes-Benz CLS-Class was first and then everyone wanted to copy it: Audi (A5 Sportback, A7 Sportback), BMW (4 Series Gran Coupe, 6 Series Gran Coupe) and even Volkswagen with the Passat CC.

    1. They’re definitely similar in concept, although to be pedantic, none of the German four-door coupes would meet the Japanese definition of a four-door hardtop simply because they don’t have concealed B-pillars (although interestingly, both the outgoing BMW E92 3-Series and F32 4-Series coupes do, and are pretty good examples of the <em>two-door</em> pillared hardtop style). The German four-door coupes also appear to diverge more from the sedan platform than was the case with the Japanese examples, which is probably why they carry a larger price premium than the Japanese hardtops typically did.

      Again, in concept, you’re absolutely right, because it’s the same idea: a ‘style-forward’ alternative to a sedan for people who don’t want to make their passengers stoop quite so much to get in the back seat.

    2. It’s sad how so many of Japan’s more unique cars have fallen victim to an aging demographic and perpetually sluggish economy. The new German hardtops may have a lot of cachet and frequently mind-blowing performance, but they don’t have Japanese hardtops’ sense of occasion or whimsy, in my opinion, nor the sort of agility or road feel of their austere, upright sedan predecessors.

      1. Well, the Japanese hardtops harken back to the era when it was common to have an assortment of body styles for each car line, and it’s notable that they were priced accordingly. In the case of the Carina ED, for instance, I’m sure part of the reason it was so popular was that it cost only about ¥10,000 (between $50 and $100 depending on exactly when we’re talking about) more than a pillared Carina sedan. That practice has fallen out of fashion because manufacturers realized it was more profitable to repackage anything with slightly flashier styling as a specialty car with a hefty profit premium, something that (at least from a consumer standpoint) is regrettable in itself.

  5. Superb piece, Aaron. I’ve always considered the use of the term ‘hardtop’ arbitrary and you’ve done an astonishing job formalising its practice in a JDM/Export context.

  6. Thank you for this piece, Aaron. I know many like to characterize Japanese hardtop sedans as quirky or unconventional in their attractiveness, but growing up in the ’80s as a car lover from birth, my aesthetic sensibilities have always appreciated very rectilinear designs with ample glazing. I was expected to find F-bodies, monster trucks and Testarossas beautiful, but boxy sedans have always been my thing. So for me, Japanese hardtop sedans of the ’70s-’90s represent a very obvious handsomeness.

    That Bluebird Atessa-SSS is sexy and there’s one for sale on tradecarview.com that is older than 25 for only $2k. That’s definitely my kind of car. The last few generations of Japanese hardtop design eschewed some of the most excessive filigree and have a formal sportiness which is especially appealing; a perfect match to their finally-improved chassis dynamics. A 1991-1994 Legacy Turbo sedan is high on my list of Subarus to own (and CCs to write up, if I could only find one). Another favorite of mine (though pillared) are the 5-door Astina and Lantis by Mazda, with smooth 2-liter V6 power to match their organic shape. I could go on, but you get the point.

    1. Well, I think some of the big ’70s and early ’80s senior hardtops (the Cedric/Gloria, the Crown, the Luce Legato) are rather baroque, but the midsize hardtops of the ’80s are really quite nice-looking. The Carina ED is a sharp-looking sedan (particularly in comparison to the standard Carina and Corona of the same era), as are the Skyline, the later Emeraude, and the Bluebird. (It’s “Attesa,” BTW, which refers not to the car but to the full-time 4WD system; SSS was the trim level/grade.)

      1. Yes, I knew it was the AWD system, but I also thought it was part of the trim level designation. Were there not SSS models with and without the AWD turbo?

        1. Yes, it was, and yeah — there were a seven different SSS trim levels (suggesting a certain level of sub-brand dilution), five with FWD, two Attesa.

  7. It must be the first english article on the subject, thanks for it.

    70’s-90’s japanese sedans is a huge subject. There is surely other gems to discover.

  8. Thank you for the most informative piece – as usual.
    A couple of notes though –

    EXiV (pronounced “eck-shiv,”) – in Japanese it was pronounced エクシーブ (“eck-sheebu” would be the closest match in English, probably)

    Presea Mk I was based on R13 generation of Nissan Sunny/Pulsar and always was seen by the public as nothing more than a posh Sunny. Interestingly, I remember them to be extremely rare sight, unlike the ubiquitous Marino/Ceres.

    On the contrary, Primera is definitely a class above in every aspect, even if somewhat related to the next gen Sunny (R14). The most common versions were optioned-up 1.8Ci and 2.0Tm.
    Interesting tidbit – P10’s front multi-link suspension was produced under the internal Nissan campaign “901運動” (reads “kyu-zero-ichi Undo”. “901” meant “To become #1 automotive engineering company in the world by 1990.

    But like the Presea, the P10 (and P11 even more so) has never been a big seller in Japan – unlike the Bluebirds, especially those of the hardtop variety.
    The sedan Birdy, a twin to the US Altima, was not very popular either. Finally, due to the tax brackets (it got expensive past 2L), 2.4L engines were extremely rare in Bluebirds.

    1. Thanks for the correction on the Presea — I was able to find only very limited information on it and was confused by the chassis codes into thinking it was Primera-based, even though the dimensions didn’t match up at all. (The disparity in track should have given me a clue on that front.) I’ve amended the text.

      On the pronunciation front, writing loanwords in katakana is often somewhat hit and miss because it amounts to a phonetic approximation of foreign words, sometimes with sounds Japanese doesn’t normally use. Since Toyota said “EXiV” was supposed to be an abbreviation of “Extra Impressive,” an English speaker would pronounce it “ecks iv” or “eck shiv,” so I assumed that was they were trying to represent with エクシーブ.

      I should mention here that my knowledge of Japanese is very limited, so my approach to Japanese brochures, press releases, and the like is more in the category of “deciphering” than “reading.” Even with things that are written in katakana (which I can read), I often have to go through a mildly comical process of sounding out the characters to try to guess what they represent. Amusingly, I can usually extract about as much useful information from a Japanese press release as I can from one in English or some other language in which I’m more fluent, which I suppose says something about press releases…

    2. The P10 chassis was a handling revelation in FWD architecture. A 90% match for the lauded E30 BMW on a relatively pedestrian platform with very few of the maintenance drawbacks that plague even modern German multilink suspensions. Coupled with the mechanically excellent SR20 engine which really was something for the early 1990s. Unfortunately, the 1995 G20 I owned for several years was saddled with an automatic and the endemic rust issues, though still very mechanically solid at over 200,000 miles.

      1. As I recall, even the British critics praised the Primera’s chassis, albeit not its styling or (inevitably) its unforgivable failure to be German.

  9. Aaron, the way our friends in the Land of the Rising Sun transform (should I say – abuse?) EngRish with katakana still reliably amuses me after all these 20+ years. As well, their motoring press just loves to overuse Engliish even when there are perfectly matching words in Japanese. Take this – カーオブザイヤー.
    I’d say that considering all the “peculiarities” of the Yamato parlamce, your feat is even more awesome (and at least you do not have to deal with multiple politeness level!).
    That said, next time you can just send me (the email is in the Reply form) a scan with a particularly tricky part – I will be more than happy to help you out. Cheers!

    1. Thanks! And yes, カーオブザイヤー is just perverse. (I honestly think one could do some kind of linguistic puzzle game — à la charades — based on trying to decipher katakana transliterations.)

      That said, I can see situations where transliterated loanwords might be preferable to Japanese words. Kanji can typically be read in several different ways (with distinct meanings) depending on the context, so for some concepts (particularly terms of art or trade names), loanwords serve to eliminate a certain amount of ambiguity or potential confusion. It’s essentially the same reasoning that leads me to say (for example) “kei car” rather than “minicar” when talking about the Japanese kei class; the Japanese term has a precise legal definition that the equivalent English word doesn’t necessarily capture.

  10. This is a style that almost completely bypassed the UK. The only domestic pillarless cars I can recall were the Chrysler (UK) Sunbeam Rapier of the late ’60s/early ’70s, and Jaguat xj6 coupes.
    But as you wrote, outside North America only Japan embraced hardtop styling to any extent.
    This may be as much because North American cars continued with body-on-frame construction which required less built in strength for the bodyshells, and maybe because North America was an important export market for the Japanese car industry.
    Germany also exported a lot of cars to North America, but perhaps Mercedes Benz and BMW didn’t want their much vaunted staunch construction reputation compromised by removing B Pillars, and Volkswagens were aimed at buyers who valued substance over style.

    Roger.

    1. The funny thing is that Mercedes-Benz is the only European manufacturer who has offered pillarless body styles in any numbers — going back to the W111/W112, many (though not all) of the S-Class coupes have been pillarless, including the current iteration. (As far as I can recall, they’ve never done a production four-door hardtop, though.) Since the turn of the century, it’s hard not to see it as showing off a bit; creating a pillarless body style that can meet modern U.S. and European crash standards is undoubtedly challenging and certainly expensive.

      The Japanese hardtop fad was definitely for domestic consumption. Some of the pillarless two-door models were exported to the U.S., but by no means all, and as far as I know, all the pillarless four-doors were strictly for the home market. The pillared four-door hardtops that were sold here weren’t marketed as hardtops. In the U.S., four-door hardtops had sold primarily to relatively affluent older buyers, which was a segment that was slow to embrace Japanese cars (if for no other reason than that they were perceived as economy cars well into the eighties), so that’s not terribly surprising.

      1. The W189 Mercedes 300d was a pillarless four door hardtop. But that does go back a ways (1958).

        1. I had forgotten all about that. Thanks!

    2. I should note that most of the Japanese hardtops, all the German and Australian ones, and quite a few U.S. pillarless models did have monocoque construction. (The U.S. persisted with body-on-frame construction into the eighties on larger cars, but U.S. “compacts” and some intermediates were unitized from the early sixties on.)

      As a side note, the distinction between body-on-frame and monocoque construction is not nearly as cut and dried as is often assumed. By the mid-sixties, American and manufacturers had largely abandoned the traditional self-supporting frame except for trucks (and the Chevrolet Corvette). Most U.S. BOF cars were semi-unitized shells using a perimeter frame as essentially full-length subframes. A perimeter frame like that is not self-supporting, and in fact the frame was usually designed to be flexible in certain directions to absorb NVH. As a result, the body shell itself had to about as strong and rigid as a unitized car’s. The few later Japanese cars that retained BOF construction mostly did the same thing, perhaps the most dramatic example of which was the Toyota S140 Crown series in the early nineties. There were two Crown sub-series: the Crown Royal and Crown Majesta. They shared the same body shell, but the Royal had a full-length perimeter frame while the Majesta had separate front and rear subframes.

    3. Roger, It’s not just the UK — can you think of any Italian or Eastern Bloc 4-door (heck, even 2-door) pillarless production models? Racking my brain here, but aside from the odd one-off carrozzeria special, there were none. The French fielded two pretty low-volume but interesting examples: the (2-door) Simca Aronde Grand Large (1954-1961) and the (4-door) Facel-Vega Excellence (1958-1964).

      But if we’re talking about “pillarless” designs, some of the ’30s-’40s cars that had no central pillar and suicide rear doors (like the ’60s Lincolns and the Facel-Vega) could be worth mentioning, including the Fiat Balilla / Simca 8, the Salmson S4C, the Lancia Ardea, and many others I’m sure. Not strictly the same idea, but somehow kindred…

      1. I dimly recalled that Facel-Vega had a pillarless four-door, but I’d forgotten all about the Aronde, which I don’t think I’ve ever seen even in a museum.

  11. Taking it as a given that building a car without a B pillar will cost more than to build one with them, then perhaps the Japanese car buyer might choose them for status as Japan became more affluent, as the Americans had before them.
    I doubt the increased cost deterred many Mercedes Benz buyers, the snob appeal of the three pointed star might well have counted for more than the undoubted high build quality of their cars.

    Roger.

    1. To the latter point, I would say, “Yes, absolutely.” To the first, as the article says, I strongly suspect that the popularity of four-door hardtops in Japan was about both prestige generally and specifically about distinguishing private owner cars from fleet vehicles. If you’re laying out a lot of money on an big, expensive car, it would be nice not to be mistaken for a taxicab!

  12. Wonderful article–thanks much! Until quite recently, after a lifetime of paying attention to cars, I’d never heard of a non-U.S. four-door hardtop, until I ran across an article about the 300D mentioned above. It’s not quite accurate to say that Ford introduced the pillared hardtop for ’71, though, although it did come into wider use then. They first brought it out on the ’61 Lincoln Continental, and used it for the new T-bird sedan in ’67. I thought for years that that was the first one until I ventured abroad and saw a Citroen DS–a pillared hardtop, sure enough. As far as I know, as of now, when the DS appeared in ’55, it introduced the bodystyle.

    1. All fair points. I think there would be also a fair case to be made for examples much earlier than the Déesse — the 1934 Panhard “Panoramic” springs to mind. That said, my position is that the term “pillared hardtop” is really a question of usage as much as anything else. In the case of the Continental, for example, Lincoln-Mercury called the closed four-door a sedan, not a hardtop; if you went into a Lincoln-Mercury showroom in 1967 and asked about a Continental hardtop, the salesman would have assumed you meant the new pillarless two-door version. (The aforementioned Thunderbird, of course, was officially a four-door Landau.) I mentioned the ’71 Ford because it was actually explicitly marketed as a pillared four-door hardtop, superseding the previous pillarless model, and was sold against rival pillarless four-door models. So, that wasn’t that it was necessarily the first of its kind, but it was perhaps the most immediate and obvious antecedent to the Japanese models that began appearing a few years later.

  13. Try as I might, I’ve never been a fan of pillared hardtop cars. I prefer either pillarless hardtop sedan or pillared sedan. That being said, there are some pillared hardtop sedans that I’ve seen over the years that I did like. I’ve always loved the Cadillac Fleetwood Sixty pillared hardtop.

    1. Do you just not like the look, or are you not a fan of frameless door glass? The latter is my principal issue. It may look good, but keeping the glass from rattling (especially when only partially rolled down) is tricky and if the glass gets slightly out of alignment, it won’t sit against the seal properly even when closed. It is tempting to say, “Well, if I must have pillars, I’d rather not have rattly windows…”

  14. I’ve had two hardtops. First, an MS75 Crown coupe, which was a beautifully optioned and stunning car. I’ve never owned a car since that was so solidly constructed or so well finished on the interior. I also used to have a four door Y30 Gloria pillarless hardtop with the VG30E engine. A wonderful cruiser, you could also open all windows at 60 mph and get very little draftiness. I don’t know if this is a feature of all four door hardtops but it was brilliant and the rear passengers loved it, too. You could also unhook the safety belts from their top mount for the full pillarless look. Interestingly, the carpets still had a “Prince” badge on them, in 1984. I still have the lucky coin from that car which now sits in my UZZ30 Soarer.

    Brilliant site by the way.

    1. Thanks, Phil! My impression is that both the latter-day Crown and Gloria/Cedric were pretty lavishly executed; these were high-end luxury cars in Japan and finished accordingly. (That seems to have been true of the Soarer, too. The U.S.-market Z30 was a very impressive piece of work and it appears the Z10 and Z20 were as well.)

      As for the Prince badge on the carpets, I believe that the JDM Prince dealer channel remained more or less intact after the merger with Nissan, so even though the Skyline and Gloria wore Nissan badges, they were still sold through Prince stores. (There was eventually a major consolidation of Nissan’s different sales channels, but that wasn’t until the late nineties.)

  15. In the US, B-pillar width was a lagging indicator of men’s tie width. Men’s ties started widening in the late-60s and narrowed in the late-70s. B-pillar width was five to ten years behind that trend.

    1. That’s a fascinating comparison — I must say that parallel would not have occurred to me. I sincerely doubt there was any causative link, but it’s an interesting correlation.

  16. I do miss the pillared hardtop styling of my 2002 Diamante. The rake of the c-pillars gave it a dynamic, fast look and made the cabin quite intimate, even though it was rather roomy inside. The frameless glass was neat, and the ultra thin b-pillars made for good sightlines excepting the large sail panels to the rear 3/4s. All of the drawbacks of frameless glass were there, though-freezing to the gaskets in winter, wind noise, and occasionally popping out of place at speed, particularly as the seals aged and shrank. Still one of the better looking 1990s era Japanese sedans, in my opinion.

  17. I’m not sure whether my 2004 RX-8 might qualify as a 4 door hardtop. It certainly has 4 doors and no central pillar, although the windows are not frameless. At the time I bought it Mazda was promoting it as a kind of 4 door coupe.

    1. I’m deeply chagrined that I didn’t remember that the RX-8 was pillarless — I should have and now I’m thinking I need to revise the conclusion of this article with that in mind. (I considered buying an RX-8 a decade or so ago, so for me to forget about it is really embarrassing!) Yes, I would say as a point of usage that the RX-8 is definitely a four-door hardtop, although obviously it was marketed in a very different way than most of the cars discussed here. I would say it qualifies more than the Ford B-Max I did mention, which has sliding doors.

  18. Very unique and informative article. Japan’s automobile industry is not nearly as talked about as the European and American ones in many circles it seems. That makes something like this special.

    Aaron, have you considered an exhaustive piece on the Toyota Crown in particular? It’s such a long-running, almost iconic executive sedan in the Japanese market but there is not always a whole lot of information on the vehicle. Seems to me it would be a very interesting look at the Japanese luxury car market, of which information is limited.

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