What is a coupe?

Some of you may be waiting for part two of our article on power and torque, but in the meantime, let’s examine another frequently confused automotive term: the word coupe.

The term coupe (or coupé) is derived from the French couper, “to cut.” In the era of horse-drawn carriages, it originally applied to a shortened (hence “cut”) carriage with space for only one row of seats inside.

In styling usage, the term coupe refers to a close-coupled automobile. Couple distance is the distance between the driver’s hip joint when seated (which stylists call the “H-point”) and the rear axle. (The term can alternately refer to the distance between the driver’s “H-point” and the H-point of the rear-seat passenger.) A “close-coupled” car, therefore, is one where the front seats are relatively close to the rear wheels, which naturally leaves little or no space for rear-seat passengers.

Coupes are usually two-door cars, largely because the close-coupled dimensions don’t leave room for a rear door of reasonable size, but there are four-door coupes as well. Many manufacturers, however, apply the “coupe” label only to two-door bodies.

In prewar days, there were several varieties of coupe:

  • A business coupe was a fixed-roof car with an integral trunk, but no rear seats. As the name suggests, it was aimed at traveling salesmen who needed to carry samples, but not passengers.
  • A sport coupe was similar to a business coupe, but instead of an integral trunk, it had a rumble seat (a dickey seat, in British parlance) in the rear deck for two occasional passengers.
  • An opera coupe had a rear compartment with fold-down seats for occasional passengers (as the name implied, in case the well-heeled buyer needed to take extra guests to the opera).
  • A club coupe was a two-door body with two rows of seats.

Business coupes continued into the 1950s, as did club coupes (albeit not always by that name), but the opera coupe disappeared after World War Two. The rumble seat vanished from most cars after about 1940, although U.S. automakers recycled the term “sport coupe” to refer to the pillarless hardtops that became popular in the 1950s.

1949 Cadillac Series 62 club coupe rear 3q
No one would call a 1949 Cadillac small or even close-coupled, but Cadillac described the two-door fastback as a club coupe.

Technically, a coupe does not have to be a closed-roof car. Particularly before World War Two, close-coupled open cars were often described as convertible coupes (or, in British usage, drop-head coupés) — in part because many automakers offered convertible sedans, as well. Since the 1950s, the term has primarily been applied to fixed-roof cars.

In the U.S., the Society of American Engineers (SAE) standards (which are used by the Environmental Protection Agency and National Highway Transportation Safety Administration) distinguish coupes from sedans based on rear-seat volume, not the number of doors or the couple distance. The cutoff is 33 cubic feet (934 liters); cars with more back-seat volume than that are technically considered sedans whether they have two doors or four. (Thus, the four-door Mazda RX-8 is a coupe while Cadillac’s Coupe De Ville was not.)

In common usage, though, most people now use the term to refer to any closed, two-door car. Inevitably, common usage trumps technical correctness, so within the next decade or two, the original significance of the term will have faded into history.

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