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.
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.
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.
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.
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.