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.)
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.
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.