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)


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 2015 by Aaron Severson 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.


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 2015 by Aaron Severson 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 full-size LTD line 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 into the public domain by the photographer, resized and modified (recropped) 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 into the public domain by the photographer, resized and modified (recropped) 2015 by Aaron Severson)

1972 Cadillac Fleetwood Sixty Special Brougham side © 2010 Lincoln Continental/Gangster Car Driver (CC BY 2.0 Generic - modified 2015 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 (recropped and reduced glare) 2015 by Aaron Severson and used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license, with this modified version 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 (further obscured front-seat occupant) 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.


Add a Comment
  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 Little Lord Fauntleroy by Frances Hodgson Burnett (the title character’s first name) while “Fairlady” is a reference to the musical My Fair Lady.

  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.


    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.


    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.

      1. The 1971 LTD “pillared hardtop” (I hate that term) did not replace the true 4 door hardtop, but rather the regular 4 door sedan. In 1971-72, the LTD was available as the regular hardtop sedan and the pillared sedan without window frames (I’ll call it a “sports sedan”.) The regular 4 door sedan with window frames was only available as a Galaxie 500 or a Custom 500.

        1. Ah, you’re right! Thanks for the clarification. I looked at the initial ’71 brochure, which notes the pillared hardtop is new in the LTD line and “features the open look of a hardtop with thin center pillars that add sedan-like rigidity.”

  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.

  19. I’ve bumped into this article several times during the last couple of years and I keep discovering how good and thorough it actually is, a real gem. Normally most of the EU/US car enthusiasts are completely unaware of the Japanese hardtop wave of the past decades and the crazy designs of the JDM models especially (taking the best from the vintage US design and further improving it). I would only add the 4-door Mazda 323f/Lantis (BA), as one of the last examples of the Japanese frameless pillared hardtop design of their export models (and contrary to the usual case, the 2-door coupe version of the same car has frames).
    Now I know this is about 4-door hardtops, but interestingly, as much as Honda stayed away from this trend for the most part (apart from the Inspire/Vigor), the 1st gen Legend 2-door coupe had frameless doors and funny enough, even though there is a center pillar, the small back window also goes down (the 4-door sedan however was all pillared, unfortunately), unlike the similar Prelude, who has always had big window frames. I wonder how car makers decided which model should have frameless doors and which not. It seems such a random feature, especially with Mazda, Subaru and Honda. It doesn’t necessarily follow the idea that frameless appeals as more “luxury”, otherwise the flagship and pioneer of all Japanese exported luxury sedans – the Lexus LS400 – would have been frameless and even a true pillarless hardtop, which it is definitely not.

    1. The Lantis coupe (which had four doors, like the sedan, and is distinct from the 323 three-door) is definitely in the same aesthetic realm as some of these other cars, although its standing in this regard is muddied a bit by the coupe, which is more obviously hardtop-like, being a hatchback. The coupe’s roof treatment certainly exemplifies the concealed B-pillar concept, in any case.

      I wouldn’t necessarily say that the four-door hardtop look represented a distinction between luxury and non-luxury so much as a divide between different aesthetics. The LS400 was a pillared sedan, not represented as a pillared hardtop, because it was intended as a European-style luxury car (and in particular a W126 S-Class rival), whereas more traditional JDM luxury cars like the Crown, Mark II/Chaser, Cedric/Gloria, and Laurel continued with the hardtop look. Toyota and Nissan seem to have tried to maintain the old-school variety for as long as they were at all commercially viable, but I have to assume that they appealed to a different set of buyers than more European-flavored sedans like the Toyota Altezza.

      As for Honda, I think their hesitancy in this regard had a lot to do with their position in the Japanese domestic market in the ’70s and ’80s. It took a long time before they had much presence in any of the “high owner” or luxury segments, and when they first entered those niches, it was a while before anyone in the home market took them seriously. The KA3 Legend coupe, which was marketed as a hardtop, sold in such small numbers in the domestic market that I can’t help suspecting they only bothered offering it in Japan for the benefit of Honda executives! This was quite a bit different than Nissan and Toyota, which had the upscale market sewn up and gradually expanded those themes to cheaper segments (from the Gloria/Cedric to the Laurel to the Bluebird, for instance), and Mitsubishi, which hadn’t managed much market share, but had been playing in those realms for longer than Honda had.

      1. Thanks for your detailed answer, Aaron. It’s nice to see that the discussion is still alive. However, I would have to disagree with you on the LS400 topic. This car was created with the US market in mind. Toyota even sent one of its teams to live in the US, to learn more about the future potential customers preferences and habits. They were fanatically focused on winning the hearts of the Americans and for that, obviously, they had to sacrifice the other markets – you can’t rule them all with one single car…
        Also, if you suggest that the pillarless look is not necessary connected to the luxury looks of a car, to which I completely agree, then I don’t understand your point regarding the lack of pillarless models in Honda. Ironically, it was actually Honda that was the first to break the grounds of Japanese luxury cars in the US, not the LS400. In fact, if not for the Legend, the successful experiment that LS400 was, might have never happened. Interestingly, both LS400 and Legend are not frameless/pillarless. That’s why I think there must be something else behind that design.

        1. The LS400 was definitely aimed primarily at the U.S. market, but its benchmarks were pretty clearly German: It was a European-style luxury sedan aimed at American buyers of German cars, if you see what I mean. The same was true, if somewhat less ambitiously, of the first Legend. I’m not saying that the LS400/Celsior were luxury-oriented and the Crown/Cedric/Gloria were not; the point is that they were distinct modes of luxury aimed at different buyers with different tastes. By way of comparison, consider the difference between the BMW E24 6-Series of the late ’70s and the Lincoln Continental Mark series of the same period. Each was a high-end luxury hardtop coupe with a broadly similar mandate, but you had two quite different aesthetic mentalities aimed at buyers with decidedly different tastes.

          In periods with rival aesthetic trends, you often see different cheaper cars latching on to one or the other — in the way that in the ’80s, you still had some family cars adhering to the American Brougham idiom while others tried to look German or Japanese. I assume that’s what was happening in Japan during the latter part of this period. A car like the Nissan Bluebird four-door hardtop was luxurious insofar as it was aping the bigger, pricier JDM Laurel and and Cedric hardtops.

          Honda didn’t have a high-end model until the Legend, which suffered in the home market from being perceived as a bigger Accord rather than a proper Japanese luxury car. (This is of course a largely subjective conclusion — BMW suffered similar issues for years with the 7-Series being seen as a bigger 5-Series rather than a completely credible S-Class rival, even past the point where it was a pretty fair competitor in any objective sense.) Also, Honda had much less dealer penetration. Toyota and Nissan, with far more retail outlets, more sales channels, and greater market share, had more room to offer different product variations. Honda didn’t, and their efforts in that direction in the ’80s were seen as somewhat clumsy.

          Frameless door glass is generally a design decision to make the greenhouse look less bulky, so while it’s usually part of the pillared hardtop aesthetic, the reverse is not necessarily also true. (As a practical matter, frameless windows are usually infuriating because even in a solid, well-built car, it’s very difficult to keep the glass from rattling if it’s partially lowered.)

  20. Thank you Aaron for this explanation. I completely agree, it was a real pleasure to have this discussion with you. Your site is amazing, keep up the good work.

  21. There’s no such thing as a “pillared hardtop”. That term is as ridiculous as the term “4 door coupe”. The point of a hardtop is that there is no B pillar. If it has a B pillar, it is not a hardtop. Call them something else. “Sports sedan” is as good as anything. But don’t call them hardtops because they simply aren’t. If you’re going to call cars with B pillars “hardtops” then you might as well call all cars with B pillars “hardtops” because by definition, a hardtop doesn’t have a B pillar. I blame Ford for the 1971 LTD and GM for the Colonnade.

    1. I take your point, but that’s how these cars were explicitly marketed in Japan, and there were specific stylistic criteria for that classification. (Most of those models were also offered as sedans, occasionally even sport sedans, with distinctly different rooflines and window treatments.) A lot of these terms were somewhat arbitrary to begin with — “hardtop convertible” is kind of a brain-twister — and from either a linguistic or ontological standpoint, common usage always triumphs in the end, whether it’s silly marketing jargon or not. Most “landaus” are not landaus and the popular Eunos Roadster (Mazda Miata/MX-5) is really a convertible coupe, not a roadster in the traditional sense.

      I must beg to differ on the delineation of “coupe,” however, since the etymology of that term is from “close-coupled,” referring to a shortened couple distance (the space between the driver’s hip point and the rear axle) rather than a number of doors. Likewise, some regulatory definitions of “coupe” are based on rear seat volume rather than number of doors. Granted, four-door coupes are rare (although I’m not sure what else one would call the now-defunct Mazda RX-8), but quite a few two-door coupes are, based on either couple distance or rear seat volume, actually two-door sedans. What can you do?

  22. Aaron, how have I only just discovered this brilliant article? I was Googling the Mazda Persona, on a bit of an obscure JDM kick, and found this.

    I’ve always bemoaned the lack of English-language articles on the Japanese market. This one is fantastic and informative. I’d love to read more of your work on this market.

    1. Thanks, William! If you haven’t, you might want to check out the article I did on the Toyota Soarer, whose first two generations were not officially exported and whose third (sold in the U.S. as the Lexus SC) had some interesting home-market variations not found abroad except as greys. The articles on the Toyota Corolla/Sprinter coupes, the first-generation Celica, and the Honda Legend/Rover 800 also go into some detail about the JDM histories of those models.

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