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


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[“News from Toyota: Toyota Mark II, Chaser, Cresta Full Model Change”], [Japanese press release], 29 October 1992; [“News from Toyota: Toyota Releases New High-Class Passenger Car: Windom”], [Japanese press release], 30 September 1991; [“News from Toyota: Toyota Vista/Camry Full Model Change”], [Japanese press release], 11 July 1990; [“News from Toyota: Toyota Windom Full Model Change”], [Japanese press release], 21 August 1996; 75 Years of Toyota, 2012, www.toyota-global. com: “General Status of Plants in Japan: Affiliates (Toyota wholly-owned subsidiaries)-Toyota Motor East Japan, Inc.,” 2012, accessed 6 April 2015; and 75 Years of Toyota: Vehicle Lineage: “Camry Hardtop (1st),” “Camry Hardtop (2nd),” “Camry Sedan (3rd),” “Carina Coupe (3rd),” “Carina ED Hardtop (1st),” “Carina ED Hardtop (2nd),” “Carina ED Hardtop (3rd),” “Carina Hardtop (1st),” “Carina Sedan (4th),” “Chaser Hardtop (5th),” “Corolla Ceres Hardtop (1st),” “Corona Coupe (1st),” “Corona Exiv Hardtop (1st),” “Corona Exiv Hardtop (2nd),” “Corona Mark II Hardtop (4th),” “Corona Sedan (8th),” “Crown Royal Hardtop (10th),” “Crown 2door Hardtop (4th),” “Crown 2door Hardtop (6th),” “Crown 4door Hardtop (5th),” “Crown 4door Hardtop (6th),” “Crown 4door Hardtop (7th),” “Crown 4door Hardtop (8th),” “Lexus ES Sedan (1st),” “Mark II Hardtop (5th),” “Mark II Hardtop (7th),” “Mark II Hardtop (8th),” “Scepter Sedan (1st),” “1600GT Coupe (1st),” “Sprinter Marino Hardtop (1st),” “Toyopet Corona Sedan (3rd),” “Toyopet Corona Hardtop (3rd),” “Toyopet Corona Hardtop (4th),” “Toyopet Corona Mark II Hardtop (3rd),” “Toyopet Corona Sedan (3rd),” “Toyopet Corona Sedan (4th),” “Toyopet Crown Sedan (3rd),” “Vista Hardtop (2nd),” “Windom Hardtop (1st),” and “Windom Hardtop (2nd),” 2012, www.toyota-global. com, accessed 17 April 2014 through 3 January 2015; Toyota Motor Sales, “Camry V6 Prominent” [brochure C80046-9007], July 1990; “Carina ED” [brochure 132011-6008], August 1985; “Carina ED” [brochure 131016-8909], September 1989; “Carina ED” [brochure TF0010-9310], October 1993; “Carina FF 4door Sedan” [brochure 131020-5905], May 1984; “Corolla Ceres” [brochure CE0038-9205], May 1992; “Corona EXiV” [brochure 121016-8909], September 1989; “Corona EXiV” [brochure PE0010-9310], October 1993; “Crown” [brochure 101024-6209], September 1987; “Crown 4door hardtop” [brochure TD0018-9110], October 1991; “Mark II” [brochure PC0029-9210], October 1992; “Mark II” [brochure PC0013-9609], September 1996; “New Carina” [brochure 131017-5609], September 1981; “New Corona Coupé” [brochure 121121-6008], August 1985; “New Crown” [brochure 101059-4910], October 1974; “New Crown” [brochure 101365-5409], September 1979; “New Vista” [brochure 191052-6108], August 1986; “Sprinter Marino” [brochure AD0038-9205], May 1992; “The Quality Car: New=Mark II” [brochure 021102-5112], December 1976; “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, https://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 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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