Automotive History: The Two Door Sedan (1920-2010) – Its Origins and the Last 2-Door Sedan For Each Brand and Model

1920 Essex Coach and 2010 Ford Focus

There are two once-common automotive body styles that have become extinct: the two door sedan and the two door station wagon. We covered the history of the two door wagon here, whose life span was considerably shorter than the two door sedan’s. Although the two door sedan had a 90 year lifespan, it too is obsolete. Let’s take a look at its history, from beginning to end, including the last of its kind built by make and model by US market post-war manufacturers.

Part 1: Definition and the First Two Door Sedans

First, let’s review the definition of a two door sedan as we use it here, and as it should be used everywhere: it’s a two door version of a four door sedan, and one that shares the same roof; as in all or much of the actual same roof structure and/or pressing.

As we can see, that very much applies to the 2008 – 2010 Focus (NA Market only), despite it being repeatedly referred to as “coupe”. Well, who would refer to a car as a 2-door sedan in 2011? That was so 1900s. Admittedly, there’s going to be some gray areas as well as likely disagreements. Sometimes it’s hard to distinguish between a genuine 2 door sedan and a coupe, especially as that name came to be used more extensively since it sounded much more appealing than “two door sedan”, which had acquired the image of a cheap, stripped fleet car.

Before we go on, let’s briefly touch on the coupe. The definition of a coupe is a body style that is differentiated from the corresponding sedan, in having a roof that is shorter, lower, or perhaps fastback, or otherwise clearly different than that of the sedan. It originates from the French word couper which meant “to cut”. It’s a sedan that’s been cut down, literally or stylistically. Or is just a two-passenger fixed roof body.

During the pre-war era, that was most commonly a two-passenger body style, with perhaps a rumble seat.

In the post war era, some stayed that way for a few more years, like this 1949 Dodge.

But more commonly, they became something in between, a business coupe (top) with either just a cargo area behind the front seat, or a smaller rear seat.

Around this time, the hardtop coupe arrived and soon became very popular. Within a few years, the business coupe was gone, and the hardtop coupe would become one of the most popular body styles for American cars. That is, until the new era of roll-over regulations and the popularity of air conditioning essentially killed it.

 

Which created a new era of coupes, many of which were essentially two-door sedans, although their manufacturers certainly weren’t calling them that anymore. A good example of this gray area is the Dodge Aries, which is identified as a “two door”, but based on our strict definition, it’s not quite either coupe or sedan, as it has the same roof line of the sedan, but a different C pillar. So maybe just “two door” is an appropriate hedging by Chrysler in this case.

Enough about coupes, and back to sedans:

 

The sedan body style takes its name from the sedan chair, which may look like a coupe, but that’s beside the point.

Enclosed car bodies originated in France—this 1899 Renault Voiturette being the first—and adopted many of the French terms as used in horse drawn coaches. There were a number of early enclosed body styles, but sedan came to be adopted in the US for a fully enclosed car that used the full length of the available room on the frame for passengers.

At this point we need to clarify that we are using the terminology as used in the US. In the UK and many of its former colonies, saloon would be comparable. In German, it’s a limousine. In French, berline is the most common term, although sedan might also be used.

The enclosed car took a big step forward in 1905, when new longer and more powerful chassis on the style of the first Mercedes became common, and town car body styles suddenly proliferated, like this 1905 Renault. In the US, Simplex and Pierce-Arrow also fielded similar sized and styled town cars.

I’m going to use the Ford Model T as a proxy for so many other cars of the time, as its body styles reflected the changing market, typically a few years behind. In addition to the open roadster and touring cars, there was a coupe and these two enclosed cars starting in 1909. They’re essentially identical, the difference being that the Town Car generously gave the chauffeur some protection from the elements, unlike in the Landaulet (these terms generally differ from those used in Europe). Clearly these body styles were designed for the use of the wealthy, and not as family vehicles. In its early years the Model T had not yet become affordable to the working class.

Starting in 1911, a new body style, termed the sedan in the US, was suddenly the hot new thing. The idea was that a relatively affluent owner-driver could now enjoy the sociable experience of motoring with three other companions in enclosed comfort. One of the first and most influential was the 1911 Rambler (this was the first incarnation of the Rambler, built by the Jeffrey Company from 1897-1914).

It should be noted that these early sedans typically had only one or two doors, which might be mounted in the front (as in the Rambler) or in the middle. Entry was more like into a small airplane than a car. Technically, these were one or two door sedans, but since there was no four door version, it’s our first gray area. They’re not two-door sedans in the mold we know and will be focusing on here.

Packard also fielded a new sedan in 1911, which it called The Single Compartment Brougham.

Only one year later, the 1912 version sprouted two more doors, making it possibly the first four door sedan in the US, but I’m not certain.

The interior of the Packard Single Compartment Brougham makes it quite clear that this was a very luxurious place for four people to motor sociably.

There were so many manufacturers back then, it would be a huge undertaking to determine just who had the first sedan, two door or four door. But what’s pretty obvious is that for its first decade (the teens), the sedan was typically a two door model, commonly with center doors, except in the upper end of the market. Ford’s first Model T sedan, which arrived in 1915, reflects that.  But the price, $740, was 70% higher than the four passenger touring car (folding top). Sedans were not yet common or generally affordable, even if it was technically a two door.

That all changed drastically in the twenties, thanks to Essex (owned by Hudson). In 1920, it brought out two sedans, a four door (above), and a two door (below), with prices that had a substantially lower premium over an open. Essex anticipated the shift to enclosed cars, and invested heavily in efficient production facilities to build them more economically.

As is quite obvious, this two door sedan version of the 1920 Essex is essentially identical to the four door, and as far as I can readily determine, is the first of its kind. It was specifically built to reduce its cost, which became the key feature of all two door sedans henceforth. As such, I’m calling it the first American two door sedan that meets our definition fully.

The 1922 Essex Coach further brought down the price, and it was now only 25% more expensive than the open version. It was a hit, and propelled Essex to great growth in the 20s, all the way to the #3 spot in 1927, behind Chevrolet and Ford. And Ford soon followed suit with Essex’s strategy.

In response to its dealers, Ford replaced the center-door sedan with new sedans; the 4-door Fordor arrived in late 1922.

It was followed by the 2-door Tudor in 1923. These follow the Essex model, in that they are largely the same except for the doors and side windows. Prices also dropped, and enclosed cars rapidly became an ever larger percentage of the Model T. The 2-door sedan was now a mainstay of the American car. It offered less convenient ingress and egress to the rear in exchange for a lower price. Initially, these bodies were made of aluminum, to keep the weight down for the rather modest Model T chassis, which had not been designed for enclosed cars. Later, steel replaced the lower body sections.

To document all the first use of two door sedans by other makes would be a massive undertaking. But suffice it to say, the model set by Essex and soon followed by Ford became essentially universal. The exception was with the luxury brands, which soon eschewed the two door sedan (or never built them) as it quickly began to be seen for what it was, and as such was not suitable for their brands.

Luxury makers typically had coupes, or club coupes/club sedans (four-five passenger coupes, with shorter bodies). Or in the case of these 1935 Pierce-Arrows, it was called a “Club Brougham”. There was no consistent naming standard. One could argue that it is a two-door sedan version of the Club Sedan, but that was really more of a four door coupe, and had a somewhat shorter body than the sedan. In this time, a sedan was essentially the biggest and longest passenger car body that would fit, and 7 passenger sedans with jump seats were common. The only thing that separated them from a limousine was the division behind the front seat. Limousines were not typically any longer back then than a corresponding sedan.

 

Part 2:  The Last American Two Door Sedans:

This undertaking turned out to be a bit more demanding than I expected, and there are likely omissions and mistakes. Please point them out, and I will add/correct as appropriate.

 

Buick:

 

The last full sized RWD Buick two door sedan was offered in 1963, in the LeSabre model line. The 1961 Special and Skylark through 1979 only had coupes.

But it came back on the new FWD Electra for three years, 1985 – 1987.

The 1978-1980 Aeroback Century coupe used the same roof as the sedan, but it did have frameless glass on its longer doors.

The X-Body Skylark’s 2 door body was clearly a sedan, despite being called a coupe. The last one was built in 1984.

The new 1982 Century played the same game; it was called “Coupe”, but in reality was a 2-door sedan. The last year it was built before a genuine coupe replaced it was 1988, and this is the only one I could find on the web. Obviously not many were built in its last year.

The N-Body Buick arrived in 1985 as the Somerset, and exited in 1991 as the Skylark. The Custom Coupe was clearly a 2-door sedan.

Cadillac:

I started to write that there had never been a proper Cadillac 2-door sedan, and prior to 1985, that is probably true. But the drastically downsized FWD ’85 models (this one here conveniently posing for me with a Toyota Tercel 2-door sedan) certainly seem to have changed that tradition: the Two-Door Sedan deVille.

The last of these was built in 1993.

 

Chevrolet:

The last year for the full size Chevrolet 2-door sedans was 1969. It was available as a Bel Air (pictured) or Biscayne. Given that Chevrolet had just retooled for this model year, it’s a bit surprising that it wasn’t carried over into the very similar 1970 MY. But sales numbers were falling off a cliff.

The Chevelle’s first two generations (1964-1967) included a 2-door sedan, but starting with 1968, the A Bodies had unique coupes. It’s tempting to see the 1978 Malibu coupe as a two-door sedan, but a closer look shows that its roof is shorter as well as having frameless windows. So 1967 was the end of the road.

The same applies to the Chevy II, whose last year as a genuine 2-door sedan was 1967. Pictures of these in unmolested form are impossible to find; this one was shot by CC’s Don Kincl.

Of course there were cars that were only made as 2-door sedans, and had no 4-door counterpart. Obviously we can’t exclude them form that, and the Chevy Vega is the first of the bunch. Of course, it should have had a proper 4-door sedan version, but that’s a different story. This is the only ’77 I could find, the last year for Vega production.

Like the other new FWD A Bodies, the Celebrity arrived with a 2-door sedan, which was finally ditched after the 1988 MY, but no coupe roof replaced it.

 

Chrysler:

Like many higher-end brands, Chrysler had a number of two-door sedans in the ’20s and ’30s, typically called “touring sedan”. The end of the road first came in 1948 (technically “1949 first series”), along with the end of the pre-war bodies that were built until the new 1949 “second series” cars were ready. Those included a “Club Coupe”, but its roof was decidedly shorter than the four door sedan’s.

But the new 1953 Chrysler Club Coupe shared the same roof as the sedan, so that makes the 1954 (above) the last of the line.

 

Crosley:

Crosley only ever made 2-doors, and although there were supposedly a few made in 1952, this 1951 is the closest I can find.

 

DeSoto:

Like the Chrysler, DeSoto’s last two door sedan was in 1954.

 

Dodge:

The last full-sized Dodge 2-door sedan was in 1964. But a slightly shortened wheelbase version (119″ to 117″) was used by the now mid-sized Coronet line in 1965.

That continued through 1967. Starting in 1968, there were only coupes and pillared coupes.

In a bit of a surprise to me, 1968 was the last year for the Dart 2-door sedan. Good thing my father bought one of the last ones, otherwise he’d have been forced to by a Swinger (god forbid)!

We discussed the Aries earlier, given that it’s a bit borderline. The roofline is sedan, but the C-pillar is wider. This is going to be a recurring issue as we move into the 80s and up. The last of these was in 1989.

 

But then there’s the Neon. Except for a filler panel on the C-pillar, it’s the same roof on the “coupe” as well as the sedan. Shall we call the 1999 Neon the last Dodge 2-door sedan?

 

Edsel:

1960 was the Edsel’s final year in any body style.

 

Ford:

Like Chevrolet, Ford’s last full-size 2-door sedan was in 1969. Another one-year wonder.

1965 was the last year for the Fairlane 2-door sedan, as the 1966 used a shortened coupe roof shared with the Falcon.

Which makes 1965 also the last year for the Falcon 2-door sedan.

But the Fairmont picked up what the others left behind; the last Fairmont 2-door sedan was built in 1981.

And then in 1981 and 1982, the Granada carried on the tradition a bit longer.

I’m a bit ambivalent about the Pinto’s inclusion here, as it’s intrinsically coupe-like. But there never was a coupe (thankfully), and this non-hatchback version was pretty consistently called a 2-door sedan in marketing materials. This 1980 version was the last of its kind.  (The badge-engineered Bobcat supposedly offered the non-hatch sedan, but I’ve not been able to verify that).

The NA market-only gen2 Focus was a curious thing all-round, and generally retro-grade from its highly-regarded predecessor. That Ford would re-engineer the gen1 hatchbacks into genuine sedans was a bit of a shocker, but presumably the lack of the hatchback saved them a few bucks, and it was quite clear that cost-cutting was the priority. The result is the last genuine 2-door sedan, in 2011.

 

Hudson:

The last of the big “step down” Hudsons was in 1954, and the 2-door sedan was referred to as “brougham”. It was not as common as the club coupe, with its shortened roof line.

The compact Jet also had its last outing in 1954, and a 2-door sedan was in the line-up.

In 1955, after the merger with Nash, Hudson dealers were now also selling the Rambler, including this 2-door sedan. It was a one-year affair only, as the little 100″ wb Rambler had its last year then, until resuscitated for 1958.

 

Kaiser:

The second generation Kaiser (1951) did have a 2-door sedan version, but frankly, a 2-door hardtop would likely have been a bigger draw. This is a final year 1955 Manhattan.

 

Lincoln:

Lincoln fielded no less than two 2-door sedans in their new 1949 postwar line-up. The base Lincoln (top) shared its body with Mercury, and the Cosmopolitan (bottom) was a genuine 2-door sedan too, which didn’t exactly help against the new Cadillac Coupe DeVille. 1951 was the last year for both.

 

Mercury:

1966 was the last year for the big Mercury 2-door; all of 2,749 were sold that year. A mighty rare bird.

The Comet’s last 2-door sedan was in 1965, like the Falcon’s.

The Zephyr’s last outing was in 1981.

And the baton was then handed over to the Cougar, which fielded a genuine 20door sedan for 1981 and 1982.

 

Nash:

The senior Nashes last had a 2-door in 1954. It’s impossible to find one on the internet; even the brochure renderings are small and poor quality. So this very fine ’52 Custom 2-door will have to stand in; it differed from the ’54 only in minor trim details.

The last Nash 2-door sedan of any kind would have to be the 1955 American.

 

Oldsmobile:

Olds bowed out of the full-size RWD 2-door field after 1961, two years before Buick.  Because it was known as “the experimental division”?

But from 1985-1987, the new FWD 98 offered a coupe that was really a 2-door sedan under its padded top.

The 1978-1980 Cutlass Aerobacks included a two door version that mostly fills the description, although it did use frameless glass.

The 1980-1984 Omega 2-door is a gray area, as it has a unique kick-up at the base of the C-pillar, although its basic roof structure is the same as the sedan’s. Your call.

The Olds Ciera got a new genuine coupe roof in mid-year 1986, so this early ’86 GT represents the end of the line for the 2-door sedan.

The Cutlass Calais 2-door bowed out in 1991.

 

Packard:

Not only was 1954 the last year for a Packard 2-door sedan, but it also was the last for the venerable straight eight. Make mine a Clipper Sportster.

 

Plymouth:

This one is a bit of a dilemma: the 1970 Fury I and Fury II 2-door sedans. They’re even called that in the brochure, but the reality is that their roof is just a bit different that of the sedans, shared with the Fury III “Formal hardtop”.  Hmm.

If that’s stretching it too much for you, than we can play it safe (and dull) with the 1968 Fury 2-door sedan.

1967 was the last year for a genuine B Body Plymouth.

The Valiant hung on as a 2-door sedan for one year longer than the Dart, until 1969.

The Reliant 2-door, as with its clone, the Aries, is a borderline case. Last one was 1989.

 

Pontiac:

Pontiac’s last full-size 2-door was the 1968 Catalina. The Y and A-Body cars all had different roofs for the two doors.

There was no Phoenix 4-door sedan, and this sure looks like a 2-door sedan to me. 1984 was the last year.

The 6000 2-door, whose two doors would quite likely interchange with the Phoenix, was made through 1987.

 

Rambler/AMC:

Oddly enough, there was an Ambassador 2-door sedan for just two years; 1965 and 1966. Given that’s it’s impossible to find any images of one in existence today, we can safely assume it wasn’t a big seller.

There does seem to be one example of a ’66 Classic 550 2-door sedan, though. They’re essentially the same basic car anyway.

Don’t let that horrendous wig fool you; this 1982 Concord is a genuine 2-door sedan, and even called so in the brochure.

The only thing that can top it is the Eagle AWD version. 1982 was also its last year.

 

Studebaker:

The last of the pre-Lark (116.5″) wb Studebakers were built in 1958, including this Champion 2-door.

1966 was the last year for all Studebakers, 2-doors and 4-doors.

 

Willys:

No, it’s not a Volga GAZ M-21, although the Willys may well have influenced it. It’s a final year 1955 Willys Aero Ace Custom, and a 2-door sedan, of course.

And since it’s not something you’re too likely to encounter on the street, here’s the view from the rear. More on the Willys Aero here.

PS: If any of you would like to list the last 2-door sedans by import brands, that would be great. I started to include them here, but it quickly turned into a quagmire. As an honorary mention, I’ll include what was probably the last one, the 2005 Toyota Echo, which may well have been the unfortunate inspiration of the 2008 Focus.