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span was considerably shorter than the two door sedan’s. Although the two door sedan had a 90 year lifespan, it too is obsolete.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, All the Last American Two Door Sedans is next: