(first posted 8/28/2014) The decline of the two-door sedan is related to many factors, but it was a long, drawn-out process. While “personal luxury” began popularizing the more-differentiated coupe at the top of the market, mini-muscle cars were doing the same at the bottom end, and as the dowdy Falcon was replaced by the Maverick, it seemed even conservative Ford tossed the formal look aside for its compact at the dawn of the ’70s. Space efficiency, it would seem, was for squares.
But ever practical and poor, AMC was loath to follow this approach with its new Hornet, where packaging and production efficiencies were especially important. So not only would the Hornet two-door be a practical sedan, it would even share its roof stamping with its four-door brother. In upholding this most orthodox interpretation of the two-door while still looking good, AMC’s compact is a perfect ambassador (pun intended) for the concept. When sedans look this good, who needs a coupe?
Faced with a limited ability to add flair to the design, it was far better to make the car look sleek but conservative–something few others did as successfully in this market segment. It’s a unique look; Chevy and Ford went for the coke bottle, while Chrysler stuck with a classy, lean and upright ’60s bodystyle. The Hornet did neither, and in some ways looks like a car designed at the end of the ’70s; almost international in spirit. In other words, a proper successor for the Rambler American’s plain, effective design, but chunkier, with enough hippiness for a substantial look.
As friendly as mainstream tastes were to minimalism and faired-in hardware in the ’80s and early ’90s, Dick Teague’s design has aged quite well. Good thing, too, because its dynamics let it down and its basic shape would last seventeen years after its 1970 intro. Later versions would be gussied up further and even now, many pictures of Hornets feature them with vinyl tops. Not so this car, photographed by CC-er Laurence Jones; it’s good enough to show off naked, its contemporaries looking cold and sterile by comparison.
By this end of the Hornet’s run, the two-door sedan in its strictest sense was beginning a slow fade from the American compact scene. It would take the Fairmont to briefly revive it in 1978 for a brief fling through the early ’80s, when two-door K-cars and imported subcompacts would keep the flame burning a while longer.
But the trend toward more differentiated “coupes” continued unabated. Personal luxury was slowly replaced by the sporty coupe and hold-outs like the dour Sentra and Jetta (offered with a diesel, but never a sixteen-valve) defined the two-door as basic transportation only. Even three-door hatches were seemingly cooler.
AMC certainly wasn’t unaware, having introduced a three-door “hatchback coupe” to go along with the two-door in 1973, both of which continued as Concords post ’78. Oddly enough, once the Eagle came around, the two-door stuck around while buyers of the hatchback coupe were presumably redirected toward the Gremlin’s jazzed-up Spirit replacement. Sales of the Hornet and its derivatives, with a few exceptions, followed a downward trend through 1987, when they finally went out of production.
But in the meantime, AMC had a short-lived hit on its hands; one which sold relatively well in two-door form, despite the by-then inescapable unpopularity of the bodystyle. This is likely related to the sort of old-fashioned skinflint the company is famous for having attracted, but it seems Kenosha had a rare talent for producing likable, no-nonsense two-door sedans. If nothing else, it’s something to add to the list of American Motors strong suits.