(first posted 7/25/2014) The hardtop was one of pillars of American automotive design. It originated in the heady post-war years, an extravagance that reflected America’s breezy optimism and one of the first key steps towards the dominance of style over function that soon swept the automotive landscape. Like so much else of that airy era, it died in the stuffy seventies, a victim of threatened regulation, air conditioning, and a desire by Americans to hide in massive vinyl-topped rolling bunkers with gun slit windows rather than to be seen (and see) from every direction.
As with so many other facets of American culture, it was the Europeans and Japanese who embraced it and kept the windows wide open. Mercedes started early, and have offered pillarless coupes from 1960 through today — at a price. The Japanese discovered the joys of hardtops in the mid-late 60s, only shortly before Americans started erecting B Pillars with a vengeance, and a number of affordable Japanese hardtop coupes made it to the US. Subaru, better known for its rustic four-wheel drive wagons, was the final keeper of the flame, offering this coupe in 1984, the last affordable hardtop in America.
The first regular production hardtops were the GM C-Body coupes, which arrived sometime after the start of the 1949 model year. The Cadillac version was given the lyrical name Coupe de Ville, the start of a long and glorious tradition. Of course, it wasn’t exactly affordable.
It should be pointed out that at the time, convertibles were commonly called “convertible coupes”, and the “hardtop coupe” was essentially a new variation of the convertible style. Ads often made reference to the hardtop being for those that wanted “the sporty convertible look” but with a fixed roof.
But a mere one-year wait took care of the “affordable” equation. The 1950 Chevrolet Bel Air ushered in the hot new style in the low-priced segment, although not surprisingly, it was the most expensive ($1,721) in the line, next to the convertible. Still, in inflation adjusted terms, that’s a pretty reasonable $16,628.
In lieu of some time-consuming research, I’m going to guess that the 1965 Corvair 500 was probably the most affordable American hardtop ever, and that applies to both two-door ($2066) and four-door ($2142) versions. One would need to do some inflation adjustments to other compact hardtops to confirm that, but that ’65 500 adjusts to about $15,000 in today’s greenbacks.
American hardtop production collapsed during the early ’70s under the weight of threatened roll-over regulations and changing priorities. Air conditioning was ultimately the biggest one, as folks took to driving with the windows up, making hardtops increasingly irrelevant. The last big Chevy hardtops were built in ’75 for the two-doors, and ’76 for the four doors. Chrysler built the very last hardtops in America, the 1978 New Yorker and Newport Custom; the end of the road for an American invention and tradition. Which makes it rather ironic that this little Subaru carried that on, at least through 1984.
Outside of the realm of “affordable”, Mercedes has been the true carrier of the hardtop flame. The W111 was first sold in 1960, the elegant Mercedes W126 S-Class coupe was available through 1992, and the sleek W124 coupe continued to be available in the US through the 1996 model year. And there have been Mercedes hardtop coupes (CL-Class) ever since.
And the rather rare BMW 8 Series lasted through 1999.
And Mercedes will still sell you one today; starting at $52,200.
I’m not sure which Japanese was the very first hardtop, but this Corona coupe, which I shot in Portland, was first built in 1965. And Toyota was a big exponent of the style, offering hardtops across its various lines. But that ended a few years before 1984, for the US market. And there were hardtops from the other Japanese makers too, of course.
In Japan, hardtops continued to also be available into the 1990s. They had developed a major love for them there; someone here will tell us which as the very last (true) hardtop sold in Japan. Of course their later four door “hardtops” actually had a thin B pillar, like this Honda/Acura Vigor. Looks can be deceiving.
Subaru jumped into the hardtop era in 1977, just as the Americans were bailing. The GF coupe was more than a bit ungainly, sitting on the narrow and high-beltline platform of the gen1 Leone. It worked rather better as a four-wheel drive wagon than a stylish hardtop, and sold better that way too.
The second generation Leone was significantly wider, which made its proportions much more palatable, at least to American eyes. And the added interior width was a boon too. Subarus are often castigated for poor styling, but this generation was actually quite a good effort, hardtop or not. Still, these coupes were never very common.
The four wheel drive wagon of this generation was the most desirable, and one of the most prolific older cars here a few years back, the one that really made Eugene a Subaru town. But they’re starting to become a bit sparse now too, probably due to the hard use they’ve almost inevitably seen. Endless numbers of dark green Foresters have seemingly replaced them all as the older Subie of choice.
Subaru was already getting a bit adventuresome with their dashboards and controls, mounting a number of them on two projecting stalks. Looks almost Citroenesque. Subaru’s quirky side would soon come to fruition with their XT coupe, which essentially replaced this hardtop coupe. Those stalks developed into comprehensive controls on the XT.
Here’s how Subaru dealt with the shoulder belt. That alone was probably a significant reason genuine hardtops went bye-bye, until the integrated seats Mercedes pioneered came along in more recent years.
Sadly, four wheel drive was not available on the Subaru hardtop coupes; now that would have made for a unique vehicle: the only four-wheel drive hardtop ever? Or am I missing someone? These Subarus were powered by the 1781 cc EA-81 OHV boxer four, an engine that gained a rep for being very reliable and long-lived, and didn’t eat head gaskets like the more recent Subaru OHC boxers. Folks swear by them, instead of at them.
The 1980 DL version of this Coupe (I’m not exactly what year this one actually is) listed for $5,099, which adjusts to a bit over $14k today. That made it even cheaper than the that ’65 Corvair 500 coupe, and it was undoubtedly better equipped. And they both had boxer engines, of about the same horsepower.
This GL coupe likes to hang around with some equally-tough companions. Hard bodies and hard tops; makes for good company. And new conventional-cab pickups have become almost as rare as hardtops. Are they on the endangered list too?