Back to the Future: Return of the Four-Door Coupé

by James Kraus

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1967 Ford Thunderbird Four-Door Landau in Raven Black with Black Levant Grain vinyl roof

The new car market today is rife with the latest body configuration; the Four-Door Coupé. The Mercedes-Benz CLS and Volkswagen CC have recently been joined by the BMW Gran Coupé and more examples are likely on the way.

The contemporary four-door coupé first appeared in the form of the aforementioned Mercedes-Benz CLS in 2004. Based on the E-Klasse platform, it was sheathed in more flamboyant sheet metal than the standard four-door models and featured coupé-style unframed door glass with an overall height reduced by about 6 cm (2.5”). This has been the general formula for its later progeny.

The four-door coupé concept is not really new; this body style enjoyed a brief reign of popularity several decades ago. 

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1957 Cadillac Eldorado Brougham in Fairfax Blue with brushed stainless steel roof

An early example was the Cadillac Series 70 Eldorado Brougham of 1957. While many American four-door ‘hardtops’ were emulating the look of a traditional coupé via their frameless door glass and lack of a visible B-pillar, the Brougham carried the coupé theme a bit further.

The newest member of the Eldorado family stood just 141 cm (55.5”) tall versus the 150 cm (59”) height of the standard Cadillac Series 62 4-door sedans. Not only did the Brougham have unframed door windows, it also dispensed with a B-pillar almost entirely. The Series 70 featured rear-hinged ‘suicide’ rear doors and was subsequently able to incorporate miniature B-posts that extended only from the sill to the height of the front and rear door latches.

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Open wide: easy entry into the Eldorado courtesy of abbreviated “B-pillarette”

Less than one thousand of the ultra-expensive Broughams (priced at double that of lesser Cadillacs) were built between 1957 and 1958.

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Rover P5 Mark II Coupé in Bordeaux over White

In autumn of 1962, Rover launched the P5 Mark II Coupé. The new Rover Coupé, based on the Mark II Saloon, featured a unique roof with more sloping front and rear windscreens. Fixed door glass channels were retained in this case, albeit with slender chrome-plated assemblies replacing the thickset pressed-metal body-colour frames of the standard Saloon.

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Standard Rover P5 Saloon in Stone Grey over Pine Green in the 1984 film, Il Regazzo di Campagna. Note thick window frames and taller, more bulbous roof

The greenhouse, sitting on an unchanged lower body, was 6 cm (2.5”) lower than the standard Rover P5 Saloon, the exact drop of the first generation Mercedes CLS. The P5 Coupé was popular, accounting for a quarter of P5 sales shortly after its debut, and chosen by nearly half of P5 buyers by the time production ceased in 1973.

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1968 Thunderbird Four-Door Landau in Midnight Aqua Metallic with Dark Blue Levant Grain vinyl roof

Finally, in the fall of 1966, Ford introduced the Thunderbird Four-Door Landau; the first (and last) four-door Thunderbird. Developed as a alternate variant of the new fifth generation model, the four-door flaunted its coupé credentials with a svelte 136 cm (53.5”) overall height, a full 8 cm (3″) lower than Ford’s Galaxie four-door sedan, 4 cm (1.5”) lower than a Galaxie four-door hardtop, and the same height as the current Aston Martin Rapide.

The Four-Door Landau featured suicide rear doors and frameless windows in the manner of it’s spiritual predecessor, the Eldorado Brougham, but retained a full-height B-pillar.

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Opened rear door displays the attached forward section of the C-pillar

To facilitate entry and exit, the Thunderbird’s rear doors incorporated nearly a third of the massive “formal” roof pillars. The cutlines were partially masked by the non-functional landau bars that were attached to both the inside and outside of the C-posts. The four door Thunderbird was produced through 1971.

These three cars were all marketed as four-door coupés; either subtly by Cadillac and Ford, or overtly in the case of Rover. This is the distinction that set these cars apart; they were sold alongside what their respective manufacturers considered to be standard conventional four-door body styles.

Other manufacturers made four-door models that might be interpreted as coupés, notably the Jaguar XJS of 1968, but they were never marketed as such. In the case of the XJS, the low, sleek vehicle was simply the expression of what Sir William Lyons thought a 1960s four-door saloon should look like.

After the Rover and Thunderbird models were phased out, the Four-Door Coupé style went into hibernation. It was surprising to me that the style resurfaced in Germany; a country once celebrated for designing vehicles with an emphasis on practicality, efficiency and logic, as Four-Door Coupés suffer on all these counts when compared to conventional ‘high-roof’ four-door models.

However; if you instead compare a Four-Door Coupé with a conventional two-door Coupé, the four-door model suddenly excels in terms of logic and efficiency, if not always in style.

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2 thoughts on “Back to the Future: Return of the Four-Door Coupé

  1. Agreed, and that goes as much for the whole pop culture of today as for the cars. It’s not about going somewhere, it’s all about making an impressive arrival. The same pattern all over again as back in the glittering sixties, but it will be seen clearer in retrospect of course.

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