The first true pillarless hardtops were the all-new 1949 General Motors coupes offered by Cadillac, Buick and Oldsmobile.
It took a few years for the others to catch up, but by 1953 most US automakers offered a style leading hardtop coupe.
By 1956 a new trend hit the showrooms – the hardtop wagon. It was American Motors, of all marques, who offered the first hardtop wagon – releasing the awkwardly styled Rambler Cross Country in 1956.
Interestingly, no such wagon was ever offered by Chevy, Pontiac, Plymouth or Ford. It was seen as an upmarket option and so was only offered on the most expensive line of wagons offered by Oldsmobile, Buick, Mercury, Chrysler and Dodge.
Mercury was able to offer the hardtop option because it still had a unique line of cars, but by 1960 they’d been dragged back in to the fold and from then on would only offer re-styled versions of existing Ford models.
The mid-to-late 1950s was a time when an upmarket station wagon was a status symbol – a car entirely acceptable to park out the front of a country club. A fully optioned hardtop wagon was redolent not of snotty nosed children, but country clubs, hunting, golf and a life of rural glamour. Think of them as today’s upmarket SUV.
As a species, the hardtop wagon died out quickly. GM offered its’ last wind-in-your-hair wagon in 1959, Mercury & Rambler in 1960, with only Chrysler & Dodge soldiering on until 1964.
Hardtops equaled style – something not always associated with station wagons. The downside was more wind noise, less body rigidity, and in cold and wet weather – drafts and water tended to find their way inside the car even with windows fully closed.
For these reasons, the practical wagon buyer who purchased a hardtop wagon soon went back to the more staid, pillared version when trading in for a new wagon from the late 1950s. With demand low, neither Ford nor GM could see the sense in engineering their next range of wagons to allow for a hardtop option.
What a shame, because the pillarless wagons remain the coolest ever made. They’re ultra rare now, and therefore in demand with prices skyrocketing for good examples. How any managed to survive at all is a minor miracle – what with their poor weather sealing and the fact they were a cheap second hand option for anyone wanting a work horse or cheap transport.
Chrysler & Dodge continued to offer a hardtop wagon in to 1964 – Chrysler with the New Yorker and Newport, and Dodge - the Custom 880. The only reason Chrysler offered hardtop wagons years after everyone else was nothing to do with popularity. It was because Chrysler had no dough.
Take a look at a ’64 New Yorker and you’ll see exactly the same windscreen as on the Virgil Exner styled ‘Forward Look’ range of 1957. Underneath, the ’64 Chrysler/Dodge full sized models were warmed over ‘57s. The Mopar boys were hit hardest by the ’58 recession, and weren’t able to fully retool until 1965.
But if it’s a hardtop wagon your heart desires, an early 60s New Yorker/Newport may be the cheapest way go to. And though the styling is awkward from some angles, the interiors are all class, what with space-age electro-luminescent instruments. They could also be equipped with Chrysler’s excellent range of big block engines to add serious muscle to your cruising equation.
If you’ve got the bread and you wanna go in style, but want something you don’t or won’t often see at a car show – keep your eyes peeled for a hardtop wagon.
Then wait for a sunny day, roll down the windows including the one in the tail gate, fire up the big old V8, ease out on to the road and put some Booker T on the stereo. You won’t be able to wipe the smile off your dial and every wannabe surfer you pass will hang out the window to ask how much you want for your ultimate surfboard transit machine…
Footnote: A number of custom body shops produced Cadillac wagons in very limited numbers through the 1950s, 60s and 70s. The below photo is based on a 1969 Cadillac Deville, one of five built as VIP transport for that year's Indy 500.