Most every car enthusiast of a certain age knows the tale of how the classic American two-door hardtop was created. In the late 1940s, General Motors executives began to notice that the hip, stylish crowd often bought two-door convertibles, but then never bothered to put down the tops. (As one story goes, one of these style-setters was Sarah Ragsdale, wife of Buick assistant chief engineer Ed Ragsdale.) They simply preferred the convertible’s styling with its low, sleek roofline and pillarless, unobstructed daylight opening, and meanwhile, the ladies didn’t like to muss their hair.
To capitalize on the trend, GM stylists quickly put together convertible-based models equipped with fixed steel tops. Initially called “hardtop convertibles,” the first examples included the ’49 Buick Riviera and the ’49 Cadillac Coupe de Ville, and a popular new body style was born that dominated the U.S. market for the next decade or two.
All that is perfectly true. But it’s also true that Chrysler created the very same body style in 1946, a full three years earlier, and no one cared or even noticed. Not even Chrysler.
Plans for Chrysler’s elegant hardwood-bodied Town & Country line for model year 1946 included a sedan, a roadster, and a six-place convertible. But at some point it was decided there would also be demand for a two-door, six-passenger coupe. So a Custom Club Coupe, as Chrysler called it, was created by grafting a modified roof stamping from the business coupe onto the body shell of the six-place convertible.
Technically, this body style met all the requirements perfectly for a pillarless two-door hardtop: Constructed on a convertible body shell, it shared the convertible’s windshield height, and with convertible side glass, when the windows were rolled down there was no fixed B-pillar to break up the daylight opening. Yet the T&C Club Coupe has never been given credit for being the first hardtop, and really, it doesn’t merit the distinction.
So what’s the problem? First of all, only seven cars with this body style were produced by Chrysler, so it was hardly a trend-setter. (One example still exists, reportedly.) Next, while the T&C Coupe was certainly handsome with its white ash and mahogany bodywork, it was a completely different look than the one presented by the chic and glamorous ’49 GM hardtops. It’s not what we envision when we think of hardtops, long story short. Finally, Chrysler was lacking in intent. The company wasn’t trying to create a new body style; it was simply trying to fill a gap in its lineup and stumbled into the configuration by accident. Chrysler’s Town & Country Custom Club Coupe was hardly an innovation, only an expediency.
All this shows, among other things, that in the pursuit of automotive history, claims of first are always problematic and often overrated. Nailing down the first anything is typically an exercise in onion-peeling. In the automotive world, first is seldom the best, most successful, or definitive. It recalls the old saying: It’s the second mouse that gets the cheese.