Currently reading: Mourning the car bodystyles that have died out
As the new car market becomes increasingly focused on hatchbacks and SUVs, we reminisce about the bodystyles that have gone
News
6 mins read
26 September 2021

Whatever happened to the two-door estate, the three-box saloon and, for that matter, the landaulet? Such odd questions will keep you awake at night if you have anorak tendencies. Manufacturers seem to invent niches just for the hell of it these days, while bodystyles come and go and marketing wonks go on about lettered market segments.

However, before everything on wheels becomes a SUV, let’s stop and take stock of where we are. Which model types are now dead, are dying, are on life support or have simply been renamed?

Under Threat

Estates, roadsters, coupes and two-door 4x4s

Lots of models are starting to wane in popularity because of changes to buyer demographics and fashion. Estates are gradually being replaced by SUVs, but this is over the long term. Roadsters are accounting for less of the car parc, from Mazda MX-5 to Caterham Seven. Coupés are rarely financially viable, especially for mainstream manufacturers. Two-door 4x4s are almost gone unless they’re commercial (see the Suzuki Jimny), although the Jeep Wrangler and Lada Niva still cling on.

Almost Extinct

Speedster

Back to top

This is now a fairly Porsche-specific reference, but historically it referred to a stripped-out roadster ready to race on the salt flats from the early part of the 20th century. It has been applied to low-volume (Plymouth Prowler) and concept cars for which a windscreen is optional and customers can afford a six-figure sum. The best known today are the Porsche 911 Speedster, Morgan Plus 8 and Aston Martin V12 Speedster.

Shooting brake

The shooting brake is quite distinct from the rather more blue-collar two-door estate, being a full-on sports car with a smidgen of practicality, a rear door and a longer than usual body. Originally coachbuilt for moneyed shooting parties, it evolved into a gentlemen’s grand tourer, and even some mainstream manufacturers had a go – for example, Reliant with the Scimitar GTE and Lancia with the Beta HPE. More recently, there was a brief revival with the BMW Z3 M Coupé, which was effectively an MGB GT on steroids. It survives as the occasional one-off bespoke build for those who can afford it (we’re talking Aston Martin and Ferrari).

Pop-out roof convertible

Manually pushing out a removable roof section was an integral part of the appeal of the Fiat X1/9, Datsun 280ZX and Ferrari 328 GTS. Porsche continues to build a Targa version of the Porsche 911, but these days the panel moves away automatically.

Back to top

Three-seat coupé

No benches involved here, just individual buckets. The Matra-Simca Bagheera and its Murena successor flew the flag for the builder’s van seat layout. You could take one more person than in a Lotus, although there was inevitably less elbow room. The game-changer was the McLaren F1, which put the driver in pole position. No one copied it, and only McLaren returned to the theme with the million-pound-plus Speedtail.

Utility

These were faux or actual military vehicles sold to the public. They included The original Land Rover, of course, the Mini Moke, which was designed to be flat-packed and parachuted into battle, and the Rolls-Royce-powered Austin Champ. See also the Mercedes-Benz Unimog, Steyr-Puch Haflinger, Volkswagen Trekker (aka Thing), Volkswagen Iltis, very-Jeep-like Suzuki LJ80 and beachfront-friendly Citroën Méhari. These are certainly not crossovers.

Commercial

This has been a long-term ruse to dodge tax: offer a car in a van format with no side windows or rear seats so that it could be used as a business tool. Back in the old days, it was purchase tax that was avoided by some quite posh coachbuilt makes, such as Lea-Francis, so that it could become a station wagon or shooting brake for the hunting and fishing set. In modern times, it has been something for artisanal free-range sustainable egg-cup suppliers who can afford the Land Rover Discovery Commercial or the short-lived Mini Clubvan. Most recently, Suzuki has used it to circumvent the CO2 issue with the Jimny LCV.

Back to top

Three-door hatchback

Ironically, the model that nuked so many other formats is partly under threat, partly because five-doors are more practical and partly because emissions regulations are making city cars financially unviable to build. You can’t even get a three-door Toyota Yaris or Vauxhall Corsa any more.

Amphibious car

Outside of military vehicles, such as the Alvis Stalwart and Volkswagen Schwimmwagen, there has only been the Amphicar (although you can still build yourself a Dutton Surf from a kit and an old Suzuki Jimny). The bottom line is that water and production vehicles really don’t mix.

Extinct

Four-door convertible

These were always a challenge structurally, even with a separate chassis. Many were around in the 1930s and 1950s, the most (in)famous being the Lincoln Continental Convertible. There might be the odd coachbuilt anomaly for an oligarch, but else they just aren’t worth the engineering bother.

Three-seat roadster

Back to top

The bench seat has a lot to answer for. These were pretty much a thing only in 1950s Britain, where one could ride as a gooseberry passenger in such beauties as the Allard Palm Beach and Riley RMC. Two-seat convertibles and roadsters won out.

Two-door estate

This was a very regular sight from the 1950s through to the 1980s. It was a working-class precursor to the family hatchback, being a popular format for small cars such as Ford’s Prefect and Escort. From the Volkswagen Polo ‘breadvan’ to the Vauxhall Chevette, there was a ready market, including interesting oddities such as the faux-by-four estate in the shape of the Talbot Matra Rancho.

Two-door saloon

The simple two-door saloon was a staple from the 1950s onwards, being cheaper than the four-door saloons. Upmarket models like the BMW 3 Series morphed into coupés. Across the board, saloons eventually became more fastback-styled and the upmarket ones were rebranded as coupés. The Ford Escort, Vauxhall Nova and Volkswagen Derby two-doors were just victims of the all- conquering hatchback. Incidentally, the one-box saloon (see the original Mini) is also very dead.

Rebranded

Fastback

Back to top

Effectively, the fastback name has had its meaning changed. Fastbacks were originally coupés back in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s (think the Ford Mustang), but in recent years BMW, Hyundai, Mercedes-Benz and Peugeot have applied the term to four-door saloons with sloping roof lines. At least the coupé version of the current Mustang keeps the term a little authentic.

Dead American dreams

Pillarless coupés were replaced by colonnade hardtops to meet 1974 US rollover regulations (see the Chevrolet Chevelle Laguna). Club coupés were named after the lounge or parlour car on a train and were almost as huge (see the Cadillac Series 62). Liftback station wagons were two- door and tailgate estates that came in compact and subcompact form, often with added ‘wood’ (see the Mercury Bobcat Villager Station Wagon). However, two-door and hardtop station wagons, the latter being the sportier pillarless type, also came as four-doors (see the Mercury Commuter).

Six feet under

Lots of old coachbuilding terms were carried over into the high-end car manufacturing trade and carried on into the 1950s and 1960s. Landaulet means an open-top limousine, so the posh people at the rear have convertible cover while the chauffeur is always covered or open to the elements. Phaeton, taking its name from Greek mythology, was applied first to light, forward- facing carriages and eventually became an open car with room for at least five on board. Victoria originally meant a light four-wheeled carriage with a folding top over the rear seats. It was revived in 1955 by Ford for the Crown Victoria, a two-door hardtop with a chrome ‘tiara’ band around the middle of the roof, but that ultimately turned into a police interceptor with no tiara at all.

Join the debate

Comments
10
Add a comment…
Mikey C 27 September 2021

Compact MPVs are nowhere near extinct but have quickly dropped out of fashion, when compared to even 10 years ago, when Picassos, Scenics, Zafiras etc were a standard choice for a family car. 

Andrew1 26 September 2021
That's OK, we now have SUVs, coupe SUVs, and crossovers and coupe crossovers.
catnip 26 September 2021

I think James is well out of date saying that the 3-door hatchback is "partly under threat" - its all but gone. 

Mii, Ibiza, Leon, Citigo, Clio, Corsa, Mazda 2, Polo and Golf, Audi A1 and A3, Swift, i10, Rio, DS3, C1, Aygo, 107, 208, 1-Series, Ka, are just a few I can bring to mind. I don't believe it's to do with lack of demand, judging by the number of recent 3-door models you see being driven (often) by younger drivers, on the roads and in every supermarket car park,  its about manufacturers only wanting to make the most immediately profitable models. And they wonder why young people aren't interested in cars any more.