It’s all relative
If you think you know what a Club Coupe is, think again.
By David Traver Adolphus
When we were selecting cars for this special club coupes issue, we were going to include a 1955 Ford. The two-door Customline sure looked like a club coupe to us: The roofline took a dive over the rear passenger’s head, so the rear window sloped from the point where it began at the B-pillar. The rear window also began below the front door window line, and there was a space between the trunklid opening and the bottom of the C-pillar. Then Editor-in-Chief Richard Lentinello asked, “Ford had a club coupe in 1955? Really? Great!” His moment of hesitation made us go back and double check, and sure enough, Ford called it a Tudor sedan. (We’ll have that car next month.)
But was that Ford’s naming convention, or were they obeying a rule we didn’t know about? The ’54 was a club coupe (although the Mainline, on the same chassis, was a business coupe), so why were the ‘55s now called Tudor sedans? Yes, they were new designs, but the wheelbase was only different by half an inch. Even worse, while the Customline Six two-door was a Tudor Sedan, the new V-8 Fairlane (with a virtually identical base price) was a Club Sedan! After that, things called business coupes and club sedans stayed in the Ford lineup for years, but the club coupes disappeared until 1966.
We looked back over our archives for club coupes, and found only three driveReports: A ’42 De Soto; the ’42 Ford; and the ’49 Ford way back on the May-June 1971 issue of Special Interest Autos, which was no help whatsoever—both Fords were convertibles.
We were certain one of the Hemmings editorial staff, with our combined 740 years of experience, would have a definitive answer. We couldn’t have been more wrong: Some thought the roofline had to start descending at the B-pillar; others that the rear windows just couldn’t have a top edge that continued the curve of the front. One authoritative opinion was that the roof had to end ahead of the rear decklid, not at it. Someone said it was a non-hardtop coupe with a back seat larger than a regular coupe, but smaller than a two-door sedan. One Corvair fan said it was “a close-coupled two door with a full rear seat. I tend to think of them as having upmarket trim,” which made a nice contrast to the editor who said he thought of them as being on the “low end of the totem pole when it comes to equipment, trim and price.”
“I tend to think of club coupes as close-coupled four- or five-seaters, versus two door sedans with full rooflines,” said another. “Club coupes are akin to business coupes, but with a rear seat,” which was far more comprehensive than another description as “any two-door with a fixed roof, luggage compartment and back seats.” That, incidentally, just about matches the Classic Car Club of America’s description, “A two door closed car with a rear seat.”
We broke out the literature. The Standard Catalogues have a directory of body styles in the front, which, they preface with a warning that, “There was no ‘correct’ automotive meaning other than that brought about through actual use.” They go on to say that “the early postwar club coupe combined a shorter than sedan body structure with the convenience of a full back seat, unlike the single-seat business coupe,” but warn that “the distinction between two-door coupes and two-door sedans has grown fuzzy.” That’s not what the Society of Automotive Engineers would say, though—these days, anything with more than 33 cubic feet of rear seat volume is a sedan, anything less, a coupe. Clearly, that standard wasn’t in place for the enormous 1967 Chrysler Imperial hardtop two-door. And that standard’s a little from their earlier criteria. According to the Online Imperial Club, just after WWI the SAE defined a coupe as “an enclosed single compartment body with one fixed cross seat. This seat may be straight to accommodate two passengers, or staggered to accommodate three persons. The conventional body has two doors, and two movable glass windows on each side. The roof is permanent, and there is a luggage compartment at the rear.”
Surely the manufacturers knew what they were talking about? We looked at cars called Club Coupes, to see what they had in common. The earliest we ran across was in 1926; McLellan's Automotive History had a brochure for a ’26 Buick, and then there was the 1927 Chrysler 70. However, to our eyes Reo’s 1918 Model M four-passenger “enclosed roadster” and Packard’s 1918 four-passenger Twin Six both have the look…but not the name.
There was a common thread among these, and it’s well summed-up by the Online Imperial Club, which says a club coupe is a two-door shorter than a sedan, but with a full rear seat. We interpret this to mean that the passenger cabin is shorter (thus the notion that the roof should end short of the trunk), and not necessarily the wheelbase. So a two-door sedan has all the room of the four-door, and a club coupe only exists if there’s more than one coupe body style in a given lineup—there’s got to be a smaller coupe for the larger club coupe to exist, otherwise, it’s just another coupe.
The very first coupes were French, and they weren’t cars, either. Coupé (some designers still insist on the “koo-pay” pronounciation) is the French verb meaning “to cut,” and it was first applied to 19th Century carriages, where the rear-facing seats had been eliminated, or cut out. The “Club” portion is a little murkier, but the consensus seems to be that the notion arose from the sensation of being in the exclusive club car of a train: A semi-private lounge or parlor, accessible, yes, but you had to be special to get there.
They were special, too. Everyone agreed that Club Coupes are two-doors—and that they have style that sedans lack. The room that designers gave up in the cabin they got back on the rear decklid, and that meant the proportions were lower and longer than a sedan. Put them side-by-side, and you had the perfect in-between car, with plenty of room for passengers and two-door coolness.
With less weight (and especially less weight up high), they actually are sportier, too. Even the big ’52 Kaiser featured elsewhere in this issue manages to save 55 pounds over the sedan, and any racer will tell you that dropping two percent of a car’s weight is nothing to sneeze at.
Coupes of all kinds have fallen out of fashion today, as people look for a single vehicle that can do everything. But the pendulum of automotive fashion always swings back, and the next time it comes back to the coupe side, you can bet that the stylish, sporty, practical club coupes will come back with them.
SIDEBAR: The Hemmings Classic Car guide to coupes:
Any two-door other than a Two-Door Sedan, smaller than a related four-door in the same model line. If there is no sedan in that model’s lineup, the two-door is a coupe and cannot be a Two-Door Sedan. All two-door two-seaters with a solid roof are coupes. Many manufactures have referred to qualifying convertibles and retractable-roof cars as Convertible Coupes when the tops were up.
Any coupe with a luggage compartment contiguous with the passenger compartment and accessed via a large rear liftgate
Any coupe having no B-pillar, often a fastback; also called Hardtop Coupe, Two-Door Hardtop, Berlinetta, Berlinette
A two-door with a single row of seating and space between the seatback seat and the end of the passenger compartment, as for a salesman’s sample case
A two-door with a single row of permanent seating and folding occasional or jump seats as the second row
A two-door with two rows of seating and a trunk, smaller than a sedan in the same lineup for comparison, generally having a fixed B-pillar, and a rear seat farther forward than in a comparable sedan. Also called Close-Coupled Coupe
A fastback Club Coupe; also called Aero Coupe, may or may not be a Hatchback Coupe. Originally a sedan which resembled a Coupe
Two Door Sedan:
A two-door with two rows of seating, having the same or nearly the same room and seating configuration as a sedan in the same lineup, usually with a profile identical to a sedan. Also called Business Sedan (if lacking rear seat), Brougham (also applied to four-doors), Brougham Coupe, Coach, Club Sedan, Victoria (also applied to smaller coupes)
SIDEBAR: The Experts
Greg Wallace, Manager of GM’s Heritage Center and former manager for the Cadillac Historical Collection and Cadillac's archive:
“I have heard most of the names used to describe this fastback body style,” he said. “Sedanet, Aero Coupe, fastback etc.” Fastbacks? He included the Pontiac Streamliners, and we thought this was great, until he mentioned that Sedanet was actually the Buick name, not Cadillac. For Chevrolet, Fleetline was technically a body style and not a model, and Fisher Body manuals called fastback two-doors Aero Coupes—a name resurrected in 1986 and 1987 for the (Fisher-bodied) fastback Chevrolet Monte Carlo Aerocoupe.
“All of the Cadillac and Oldsmobile factory publications call out this body style as Club Coupe.”
Jack Carroll, designer, AMC:
“It’s one of those thing that if you ask ten people, you probably get ten different answers,” said Jack. “Typically, a Club is one that would have a turret top or a smaller top, as opposed to a two-door sedan. In most cases, in the design industry you would get a one-thirds, two-thirds proportion, where in a sedan you have essentially no trunk, and it’s basically 50/50: If you look at the length of the hood to the windshield, and the windshield to the backlight or the trunk, it’s almost split in half. Where the Club Coupe tends to be shorter, no back seat or minimal back seat, and basically, a shorter top so you get a sportier proportion to the car.”
He says that all of the Opera Coupes and Business Coupes could fall under the same umbrella, but that Club Coupes make up in the trunklid what they lose in the roof, “So you get a sportier look.”
Jerry Palmer, Executive Director of Design, General Motors North America, 1992-20XX:
Jerry says the 1930s Fords come to mind for him, and agrees with Jack Carroll that anything with room behind the seat is a Club Coupe. “They’re close coupled, with smaller greenhouses—less than a two-door sedan. They gave the total proportions of the vehicle a little shot in the arm.”
“I think that’s what could save GM—if we did a hot little coupe. Before I left, I wanted to do one, a Cavalier-sized two-door hardtop. I think there’s a hell of a market for that car. A tight little coupe.”
Stewart Reed, Chair of Transportation Design, Art Center College of Design:
Stewart asked for our definition first, and when we said we didn’t want to contaminate his ideas, he told us not to worry about it. “Boy, is that not on anybody’s radar right now,” he said. “It’s a coupe with a little different proportional ratio between the cabin and surrounding body. Strother McMinn, my esteemed colleague, used to talk about the Gary Cooper Duesenberg [SSJ LaGrande roadster]—the selfishness about it, with the tight interior and large body, which gave it that attitude.”
He told us that when he as at Chrysler Advanced Design in the 1970s, the “old-timers” felt that four doors were a stigma, and two-doors represented something a little more sporting, a little less practical. Eliminating as many pillars as possible was part of that philosophy, and designing “a selfish little coupé or roadster makes the car feel proportionally larger, makes it more imposing.” That meant that side glass got longer, and as the technology and philosophy of design changed, the very idea of the Club Coupe completely left the designers’ vocabulary.
Although he was at GM in the 1950s, David still considers the Club Coupe name to be from well before his time. His take is that it was a name applied to a business coupe, “To give prestige to a car that the public thought was for business. They just wanted a more glamorous name for a body style, to broaden that market, make it something more elegant, as though you were going out to your club.” He mentions that the Corvair sedan solidly outsold the two-door until Bill Mitchell “dolled it up” to create the Monza, and he didn’t recall a designer ever referring to it as a Club Coupe. “It was probably more a marketing strategy.”