Long before the fashionable Citroen DS3 Cabriolet and the new Fiat 500C rose to the top of car sales charts in recent years, a host of models from a number of different manufacturers had already paved the way of their success by establishing a rather smart yet niche segment in the industry: the coach cabriolet. Stylish, convenient, practical and easy to handle, the coach cabriolet or semi convertible provides a clever solution to the problems of rigidity, safety and balance raised by the production of fully convertible models, which typically require separate structural development to their hardtop counterparts. Admittedly, coach cabriolets are generally a far cry from the streamlined glamour of full convertibles, but by incorporating a simple mechanical system known as landaulet they allow carmakers to offer their customers the privilege of an open ride at a far more affordable price. In many ways, the coach cabriolet is something akin to a distant cousin—maybe even twice removed—to the full convertible, which despite lacking the latter’s daring design or sporting prowess somehow still shares in its allure.
The heyday of the coach cabriolet came in the years immediately after the Second World War, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, a period marked both by the indelible memory of the recent horror but also, and perhaps more dramatically, by the prospect of rebuilding lives, countries, an entire civilization. Optimism might be too positive a spin on the mood of a period that was, however, certainly pregnant with potential. Back in those days of rudimentary technology, when the air was cleaner and A/C was unheard of in a motorcar, the concept of a modest, reliable, sturdy convertible that served both as a family workhorse and a weekend fun drive proved to be hugely popular.
Thus, as early as 1948 Fiat rebranded the unforgettable Topolino and released it as the Fiat 500 B (in France the Simca 5), which soon thereafter would be turned into the more modern Fiat 500 C / Simca 6. Both of these were best loved, trend setting cars that sold well between 1949 and 1955 in their coach cabriolet versions. The simple action of the roof and their classy look made of these indisputable postwar winners, especially for the export market.
While Simca profited from its license to build the Fiat models in France, Citroen developed its own version of the concept: the 2CV. Built between 1948 and 1990, the 2CV didn’t really have a landaulet system, and could probably just as easily be described as a car with a rolled up roof. Be that as it may, the twin-engined 2CV Sahara built between 1960 and 1966 was a wonderful four-wheel drive with such a large sunroof it almost merits inclusion among semi convertibles. Unfortunately it was destined to fail—only 694 were built over the course of seven years—as four-wheel drive cars were still a thing of the future.
Citroen and Simca were not, however, the only two French manufacturers interested in the coach cabriolet segment. Between 1949 and 1956 Peugeot produced the fun and rather desirable 203 Decouvrable, a four-door coach cabriolet that went on to sell more than 11,500 units; at the same time Renault produced the 4CVdeLuxe Decapotable, a tiny rear wheel drive car, also four-door (!), which was both agile and pleasant; and Ford SAF (Ford France) started producing the only V-8 powered coach cabriolet in 1953 when it introduced a version of the Ford Vedette with a retractable roof. This impressive four-door luxury car was available until 1955, when Simca bought Ford France and the rights to the name Vedette, which it used for the purposes of a totally different and radically new model.
Meanwhile in Germany Opel, a popular choice for the coach cabriolet before WWII, came up with the Olympia Cabrio-Limousine, building 9,200 of them from 1950 to 1952. The Olympia was heavy in steering and rather slow, but it looked right! Well done and cozy, this car epitomized the Wirtschaftswunder, the miraculous reemergence of Germany’s industry from the ashes of the Second World War. In 1953 Opel built upon the success of the Cabrio-Limousine by introducing the brand new Olympia Rekord, a charming coach cabriolet that lived through three series up until 1956, selling more than 12,000 cars.
Indeed, Germany embraced enthusiastically the idea of the coach cabriolet, with different models being introduced by large conglomerates and small manufacturers alike. For instance, the Borgward Group joined the segment when it introduced the rare and well appointed Goliath GP 700 E and the even rarer GP 900 E, both of which could be bought as coach cabriolets from 1952 to 1957. The same is true for the smaller Lloyd LC 600, also from the Borgward Group. The convertible option immediately turned these rather modest two-stroke-engined cars into much more desirable models. Similarly. from the early fifties the independent German carmaker Gutbrod produced quite a remarkable car in the shape of the technically advanced Gutbrod Superior, which featured fuel injection, boasted a distinctive coach cabriolet body and sold roughly 7,000 units before it was discontinued in 1954.
In the United States the most popular coach cabriolet model was the Nash Rambler Custom Convertible, a lovely two-door vehicle that first came into production in 1950 and sold approximately ten thousand units per year up to 1952. The look changed slightly in 1953 but the model continued to sell fine until 1955. By then, however, the taste of the American car buyer was shifting away from the humble pleasure of an occasional ride in the sun in favor of larger, more powerful cars. This signaled not only the demise of the Nash Rambler Custom Convertible, which to this day remains the only coach cabriolet to have been built outside of Europe, but also the progressive downturn in the fortunes of convertible automobiles altogether. Until, that is, the Volkswagen Golf came to change the rules of the game in 1980—but that is part of a different story.
With the notable exception of German coachbuilder Baur, which developed a four-door semi convertible version of the BMW 3-series in the 1990s, the coach cabriolet was all but forgotten until its resurgence in the early 2000s. That’s when Citroen pumped a whole load of resources to revive the idea in all its splendor with the rather unique C3 Pluriel, which sold over 100,000 units between 2003 and 2009. Then again it could be argued that Citroen was a pioneer of the coach cabriolet style, since it produced the iconic 2CV for over four decades. And this is where we come full circle, because if Citroen and Fiat are the two marques profiting most from the current hype surrounding the coach cabriolet, they too were the companies who brought back the concept after the Second World War. Which goes to show that some ideas are worth keeping, cherishing and revisiting. The coach cabriolet is certainly one of them.
Published in the Weekender supplement of Sint Maarten’s The Daily Herald newspaper on Saturday March 19, 2016.