23 October 2014

The Fabulous 4 Doors

In a world that honors two-door cars above all others, these stunning sedans break with convention and stand out

Everybody knows that the coolest cars on earth are two-door coupes and convertibles, right? Think 2.9 Alfa, any Corvette, Mercedes 300SLs, Mustangs, early T-Birds, GTOs from two continents, Camaros… Even the ’57 Chevy is most iconic as a convertible or hardtop. That’s the rule anyway, but as one particularly gifted and annoying 7th grade teacher pointed out more than 40 years ago in her high, nasal voice: “A rule is not a rule unless there is an exception.” Well, in this case, there are a handful of gorgeous, sexy and very desirable four-door exceptions, all of which have become cars for the ages.

Appear anywhere with one of these cars and jaws drop and the questions begin: “What is it?” “Where did you find it?” “How powerful?” “How fast?” And the one that annoys all true car guys the most: “What’s it worth?” For the cars featured here, the values range from modest to “If you need to ask, you can’t afford one.” But what it really comes down to is if you don’t end up wanting at least one of these cars, you probably don’t like cars nearly as much as you think.

When Roofs Cost More
In the early days of the auto industry, open cars were the norm. With the advent of safety glass, closed cars became more popular and safer, but four doors remained the most expensive models to build, while their fixed roofs added weight but did little to improve structural integrity. And because they were more expensive to build, they also cost more, which meant they didn’t sell well. It wasn’t until the 1940s that sedans became more affordable, thanks to new technology and improved production techniques.

With few exceptions, early four-doors tended to be strong on stodgy and weak on glamour compared to their two-door or open counterparts. Unless they were being chauffeur-driven, movies stars and starlets often opted for sexy convertibles, like Clark Gable’s 1935 Duesenberg Model JN convertible coupe, or spectacular coupes, like Rita Hayworth’s custom 1953 Ghia Cadillac. There are, however, certain four-doors that are so elegant or stunning and have such presence that all the rules are tossed out the window.

Lincoln Continental
If any car symbolizes the hope and optimism of the 1960s, it’s the Lincoln Continental. The 1961–69 Continental may look massive thanks to those vast slab sides, but it was actually more than a foot shorter than its predecessor, the Lincoln Continental Mk V. It was lighter, too, although it still crushed the scales at 4,927 pounds for the sedan. This new Lincoln was also supremely elegant, thanks to the tasteful Elwood Engel design, which incorporated rear suicide doors and minimal bright trim. In an era of short model runs, the basic design lasted an unusually long nine model years, although there were many minor changes, from a longer wheelbase to revised grille treatments.

Few cars of the day were more luxurious, starting with the smooth 300-horsepower, 430-cid V-8 (it grew to 462 cid in 1967), which drove the rear wheels by way of a three-speed automatic transmission. Power accessories included brakes, steering and windows, with air conditioning, speed control and power seats optional.

On the road, the ride is soft and a bit floaty, with remarkably good performance for something weighing 2½ tons. It is the epitome of American luxury and its basic concept lived on for years in the Lincoln Town Car, Ford LTD/Crown Victoria and Mercury Marquis.

Thanks to their long run, these gorgeous four-door Lincolns are easy to find and remarkably affordable, though many prefer the 1961–63 cars for their purity of design.

Hudson Hornet
Sometimes a car is greater than the sum of its parts, and the Hudson Hornet is a perfect illustration. Power came from a big L-head six at a time when the latest and greatest were running overhead-valve V-8s. Sure, it was sleek and low, but the only real standout feature was the lower frame that dropped the car’s center of gravity and endowed the Hornet with better handling than its contemporaries. The feature also gave the company’s marketing men something to latch onto, and these cars became known as the “Step Down Hudsons.”

It didn’t hurt that the Hornet was a great looking car, but with design engineer Frank Spring — formerly of the Walter M. Murphy Company — involved, it was to be expected.

The Hornet came along in 1951, but it really wasn’t a new design at all. Based on the Commodore chassis and body, it used the tried and true 308-cid L-head six mated to a three-speed manual transmission. As originally introduced, horsepower was rated at 145, but with the “Twin H-Power” dual carburation package that was optional in 1951 and standard the following year, 170 horsepower was on tap, along with prodigious torque; with minor tuning, output could top 200 horsepower.

On the street it was a quick, comfortable and luxurious family car for the upper middle class. However, in slightly lighter two-door form — and it was already lighter than the competition — for several years the Hornet ruled the NASCAR circuit in the hands of drivers including Marshall Teague, Herb Thomas and Tim Flock, earning the moniker “The Fabulous Hudson Hornet.”

Today, the two-doors and convertibles are the most coveted, and the most costly. But for relatively small change these handsome four-doors offer the same basic styling, power, handling and ruggedness of the cars that owned the speedways in the early days of NASCAR.

Tucker 48
According to Phil Egan, who was part of the Tucker design team, “The Tucker 48 should present a striking visage as it approached and a dramatic impression as it passed.” There’s no question that the big and beautiful Tucker makes an impression from every angle and at every speed. To many, it’s the “coolest” four-door ever. And based on the prices that some very significant collectors have paid in recent years, it certainly has to be in the pantheon of sedans.

Preston Tucker was a maverick and a dreamer. It showed in the way he did business and in his vision for a new kind of American car. The thought of a 4,000-pound, rear-engine car with fully independent suspension was startling enough, but the styling was from the future and the interior and structure were designed with a view to enhanced safety — although our concept of safety has changed radically in 65 years and no longer involves diving under the dashboard in the event of a crash.

The engine slung out back was a 334.1-cid horizontally opposed six, derived from a helicopter unit and built by Air-cooled Motors, though it was converted to liquid cooling. Rated at 166 horsepower at a low 3,200 rpm, it compared favorably to the 160 horsepower of the overhead-valve V-8 that Cadillac introduced the following year.

Sadly, fragile finances, combined with a federal investigation for stock fraud, ultimately derailed Tucker’s dream, but not before 51 cars were built. Thanks to fantastic styling by Alex Tremulis and a design team from J. Gordon Lippincott & Company — and the hype from the 1988 movie Tucker: The Man and His Dream — the Tucker 48 may be the most collectible four-door out there.

Citroën DS
Looking like something from outer space, when introduced in 1955 the Citroën DS19 was a shock to almost any system. The styling was both futuristic and truly beautiful, as one would expect of a car styled by sculptor and designer Flaminio Bertoni and aeronautical engineer André Lefèbvre. But the innovation didn’t stop there: The complex hydropneumatic suspension allowed for a superb ride, excellent traction (thanks to front-wheel drive) and tenacious road holding. The gorgeous DS became a showcase for French ingenuity. In the 1999 Car of the Century survey, it was voted the third most significant design ever and was dubbed the “Most Beautiful Car of All Time” by Classic & Sports Car magazine in 2009. Although the 1,911-cc pushrod, cast-iron inline four with its alloy hemispherical cylinder head generated a modest 75 horsepower, the aerodynamic DS was capable of very high cruising speeds.

It was also relatively expensive at $3,295 (a VW Beetle cost $1,500), so to boost sales in 1957, Citroën introduced a decontented version called the ID19, which used a less powerful engine, deleted the super-sensitive power steering and the hydromechanical linkage for the manual transmission.

Clearly a flagship model, the DS and its ID brethren still managed to sell a staggering 1.5 million units during a 21-year lifespan. In that time, the engine grew to 2.1 liters (DS21) and later 2.3 liters (DS23), a wagon was added, and famed French coachbuilder Chapron offered an exclusive two-door convertible of impeccable style and quality.

The front-wheel-drive DS can be marvelous to drive, although you either love or hate its ultra-sensitive power-assisted steering and brakes. Despite the modest engine, a good one can be hustled along quickly indeed. However, a bad one can quickly accelerate you along the road to ruin, as the hydraulics are complex and parts and service are hard to come by in North America. As a result, when it comes to a Citroën DS19 or 21, it’s essential to buy the absolute best one on the market. And if you can’t find a good one, just wait until you do.

There are plenty more four-doors that are exciting, gorgeous or well worth having for other reasons. The Aston Martin Lagonda, any number of Jaguars, and the Cord 812 with Westchester or Beverly bodywork all come to mind. Like the four examples featured here, these cars offer stunning looks, excellent performance and a cost well below that of their two-door or convertible cousins.

So the next time someone tells you that all the great cars are coupes and GTs and roadsters and cabriolets, you can offer a smug smile, because you know better.

2 Reader Comments

  • 1
    Nobody France February 9, 2015 at 17:31
    75% agree with this list. I would have preferred to see a Cadillac sedan 1959 instead of the Lincoln but I know that choices can be difficult.
  • 2
    J. Snopple Lewiston, Id January 1, 2016 at 23:32
    I like the Tuckers and the history of the cars are phenomenal, but that Tucker Convertible is the best looking American I have ever seen!

Join the Discussion