Once you’ve ridden in the back seat of a phaeton and almost been ejected from the hyperspace-speed wind whipping around the windshield, you’ll realize that the trunk that looks a lot like a back seat is not meant for humans, unless you duck.
As a rare and wonderful variant in the evolution of the car, phaetons and their convertible-sedan cousins are highly valued today. While phaetons are typically an open four-door with no side windows and a separate windshield, a convertible sedan is a later iteration with an integral windshield and roll-up windows. Phaetons usually shared the separate windshield and posts, cowl, and front doors of their roadster counterparts. To that, rear doors and a tub were added, with the result becoming a phaeton.
Phaetons were originally called “tourings” and were the most popular choice in the early days of driving. The stoic Ford Model T touring is what we mostly picture in our minds when recalling 1910s and ’20s automobiles. Plying dirt and rutty paved roads meant leisurely jaunts at reduced speeds, which made back-seat travel more pleasant.
Glass side windows in convertible sedans were a much-needed addition, rather than the phaeton’s isinglass snap-on windows, as they provided more protection from the elements—with the added advantage that the turbocharged air blowing into passenger’s faces was eliminated with the windows up. Our guess is that while the top might be down, those side windows seldom were.
Every manufacturer had an open four-door or three, from Ford to Duesenberg. Some of the long-wheelbase Chryslers, V-16 Cadillacs, and Packards from the late-1920s and ’30s are truly the kings of the road, with a stately, stunning presence garnering much admiration under that big top.
Once closed sedans and coupes became cheaper to produce and more popular at the end of the ’20s, the touring got the fancy “phaeton” moniker. That added a certain élan, but it never addressed the cyclone in the back seat. For that, a second windshield usually hinged onto, or attached to, the front seat. It brought relief to rear-seat passengers but was an expensive and subsequently rare accessory, though very practical.
Thinking the body style would be more popular with roll-up side windows, the convertible sedan appeared in the mid-1930s, but didn’t stop the bleeding. By 1940, most all-open sedans were gone. Brief reappearances after WWII mark some of the highest valued cars of their eras. Frazer’s 1949–51 Manhattan convertibles, with odd fixed side window frames acting as both channels to roll down the glass and some extra needed structure; and, of course, the 1961–67 convertible Continentals, are unusual, highly-prized body styles in a sea of sedans.
Speaking of structure, most all convertible sedans, phaetons, and tourings tie their bodies to the front stamped-metal seat tub, but they are not known for their rigidity. Rear seat passengers especially should not rest their arms along the top of the body, as they’ll surely get their arm pinched between the body and door going over train tracks or as the frame twists when turning into driveways. For many reasons it seems best to reserve that rear seat for things like caged chickens, small furniture, or maybe a spare tire.
Roger Bell’s 1932 Ford phaeton was built in 1982. The heavily chopped Deuce featured all of the stock gingerbread like door handles and isinglass snaps, but ran a dropped headlight bar and solid hood sides. Only 2491 phaetons were produced by Ford domestically in 1932, but worldwide that number increased to 5251, including both V-8s (the first year of the flathead engine) and four-bangers.