Pillarless: The appeal of an open coupe

With the advent of stricter safety regulations and a growing focus on bold, thick shapes in car design, the idea of the pillarless coupe has drifted into memories of an era better remembered for its muscle cars. But the design has aged much more gracefully than the simple, immediately-recognizable shapes of 1960s and ‘70s American iron, and even survived by a few obscure luxury cars today.

But what defines these pillarless coupes? The idea at its most basic is simply to delete (or neglect to include) the B-pillar, or at least make it possible to lower that pillar into the body as the windows roll down. The result is a clean look, as if the car has been sculpted from a single sheet of metal.

Photo: BringATrailer.com

I can never choose what car is my personal favorite-looking example of this body style, but one contender (the other is mentioned later) may also be the most recognizable. As a predecessor to every modern BMW 6-series, the BMW E9’s clean profile helped create the smooth, fluid shape we recognize today as a grand tourer. The magic of the 2800CS and 3.0 models is a topic I plan on covering extensively in the future, but if anything can testify to the importance of the pillarless body style alone, it was the E9’s ability to look good no matter what the situation. Big-bumpered North American cars (usually a detriment to classic Bimmers) look excellent, as do the purer European models; racing versions, too, look smooth and clean, even with their form-follows-function widebody kits and accessories. Even as the lineage extended to include the more modern 6-series cars, a multitude of tricks were used to create the illusion of a missing B-pillar, but, to fans of the E9, few compare to the original, genuine car.

Photo: XJC.com.au

Many examples of the body style are even lesser known than the already-rare E9. The Jaguar XJC is a little-known British contribution to the design, and both the V12 and straight-six versions are fine specimens of a luxury-over-driving-involvement coupe. Based only off the second-generation XJ sedan, the lengthy two-door is now an often unheard-of rarity, as just over 10,000 were produced during the three-year run. Still, like the E9 of that time period, the pillarless body style looked good on anything from a bumperless, one-color model to a two-tone, updated version.

Photo: Wikipedia

The exquisite Jaguar was an exception to Jaguar’s low-slung coupes; for a longer run of examples, we must return to German manufacturers. Mercedes, with their naturally expansive body styles, seems the most apt marque to take advantage of the pillarless body style - as they ended up doing on many occasions. The two-door version of the stately W111 series lacked a B-pillar, as did the W126 years later. Early SL coupes carried the body style, as well. Even the 600 SEC in the ‘90s (notable for being the basis of one of AMGs craziest road cars) was pillarless. In fact, most of the Mercedes coupes from that decade were.

Today, the tradition continues with the CL-class, based Mercedes current largest non-Maybach sedan, the S-Class. Though the body mass of its flanks has narrowed the window line significantly, the clean body lines are just as significant a detail as they were in the 1959.

Photo: Wikipedia

To end this snapshot of the genre (bear in mind that pillarless coupes tend to fall under history’s radar, so if you know of a particularly exceptional vehicle, let me know in the comments), we return to BMW - and to the 1990s. The 6-series may have taken a leave of absence between the E24 and the E63, but the spiritual link was the polarizing 8-series. Oddly, the 1989-1999 E31, like the E24 before it, could range from bland to spectacular. But also like that earlier car, it looked absolutely stunning with the right combination of trim pieces. The CSi-style lip (now common on used E31s) lowers the front on 850s and 840s to a height that perfectly complements the car’s flowing, GT shape. With the right wheels and the M73 V12 engine, the car is a striking (though expensive to maintain) sports car.

Strangely, the pillarless coupe is often forgotten, residing in the shadows of their respective eras’ greats. The early Mercedes and BMWs existed in the era of American muscle cars, and in the ‘90s, the attention of design critics gravitated towards exotic Lamborghinis, Ferraris, and Japanese manufacturers, leaving the GT coupe class in a low-selling pit. Today, cars the public throws under the spotlight are still generally sports and exotics, not the formal Bentley Brooklands, Rolls-Royce Phantom Coupe, or Maybach Xenatec Coupe (these, and the others in that class, lack an obtrusive B-pillar). But whenever we see a car from this rare class, whatever era it might hail from, it remains a welcome addition to the endless flow of traditional car design.

And if you have a suggestion for another great vehicle with this body style, be sure to register and comment below.