Paradise Lost

“Two doors good, four doors bad” George Orwell (well sort of)

1977 Ford Granada 2-door: source
1977 Ford Granada 2-door: source

It’s a sad inescapable fact. The days of two and three door cars are coming to an end. It is manifest that a two door car will look far better than it’s overdoored relative, I mean the rear wheel arch is clearly no place for a shut line. Slowly but surely though the life is being inexorably squeezed from these cleaner more rakish looking cars yet simultaneously we are told that there is more and more choice available.

I don’t think there has been a saloon available with less than four doors since the 1st gen Subaru Impreza went out of production at the turn of the century. Manufacturers will surely cite poor sales and demand alongside offering a “proper” coupe as a defence but I don’t think that’s the full story. The plethora of models (from all marques) all perched on the same platform seem to offer endless alternatives yet they all have the B pillar way too far forward.

Prior to the economy going belly up in 2008 I used to purchase a new car annually for my driving instruction business. Obviously a hatchback is the ideal car for my line of work and a three door model not only pleases my eye but is more practical for me. Every time I was in the showroom I had to argue with the salesman to sell me a three door. They only wanted to sell black or silver five door cars that they felt would be easier to resell when they came back as trade-ins. This clearly distorts the market and will offer further justification for discontinuing my favoured profile.

Black five door Golf
If it doesn’t look like this they don’t want to sell it to you. Source

Perhaps the real death knell arrived in 2005. We saw the launch of Mercedes’ CLS. It led the charge for upmarket four door “coupes” and was very nearly a good-looking car. I thought it was too droopy looking and squeezing in the extra doors (even though they had frameless windows) made the proportions just a little wrong. (It’s bad enough that it sported a B pillar at all but it was unavoidably in the wrong location). Exact same problem with the second gen except for the beautiful “shooting brake” model which still stops me in my tracks every time I see one. Take a second, close your eyes and just imagine how this car would look if it had the correct number of doors?

Silver Mercedes Benz CLS
That B pillar and the rear fly window are the key problems here. Source

Others including Aston and Porsche have wished similar vehicles on the car buying public with varying degrees of success and attractiveness. The arc of two door cars is perfectly described by the BMW 6 series. From Paul Bracq’s sublime coupe/two door saloon through the ridiculous and horribly bloated E63 (perhaps the worst looking BMW of all time? I suppose at least it had the correct complement of doors) to the relatively svelte, good-looking current offering the F06. At first glance then all is rosy? Not quite. A scan of the sales figures show that the four door Gran Sport comfortably outsells the standard coupe and cabrio combined.

So we now have many “coupes” with four doors, often major manufacturers only sell hatchbacks with 5 doors (Renault, Peugeot, Skoda and the new ST Focus is available as an estate but not a three door!) and the standard-bearer for three door hatches the Audi A3 now sells more five door models than the version with the correct quota of apertures. The Volvo C30 made a valiant effort in this class but sales petered out towards 2013 and there is no chance of a direct replacement. Even Minis (my least favourite pastiche) are growing more and more doors as the years pass.

Orange Mark 3 Ford Focus ST
Not only unavailable in three door format it even comes powered by a diesel. Source

There are some tiny glimmers of hope. The Koreans are making a fuss of their three door hatches with sporting pretensions and surely VAG with the combo of the Golf, A3 and the van variant will see the mark 8 Golf sold with no back doors. Is there a market for an exclusive sporting large SUV? Think a Range Rover with two long Avantimey doors cocooning rear passengers in luxury. Maybe not, but I live in hope. Sadly though, now is the time for despair as poorly placed pragmatism smothers the clean, beautiful lines of two and three door cars.

62 thoughts on “Paradise Lost”

  1. While I’m with you on the lack of choice today – remember all the different engine locations, cooling systems, suspension setups etc. we had in the seventies – I can’t mourn the descent of cars with inaccessible rear seats and seat belts too far back. Exceptions like real coupes and very small cars aside.

    Growing up with french cars, I could never understand how you could buy saloons – even large ones like an Audi 100 or an Opel Rekord – with that setup, let alone estates. Ridiculous. Even small cars like a Renault 4CV or a Citroën 2CV naturally had doors for rear passengers. Renault went wrong with their first R5, sadly…

    1. As the examples you mentioned, the German market seemed to drive the demand for 2 door versions of 4 door saloons. Maybe someone here can explain why? I seem to remember Archie Vicar writing something amusing about it.

    2. Germany is one example, South America is another. The Swedish also had large three-door cars – both Saab and Volvo. Pretty much everywhere else, two doors were for small cars only.

    3. I admit that the main basis for the argument was a rather shallow preference for how they look and I do miss seeing cars like the Opel and Audi you mentioned. However there are lots of practical advantages to the correct number of doors. Anyone over 185 cm tall in a four door car tends not to have their seatbelt snugly wrapped over their shoulder, rather hanging loosely and uselessly in front of them. It’s easier to tighten children’s car seat belts when you are hunkered in the rear footwell than awkwardly trying to lean across in a four door. At home we have a (very) large saloon and a 3 door golf hatchback. It is easier (and drier in the rain) to get the kids safely into a three door than the saloon. It’s also about €1200 cheaper to but the three door meaning you can justify that sunroof!
      Sean: If it’s good enough for Archie……

    4. Maybe we have a different view here because I’m only 180 cm and have no children. So whoever might be in the back of my car is usually an adult, and I see it as an act of courtesy to not have them folding themselves and squeezing behind a seat with a fiddly folding lever.

      The optics are debatable, of course. I admit that copues with two doors are nice, and some smaller hatchbacks tend to look good with three doors. However, anything with a decent wheelbase looks bland if the rear doors are missing.

    5. That’s certainly true Simon, especially for a woman wearing a skirt getting in and out of a three door with any degree of decorum is impossible. However when I get my hands on the levers of power there will be cars with doors long enough to let people easily in and out of the back. Seatbelts will be built into the seat (like on some convertibles now) so a driver will be able to let people in and out without moving.

  2. The Americans had big two door cars, both full size and intermediate as well as compact. That faded in the 80s. In Europe they were available as cheaper versions of large saloons. Ford were the most dedicated. Opel’s Senator was not sold as a coupe but the rather different Monza. Rekords came as two-doors though. Renault et al never really bothered. I’d like to know the motivation for the buyers of plain Rekord and Granada coupes/two-door cars. Interestingly, MB and BMW kept at it, indicating the core market wanted size and luxury and perfornance. Budget buyers switched to other formats as years went buy. It seems the two-door is more liked than bought.

    1. I agree that “the two door is more liked than bought”. This will often be as a result of the customer being “encouraged” to take the 4/5 door by the salesman or a fear of not being able to sell the car on a couple of years later. Funny you mention large American cars, I saw only this week a perfectly restored Buick Wildcat and it’s door was nearly as long as my Golf!

  3. Well spotted – Kia’s Ceed keeps the flame alive and I expect they do well at mopping up residual customers for three doors. Opel had a three door Astra but it has been as small a success as Renault’s fetching Megane 3-door. Hot looks are clearly not enough.

  4. I can think of vague reasons, all reasonably unjustifiable. They look better? They don’t mark you out as a family guy? Or, conversely, that your family is safe in the back, unable to fall out of any doors?

    Unlike coupes, two doors were a bit cheaper than 4 doors, which makes sense, but if they didn’t have to engineer for both types, maybe the 4 door could have been cheaper.

    1. Just googled Ford Tudor there Sean. Have to confess to not knowing much about them. Is there a single one left that hasn’t been turned into a hot rod?

    2. When I’m driving about in my Tudor, I usually listen to Fur-Q’s Uzzi Lover at full volume.

    3. It think the designation originated in US Fords in the late 20s, but it was used on later US models but, more oddly, on German Taunuses, where presumably the pun was lost on many customers.

  5. There are some reasons for a revival of two door saloons.
    First of all, there is a growing number of single person households and households without children. Those people don´t need 4 doors every day, or even every month.
    Second reason is, a 2-door-saloon would be lighter, cheaper, more torsion-resistant and cars with climatisation do not need 4 sliding windows for a better climatisation.

    But we are witnesses of the triumph of the SUV´s. Cars for all purposes. Founding a family, buying a house in the middle of nowhere, driving to BurgerKing during a blizzard, raising dogs as your new hobby, a road trip in Iceland, everything must be possible with the same car….
    So i don´t see a big chance for a revival of 2-door-saloons in an ageing society.

    The german preference for 2-door-cars has one simple reason – this car:

    1. All good valid points Markus, but I agree. I’m not holding my breath for a revival anytime soon. That’s interesting you say that the Beetle is the reason for German’s like of two door cars. I had never thought of that.
      Richard: For me the RX-7 more than passes the visual test.

    2. I would put the Mazda (RX-8?) between the ugly Saturn Ion Coupe and the nice Hyundai Veloster.

  6. 2-doors not only look better, they are usually lighter and more structurally rigid.

    The German preference for large, two-door estate cars (IIRC, Rekords et al were available with two-or four) always baffled me. However the CarAvan pun made greater sense.

    Can I be the first to mention the Plod-spec Taunuses with one door at one side and two at the other, so it was more difficult for the scroat to escape from the rear?

    1. I had never heard of these Taunus’ with a different number of doors either side. It’s not a formula that’s often seen nor really that works for me. I’m guessing they didn’t have the look I’m looking for?

  7. Nice article. I’m definitely with you there, Mick. A well presented two or three door always looks better than the four or five door equivalent, specially if you like a sportier spec as I do. My entire purchasing history follows that path:

    1995 Ford Fiesta Ghia – mark 3 – 5 door (inherited from parent)
    2000 Ford Focus Zetec – mark 1 – 3 door (very handsome)
    2006 Vauxhall Astra SRI Sport Hatch – mark 5 – 3 door (very coupe-like)
    2008 Honda Civic Type R – mark 8 – 3 door (looked superb, although that gen 5 door was good)
    2009 Renault Clio Renaultsport – mark 3 – 3 door (much better in RS guise than standard)

    The Civic was the best in terms of accommodation. Deep doors, a front seat that slid well forward, and a nice flat floor in the back made ingress and egress from the rear less tiresome than it might have been. I could also get my toddler boy in and out easily; probably more easy than a five door in fact, and certainly with less labour than hoisting him into the wife’s CX5.

    1. Thanks Chris. It’s nice to hear from a kindred soul, I sometimes feel that not many people agree with me! I have to confess I do and have owned a couple of 4 door cars but I’ve always driven a 3 door for work. Not sure if your Clio would be suitable for driving lessons but would love to have one for the weekends.

    2. 20 minutes bouncing over speed humps in a Renaultsport Clio would be enough to put you off!

      Funnily enough, I learned to drive in two three doors: a mark 1 Fiat Punto (pre Grande) and a face lifted mark 1 Peugeot 106. The Punto had a horribly high clutch biting point, challenging the abilities of any ham-footed driver. The 106 was much more wieldy and was great fun to drive, the 1.5 diesel boat anchor being particularly difficult to stall. The accommodation was tiny, mind, and the peddles were too close together for my size nine boots.

      Thinking on, you should write an article about being a driving instructor. I bet you have some good anecdotes.

    3. Never thought about writing about some of my clients. It’s a good idea but I suppose I should probably change names and dates etc. I started teaching in a pre Grande punto in 2002 but the clutch was actually much better than the 2 swifts I used(they were really notchy and easy to stall) . Swifts were also by far the least reliable cara I ever owned. I’ve had 4 golfs since and the bite point is uniformly easy to find and very forgiving, perfect for teaching.

    4. Mick. Yes, it would be very interesting to read, though I understand you might be reticent. I wrote here about an earlier driving job, but that was in the depths of time and, even though I changed the names, if it had been more recent I might have been concerned.

      That said, people are supposed to seldom recognise themselves in stories. The student who forever crashed your gears probably remembers their buttery technique.

      The motoring school Viva I learnt seemed to have over a foot of clutch travel. My instructor called me Fangio (it was a long time ago) not because of my (undoubted) skill, but because I changed gear too quickly.

  8. For some reason, the coveted Jaguar XJ-C is leaving me cold. And it’s not just entirely due to that vinyl roof.

    1. Maybe the fact the saloon is better looking than the coupe for once leads to that? Have to say though I quite like the look of the XJ-C. I believe they did nothing but leak though.

    2. Maybe, but than again I’m a saloon man. And I’d rather have an XJ-C than a LWB SI or SII. But I still don’t get what all the fuss about the coupé is about. It’s pretty, obviously, but so is the saloon, just without most of the C’s weaknesses.

  9. I seem to recall in the dim and distant that there were 2-door Austin 1100/ 1300s, Allegros, also Escorts saloons (not hatch), Cortinas etc. of 2 doors, not to mention Avengers, Marinas, etc. My word, I had forgotten this genre ever existed and now they come flooding ….

    1. This combines even two sins: a boot on a small car and missing doors. I’m glad we don’t see them in Europe.

    2. This car is truly a sorry looking sight. I’m going to say that it’s the exception that proves the rule. The wheels don’t help either (mind you I’m not sure if anything could)

  10. Large 2/3 door saloons used to be quite common. I had a Saab 99 Combi coupé which only came as a three door and the subsequent 900 also came in 3 as well as 5 door versions. With both of these I liked the security of having children in the back with no doors to open; this was in the pre-seatbelt ’70s. They had hinged rear windows which gave really pleasant ventilation. Our last 3 door was an Alfa 147 and in multistory car parks this was a nightmare; tight spaces prevented the long doors from opening wide enough to exit. The appearance of two doors is usually superior and I appreciate the arguments about structural integrity but practicality????? Not sure.

    1. To judge by comments here, some think the 2-door format practical and some don’t. That’s evidence for a user-group with two preferences and both need to be satisfied as the preference is a zero-sum game.

    2. Maybe claiming a 3 door is more practical than a 5 door is maybe stretching it a little sometimes but they do have certain benefits. However my main (admittedly flimsy and shallow) thesis is that they look better and I want one.

    3. I have a 1988 3-door Saab 900. The rear seats are rarely used, loading is done through the boot lid (“rear door” if you want) and it’s nice to comfortably enter the cabin through the huge doors and put your bag behind the front seat in one go. Despite this 3-door version being ideal for my kind of use, I prefer the 5-door as it is the more handsome one in my opinion. My girlfriend disagrees and she is apparently not alone.

    4. I can’t edit the funny error in the second sentence of my previous reply can I?

    5. The 3 door 900 is exactly the type of car I’m talking about . Sorry Melle but I’m with your girlfriend on this one! Hope your happy with my edit.

  11. After all this I still prefer a saloon. It’s the formality I enjoy. The moment I have a multi-car salary I’ll add a saloon to my list. What would it be? It could be a 1989-1993 Riviera or a Volvo 780. Is the Bristol 410 a contender or is it a GT?

  12. great article, Mick. thanks for it.

    I also miss the 2-door saloon, maybe they were around from the 1940s to the 1970s because they were cheaper to produce (just like a saloon, even being bigger than a hatchback built on the same underpinnings, has a lower cost of manufacturing). in the 1940s and 1950s, as the European economies were still recovering, it made sense to built whatever could be sold under a lower price tag. now that cars sell either for practical commuting or as a statement (especially the pricier ones), that body does not make sense anymore.

    as for the 1st-gen CLS, am I the only one to drool over it? I think the colour plays a key part on such a design. it is gorgeous in black, and it is bland in silver, white or lighter colours.

    I’m currently restomodding an old 2-dr Volvo Amazon, making it a sleeper (despite the stock exterior, it will have a T5 engine, aircon and power steering). I like to think of the result as a poor man’s Aston Martin, even though 2-door saloons aren’t 2-door GTs.

    1. Eduardo. That sounds fantastic. I dream of restomod projects, but never get off my arse to realise them. I hope you’ll share the result with us.

    2. Thanks Eduardo,I’d love to see that Amazon. Will you resist the temptation to add anything to the exterior? I love the idea of a true Q car with not even a slight hint from the outside that you’re driving something special.

    3. Mick,

      my idea is to give the exterior the full Amazon phase 1 treatment: whitewalls, red centre hubcaps, the early grille, maybe even two-tone paint, but not a hint of the restomod. maybe the car will have air suspension, so it can keep the stock stance when I want to, or lower it a bit when on the road. but I promise it won’t be a chicano low rider, haha.

      only a die-hard Volvo fan (a rare breed here in Brazil) would know that 2-door Amazons were never produced with the phase 1 looks, as they were introduced some 5 years after the 4-door cars. so I’m building mine to be something like these:

      Volvo Amazon
      Volvo Amazon
      Volvo Amazon
      Volvo Amazon

      I thought about painting it Brilliant Blue, a color from the C30 palette, but I’m pending towards sticking to the original navy blue. thoughts?

    4. It’s a difficult one. I’ve always felt that Restomods should look period from the outside, though I’ve seen ones with funny paint jobs and flashy wheels that makes you think “actually, that works”.

      If I could realise one project, it would probably be a Studebaker Starliner, though maybe an Alfa Giulia. I quite like this one :

      But, I’d probably use more colour and a bit more chrome.

    5. Eduardo, kudos on the Volvo project. For what it’s worth, I think that grey/blue colour in the bottom image would be perfect, although navy blue would be fine too. But it’s your car. Go with the colour you like best.

    6. For what it’s worth I liked the third one down (Actually the 4 door!) with the white roof. Surely this car must be unique in your part of the world. Will you keep the interior period ?

  13. Some cars lend themselves to the two door treatment and some just don’t. The Granada shown above looks lovely as a two-door for example, as does the Volvo. But then, try to imagine a current Ford Focus with two doors, or (I dread to say it), a Mercedes CLS. Ye Gods. But then there’s the Golf, which has always looked better as a two-door – even today’s somewhat bloated example remains a handsome car in two-door form – although I suspect it will be its final iteration as such.

    But there are many coupé’s that would look better to my eyes with four doors – well, at least in my mind’s eye anyway. I always imagined the Fiat 130 coupe as a four door, but when Pininfarina created the 130 Opera concept, they did something to the roofline, which spoiled the effect. The Bentley Continental R from the 1990’s is another example of a car that cried out for four doors – although I suspect the inevitable Sultan of Brunei beat me to that one. I’ve often wondered how a four-door Bristol 411 would have looked too. Ditto the RR Camargue. Actually, one coupe that definitely looks better with four doors is the 6-Series. In fact, it’s the nicest looking car BMW currently make by some margin.

    1. I think I’m blinded by prejudice here Eoin. I always imagine how cars would look with fewer doors. I agree that the current 6 series Gransport is a good looking car but I definitely prefer the 2 door. However I was recently at a car show and saw two Bossaert DS coupes and even I had to admit that the standard 4 door looked better. Mind you Chapron’s cabrio is the most beautiful of them all.

  14. Maybe two more doors would have helped the sales of the SM

    Maybe the Nissan Murano Convertible too:

    And maybe this might have been the end of the 911-story:

    It is a decision that can´t be made in general. it is a personal theme.
    And even if 4 doors are very practical and the car is still looking very sporty and elegant, like the Aston Martin Rapide, success is not guaranteed.

    1. Personally, I think all cars are better with 4 doors.

      Robert Opron drew a 4 door SM, but said that Pierre Bercot was adamant that it would never be made.

  15. That Murano truly is terrible. A 911 with suicide doors! The profile from A to C pillar makes me think of an Austin Maxi.

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