Coupe D'Etat

Bob Elton
by Bob Elton

Less than a half century ago, every carmaker offered at least one two-door automobile. Entry level coupes were often a young married couple's first car. Sportier coupes were a suburban staple. Coupes like the Ford Galaxy and Chrysler New Yorker offered ordinary Joes a chance to own a car with an extra touch of class and panache. And no luxury marque could thrive without a fabulous Coupe de Ville, or equivalent thereof. The coupe's lack of rear seat room, window leaks, and interior noise were considered a small price to pay for high style. Then things got serious…

The convertible was the first to go. Perhaps the move away from ragtops reflected the uneasy tenor of the times: inflationary belt-tightening, divisive foreign policy, Cold War jitters, the Arab Oil embargo, presidential scandal. Maybe Ralph Nader's seminal work "Unsafe at Any Speed" and blood and guts high school Driver's Ed programs got US car buyers thinking about decapitation. In any case, the topless car was suddenly seen as a needless, dangerous extravagance, rather than a bold and fun statement of personal prosperity. From Corvairs to Cadillacs, convertibles disappeared from American highways. Coupes followed thereafter.

Marketeers explain the four-door's ongoing supremacy by pointing their fingers at baby boomers. Supposedly, the industry's driving force needs four-door sedans to help feather their full nest: teenage/young adult children and aging parents. But most such families have at least two cars, and not all baby boomers face these transportation responsibilities. Besides, studies show that "practicality" plays little or no role in a car purchase. The real reason for the moribund coupe market lies within shifting consumer perceptions of quality, desirability and mission-appropriate genre.

For years, European automobiles sold in the US have been universally (if not entirely accurately) recognized as the epitome of engineering excellence. BMW, Mercedes, Audi and others initially entered the US market with well-engineered, fun-to-drive sedans, in part to differentiate them from the "typical" American two-door hardtop. Since most of these foreign importers didn't offer coupes to US buyers, the public began to associate upmarket motor cars with four-door sedans. When Toyota and Honda entered the luxury car market, their Lexus and Acura brands reflected and capitalized on this assumption with a lineup of four-door sedans. Lexus' success further cemented the commonly held image of a quality car as a four-door sedan.

But what of today? Even with 911 and Iraq, we live in breezier times. Stability control, pop-up roll bars, crumple zones and a plethora of electronic and structural measures have eliminated much of the convertible and coupe's inherent safety risk. The coupe market has expanded– somewhat. Upmarket brands now offer a range of two-door models. Entry level couple like the Cobalt, Civic and Focus appeal to The Fast and Furious crowd. But grown-up, low to middle income car buyers who want to ditch the back doors are sniffing with the hounds.

GM offers the G6 and Monte Carlo. Ford weighs in with the Mustang and Focus. Dodge has the Stratus, while Chrysler flogs its Crossfire and Sebring. Toyota sells the Yaris, Scion the two-door tC. Honda has the Civic and Accord. BMW brings the MINI and the 3-Series. VW builds a two-door Golf and the Beetle. In today's niche-driven marketplace, that's not a particularly impressive selection of reasonably-priced, reasonably commodious coupes. Ah, but there's a twist in the tale. The great American coupe hasn't disappeared from the US automotive scene; it just morphed into a pickup truck.

The Ford F150 is America's best selling two-door. Chevrolet, Dodge and GMC two-door pickups aren't far behind. If a newlywed couple wants a cheap pickup, there are plenty of affordable choices. Suburbia is lousy with bling and bad-ass pickups. Luxury "car buyers" can opt for the Ford F150 Lariat, or upmarket Dodges, Chevy's or GMC's. They all offer the same leather-lined, power-everything wretched excess that US consumers snapped up in 70s coupes.

The current movement away from light trucks, back to cars, will eventually stimulate the rebirth of the coupe genre, and the return of the great American [auto-based] coupe. The luxury marques are leading the way towards this renaissance. They're in full coupe mode– from the new BMW 6-Series to the Bentley GT. The success of upmarket hardtop drop-tops will also help the movement, tendering the tempting prospect of lower-priced versions. With designers like Ralph Gilles (300C) looking for ways to inject excitement into what's become a standardized product, it's only a matter of time before the coupe once again becomes an automotive mainstay. The Detroit debut of the new Camaro and Dodge Charger coupes will signal the coming coupe d'etat. As for the kids and the old folks, they'll have to squeeze in the back, drive their own damn car or… buy a coupe.

Bob Elton
Bob Elton

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