By on May 4, 2020

Last night’s online conversation about bad General Motors vehicles wasn’t the first of its kind, and it’ll surely not be the last. More important than restful sleep, wee-hours back-and-forths about rattly but somehow indestructible GM J-bodies are an important part of staying sane as lockdown measures remain in place on both sides of the Detroit River.

Naturally, thoughts of Cavalier soon turned to CALAIS, and from there to an aspect of that particular era that’s always bothered yours truly: rooflines.

The move to upright, formal rooflines among domestic nameplates at the dawn of the 1980s never sat right with this writer, but they could be forgiven if the body donning them was of the full-size variety. Give me a slant-backed ’79 LeSabre coupe over a 1980 model any day. That said, I’m okay with an upscale Ninety-Eight with a Reagan Era greenhouse. Things got far more questionable, however, after the Great Mid-Eighties Downsizing, with FWD everywhere but those near-vertical rear panes of glass still intact. Formal rooflines didn’t carry over well, except in the case of that aforementioned compact Oldsmobile.

Seemingly tiny N-body and K-body cars looked like they’d been sandwiched between two cube vans in a chain-reaction crash. The H-body, in comparison, looked positively streamlined.

Of course, American passenger car rooflines spanned the gamut once upon a time, with rear glass going beyond vertical in the 1960s Mercury Breezeways and their late-’50s Continental forebears. Among domestic rooflines, one of the greatest greenhouses was seen on GM’s line of svelte 1961-model year “bubbletops,” what with their sharply raked, barely there C-pillars and nearly uninterrupted visibility. A design coup that followed two very confused styling years for The General.

Let’s keep this roofline talk a domestic affair — and normal passenger cars only, please. Of all the many American-made vehicles to roll past your eyes, which model(s) sported the worst-looking roofline?

Mecum Auctions

[Images: General Motors, Mecum Auctions]

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37 Comments on “QOTD: Keep a Lid on Things?...”


  • avatar
    Lie2me

    The worst looking roofline EVER? That’s tough, because what might look bad today could have been stylish 50 years ago. I’ll go with current models and my pick would be the squat, claustrophobic roofline of the Camaro, God I hate that greenhouse :(

  • avatar
    Vulpine

    Anyone happen to notice that today’s pickup truck rooflines look a lot like the Buick and Caddy roofs above?

    Me? I’d like to see that nice 61 Chevy slope come back.

    Hey! and I happen to consider the ’59 Chevy as my favorite of all time!

  • avatar
    Lie2me

    I just thought of a bad one from 40 years ago, the bussleback Seville was considered pretty awful back in the day. It was so bad that Lincoln copied it in it’s Continental. Both were awkwardly bad

    https://static.cargurus.com/images/site/2010/10/08/10/47/1980_cadillac_seville-pic-3960747174341801215-640×480.jpeg

  • avatar
    Lorenzo

    Well, I have to object to the sweeping rear window on anything but full-sized cars. On a compact or even mid-sized car, the result is a mail slot trunk lid that makes the large trunk space inaccessible for items that would easily fit in the space, if only the opening were large enough.

    The sweeping rear window may look stylish, but the visibility is great only when it isn’t raining or the window is clean – and those slanted windows get dirty quickly. Even in bright sun, the angle of the glass results in glare that reduces visibility.

    The bottom line is that the exterior styling can, and does, result in less utility. Owners can enjoy looking at the car momentarily, but they’ll spend most of their time inside the car, dealing with the compromises the styling produced.

    • 0 avatar
      Vulpine

      The “sweeping rear window”, where that window makes up the majority of the backend of the car, should be hinged at the top, as they were in many ’70s and ’80s models. No such thing as a “mail slot trunk lid” back then because the glass covered the trunk. And yes, you could even get the roll-back window-shade style cargo covers as an option for when you had the rear seats upright. Funny thing, that. You can even get them now for today’s crossover Utes.

      • 0 avatar
        Lorenzo

        Well, you’re referring to hatches. I meant the late model compact sedans like the Civic and Corolla, which used to be tall three box designs with near-vertical rear windows and larger trunk lids, but now have slanted rear glass and shallower trunk lids.

        I didn’t even mention another “feature” that has accompanied slanted rear glass: slanted rear rooflines to match. Those reduce rear seat headroom and make rear door access smaller, forcing grandma, or chubby aunt Bertha, into the front passenger seat.

        My point is, if you want a stylish swoopy sports coupe, buy one. Don’t try to make one out of a sedan.

        • 0 avatar
          deanst

          Sedans are the new coupes. CUVs are the new sedans….

          • 0 avatar
            Vulpine

            @deanst: And I don’t like either one. How about some true coupes and turn the CUVs back into wagons.

        • 0 avatar
          Vulpine

          @Lorenzo: Like I said, they should be hatches, not mail-slot trunk lids. Most cars today don’t have enough sheet metal over the tail to really call it a trunk any more. Even my ’96 Camaro, with what is today a “mail slot” in back, had a lift back with the hinge at the top of the rear window, not that tiny little microdeck trunk.

  • avatar
    Goatshadow

    There is something very offputting about the roofline of the R35 GT-R. At just about every angle it looks crooked and half-assed. It’s an ugly car overall, though.

    Oops, I didn’t read the final question. Though the 80s rooflines were pretty darn OK.

  • avatar
    theflyersfan

    When Chrysler starts pulling their designs around like Silly-Putty, things can look a little odd. For example:

    The original K-cars becoming the Dynasty and then the New Yorker and Imperial. They started to look like a size-18 boot box was dropped in the middle of a small hood and trunk. The width didn’t change either, so the proportions just didn’t look right.

    And then the LH-sedans. I think the Concorde, Vision, and Intrepid (1st Gen) were some of the best looking cars to come out of Detroit at that time. But when they got stretched to New Yorker and LHS lengths, things went a little haywire again. The hoods and trunks stayed the same, but the rounded, jelly bean design didn’t carry over well when stretched so far. They also haven’t aged well…

  • avatar
    Art Vandelay

    Back seats that one can get in and out of without banging your head and actually sit up in without your head on the headliner? And rooflines that don’t take up 3/4 of the space normally used for the trunk lid resulting in loading your luggage through mail slot?

    Yeah, who wants that.

    I disagree so strongly with Steph that I feel like I am getting trolled. Modern rooflines anywhere are the worst. Even hatches and wagons (GTI excluded I guess) seriously cut down on the room to the point I feel that my 90s compact sedans had more room than my modern hatches.

    We are at peak engine IMHO, but design wise, to include especially rooflines we are going to look back on today like 1975.

    • 0 avatar
      thelaine

      +1

    • 0 avatar
      eng_alvarado90

      I agree to a certain extent because these almost vertical rear windows make for better head room, although the trunk seems very disproportionate compared to the rest of the car and even lost on functionality. Someone above said mailbox trunk opening.
      Notable exceptions were full sized cars like the Lincoln Towncar, specially the 90-97 MY

  • avatar
    MiataReallyIsTheAnswer

    It’s just different eras. Now it’s the used bar of soap look, from Malibu to Fusion to Camry.

  • avatar
    PrincipalDan

    In retrospect I am grateful that I learned to drive in a 1982 A-body Celebrity. That greenhouse meant you could actually see all 4 corners of the car quite easily. Pre backup cameras that was a godsend for learning to parallel park.

    • 0 avatar
      MiataReallyIsTheAnswer

      It was a 1986 Pontiac 6000 for me, same deal. Iron Duke 2.5L so could not get in much trouble, either. When I got my own I made sure it was the High Output V6 STE – a stone cold rocket by comparison :)

  • avatar
    bufguy

    I totally agree with you on the GM “formal” rooflines…As a 59 year old architect, I grew up with these cars and could never resolve the aesthetics of them, especially on coupes….The windshields became more rakish and the backlight became more upright. You give a great example comparing a 79 LeSabre with an 80 LeSabre. The 79 looks right, the 80 doesn’t…A non GM example would be the 87 Thunderbird vs. the 87 Cougar….Funny because I really like the 75 Seville. Good proportions on a mid sized luxury sedan. Maybe the difference between a Bill Mitchell design vs an Irv Rybicki design….Rybicki never being a favorite of mine.

    • 0 avatar
      Lie2me

      The reason for the upright GM “formal” rooflines was that during all the downsizing GM liked to brag that although exterior dimensions had been reduced interior dimensions remained the same. The only way to get that coveted legroom was to push the rear seat all the way back which got those inches by reducing the rear interior deck, hence the upright “formal roofline

      • 0 avatar
        bufguy

        Does not explain the difference between a 79 and 80 B-body….virtually same dimensions with a different roof line…Today cars like the Impala, Taurus and even the cab forward Chryslers had a sloped backlight with plenty of leg room/ interior dimensions…A Beretta has similar space as a Buick Somerset…It was an aesthetic decision as much as anything else, just like the high beltlines of todays cars

        • 0 avatar
          Vulpine

          @bufguy: Those high beltlines aren’t there for aesthetics; they’re there for passenger safety… supposedly. The idea is to put more metal and padding between the occupants and another vehicle in the event of a side crash and have the ‘curtain’ airbag prevent any glass from flying into people’s faces. Smaller windows means easier to cover.

          • 0 avatar
            redapple

            VULPINE
            High beltline = crash safety.

            Urban legend. BS.

            GM Engineering VP was on Autoline a year ago and said just that. Its for styling. nothing to do with side impact.

          • 0 avatar
            Vulpine

            @redapple: Ok, now try reading my comment again and try NOT to miss the qualifier. Hmmmm?

  • avatar
    DM335

    The 87-89 Mercury Cougar formal roofline combined with the upside-down quarter windows looked as if the car had been stepped on and squashed. Its predecessor, the 83-86 version, looked odd compared to the the aero-look of the Thunderbird, but the refresh made both cars look worse.

    • 0 avatar
      eng_alvarado90

      I really liked the look of the 87-88 Thunderbird, more specifically on Turbo Coupe disguise.
      Personally I believe the 88-94 Mercury Topaz 4dr looked very weird with that almost vertical rear window and very short trunk lid. Even worse when the 2dr Topaz retained the slopping window and regular sized trunk lid.

  • avatar
    55_wrench

    I agree that the ’61 and ’62 GM bubbletops are drop dead gorgeous from any angle.

    And I admit most of the cars I owned had vertical rear glass, which made for great entry and exit. And what passes for sedans today are pitiful examples of the designer’s art for the rear seat passenger.

    But as for the most confused roofline ever, may I present the Toronado XSR from ’77 to ’78:

    https://www.google.com/search?q=1977+toronado+xsr&oq=1977+toronado&aqs=chrome.2.69i57j0l3.8265j0j9&client=ms-android-verizon&sourceid=chrome-mobile&ie=UTF-8#imgrc=3ge9l4zdPkfQCM:

    Billy Mitchell nailed it in 1966. In 11 years, this one looked phoned in by committee.

    By contrast, the wire bent back glass in the ’77 Impala 2 door was very well executed.

  • avatar
    ravenuer

    I DO like that 61 Belair at the end. 348 4sp and I’ll be good-to-go!

  • avatar
    ToolGuy

    Nomination: 1979 Chrysler New Yorker. A-pillar, B-pillar, then C-D-E-F&G pillars all jumbled up at the back (plus a semi-landau, plus the landau has glommed onto the rear door in a big way).

    Side view (first picture here):
    https://tinyurl.com/ycx9d52n

    [Bonus: Check out the relative sizes of the front and rear doors. The front door has broken free of its A-pillar roots and is headed for the wheelwell.]

    With the rear door open (about halfway through these 99 pictures [click on “All Photos”] – sorry to do that but it’s worth the trip):
    https://tinyurl.com/y7kt7sen

  • avatar
    DenverMike

    I’m more impressed by the no side-view mirror in the top photo Buick. And that’s a glamour shot.

    With such bare base models, and this was 1990, GM must have saved billions on parts, labor, etc, with all the cars they avoided building.

  • avatar
    ajla

    That ’90 Seville can get it.
    Give me that same styling, but with RWD and about 400hp.

  • avatar
    conundrum

    The worst looking by far was the Rambler Marlin circa 1965, subsequently rebadged as AMC Marlin the next year. It’s hard to describe what a doltish looking thing that was, but the occasional one passing by used to cause bouts of mirth. One of those with the three-on-the-tree and an asthmatic six was the kind of thing a small town CPA trying to be “sporty” bought to prove there was life left in him yet.

    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rambler_Marlin

    Ewww. Even Wikipedia limits the photographs. Wouldn’t want to scare children. But as they point out, the 2004 Chrysler Crossfire Coupe sort of rehashed the Marlin, and looked weird as heck as well. I’ll take that one as my number two bad roofline.

    All the other stuff pales compares to these two monsters.

    • 0 avatar
      Lie2me

      The ungainly roofline of the Marlin was actually designed to look much sleeker and proportional, but someone high up at AMC decided that rear passengers needed more headroom, so what started out as an edgy design became more bloated and odd looking

    • 0 avatar
      Vulpine

      @conundrum: I have to disagree. I like the looks of the thing, even if it did need a better engine. But then, when I started driving, it was ’60s models or older for my first choice. I ended up with a ’64 and still needed to drop a new engine block into it because of a cracked cylinder wall in the original before I bought it. (And my dad thought he was a car guy and that I would like it– wrong on both counts.)

  • avatar
    amwhalbi

    Ooh, I’m kicking myself that I didn’t think of the Marlin. The way the roofline tapered to the back of the car ONLY in the center with fender/fins on either side was, well, not pretty. I do remember an older friend getting one in ’66 and I actually thought it was pretty cool at the time. But I was 15 at the time, so I guess that’s as good an excuse for poor taste as any.

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