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August 05, 2009

Panoramic Windshields

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

For reasons of safety and allowing a car's driver and front seat passengers to better enjoy scenery, automobile makers keep fiddling with the design of cars' windshields. One solution tried between the early 1930s and early 1960s was the panoramic windshield.

There are practical considerations that have always tempered blue-sky windshield design-sketch features on stylists' drawing boards on their way to the production line and dealers' showrooms. For one thing, a car's passenger compartment roof has to be strongly enough supported not to collapse in most roll-over situations; substantial posts are required. Yet there must be adequate openings for windows and doors. And those doors should be shaped and positioned to allow for convenient ingress and egress for passengers.

Then there is glassmaking technology. Producing curved glass is much more difficult than making flat glass. There is manufacturing breakage; too much breakage drives up the cost of the windshield and, by extension, the price of the car. Moreover, the curvatures should not create optical distortions for the driver and passengers, insofar as possible.

Panoramic or "wraparound" windshields, as they were usually called, became an American styling fad for much of the 1950s. But practical difficulties eventually led to their abandonment. I mentioned production problems above. I also noted distortion. My father shopped for a new car during the 1956 model year, so we test-drove a variety of cars in the mid-price range. He discovered that fully-wrapped windshields created distortions (along the axis of greatest curvature) that he felt were intolerable, though they didn't bother me much at the time. As a result, he opted for a DeSoto which had a less radical curving than that on General Motors cars. I'll deal with one more problem in some of the captions for the pictures below.


Hupmobile Aerodynamic - 1934
This Hupmobile was styled by Raymond Loewy, the famous industrial designer, early in his career. Creating curved safety glass for automobiles was extremely difficult in 1934; the only American production car with a curved windshield that year was the most expensive model in Chrysler's Airflow lineup. As can be seen, Loewy had to resort to a three-pane design to widen the windshield opening and slightly curve it at the sides.

Panhard Panoramique - 1935
The car shown above is a 1935 model, but Panhard introduced its Panoramique windshield feature in the 1934 model year. Panhard's solution was to use double roof posts nesting a small, tightly curved window that served to transition a passenger's view from the windshield to the side windows.

Panhard Dynamic (late 1930s) interior view
Here is an interior view of a late-1930s Panhard Dynamic sedan -- a later body design that incorporated the panoramic feature. My guess is that those corner windows created noticeable distortion. I've never sat in a Panoramique or Dynamic, so I don't really know. However, the photo hints that there is indeed distortion.

Buick XP-300 dream car - 1951
In 1951, General Motors introduced two experimental "cars of the future," the LeSabre and the less well known Buick XP-300 shown above. These featured a panoramic windshield design that GM began incorporating on production cars a few years later.

Oldsmobile Fiesta - 1953
These cars were convertibles sold by Cadillac and Oldsmobile for 1953. The convertible was probably selected for this test run because expensive retooling for roofs and side doors wasn't required. They were priced higher than regular convertibles and production runs were therefore small.

Buick Roadmaster - 1954
Then came the 1954 model year when GM introduced wraparound windshields on all Oldsmobile, Buick and Cadillac models. As an early-teen car freak, I was blown away by how futuristic those cars seemed and how drab and retrograde their competition was. For the GM "C" (top-of-the-line) bodies, the A-pillar (styling jargon for the most forward roof pillar) was essentially vertical.

Oldsmobile Super 88 - 1954
The Olds shown above uses GM's "B" (mid-line) body shell. Here the windshield post is slanted, the farthest rearward point being near the lower edge of the windshield. This picture and the one above illustrate a defect in GM's flavor of panoramic windshield design, the "dog leg" shape of the door where it conforms to the windshield edge. (It was most evident on sedans and doesn't really show up on this photo of a "hardtop convertible" with its door windows rolled down; I chose this picture mostly because it illustrates the shape of the "A" post well.) Drivers and passengers had to be a little bit careful about bumping their knees when entering or leaving the car. This, production costs, and complaints about visual distortion helped doom wraparounds.

De Soto Fireflite - 1955
The reset of the American auto industry joined in the panoramic frenzy for the 1955 model year. Most followed GM's lead, but Chrysler (and Studebaker, later in the model year) opted for windshields that wrapped around, yet retained conventional back-slanting A-pillars. Benefits were less distortion and easier entry and egress. A defect was that Chryslers and Studebakers didn't seem quite as "modern" as cars with fully-wrapped windshields -- a big deal for teenaged boys.

Cadillac 62 - 1959
Before the wraparound windshield fad ended, car makers incorporated double wrapping schemes such as can be seen on this Cadillac. Besides wrapping horizontally, the windshild wraps slightly in the vertical dimension so as to blend into the roofline.

Buick - 1961
By 1961, wrap-around windshields were gone. Fords returned to traditional A-pillars in 1960 and General Motors followed for its 1961 line as can be seen on this Buick. The windshield glass curves both horizontally and vertically, but there is no significant wrapping. The A-pillar has returned to its traditional backwards slant. This situation prevails nearly 50 years later, strongly implying that wraparound windshields weren't such a great idea.



posted by Donald at August 5, 2009


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