Phaeton body

For other uses, see Phaeton (disambiguation).
1908 Fritchle Victoria Phaeton - much like the namesake carriage

A phaeton is a style of open automobile or carriage without weather protection. It is an automotive development of the fast, lightweight phaeton carriage. Originally meant to denote a faster and lighter vehicle than a touring car, the two terms eventually became interchangeable. A popular style of phaeton was the dual cowl phaeton, with a cowl separating the rear passengers from the driver and front passenger. A "victoria" carriage was easily adaptable to this type of vehicle.

Phaetons fell from favour when closed cars and convertible body styles became widely available during the 1930s. Convertibles and pillarless hardtops were marketed as "phaetons" after actual phaetons were phased out.


A phaeton differs from a convertible in having no winding or sliding windows in the doors or the body, and no permanent roof, whether rigid or folding. A detachable folding or rigid roof could be added before a drive in preparation for inclement weather, and side curtains or screens could be installed once the roof was in place. This was mainly temporary and partial relief rather than the more permanent, watertight protection offered by a convertible. As a result, a phaeton was much lighter than the sturdier, weather-ready convertible. Since the body was entirely open, it was easy to add or remove an extra row of seating where space had been left in the original construction.


The term phaeton had historically described a light, open four-wheeled carriage. When automobiles arrived it was applied to a light two-seater with minimal coachwork. The term was interchangeable with spyder, derived from a light form of phaeton carriage known as a spider.[1] However, there were also double phaetons, with two rows of seats, triple phaetons, or even closed phaetons.[1][2] Eventually, the term "phaeton" became so widely and loosely applied that almost any vehicle with two axles and a row or rows of seats across the body could be called a phaeton.[2]

After 1912, American use of the term began to be most closely associated with the "triple phaeton" body configurations that had room for three ("rows" of) seats, whether all three were installed or not. Common usage further evolved to refer to a body with a rear seating area extended for added leg room or for an extra row of seating. This often gave the vehicle the appearance that it was meant to be chauffeur-operated. This also led to the term "phaeton" becoming similar to, and eventually interchangeable with, the term "touring car".[3][4]

Examples of phaetons
1917 Hudson Phaeton 
1905 Mercedes 28/50 PS Double Phaeton 
with sidescreens erected 
Isotta Fraschini Tipo 8 Sala 
1930 Studebaker 
1930 Ford Model A 

Dual cowl phaeton

A specific use of the term "phaeton" is with the dual cowl phaeton, a body style in which the rear passengers were separated from the driver and the front passengers by a cowl or bulkhead, often with its own folding windshield.

Examples of dual cowl phaetons
1935 Duesenberg 
1935 Duesenberg 
Chrysler Phaeton concept car 
Cadillac V16 1932 with dual cowl 
President Eisenhower's 1956 Imperial dual cowl phaeton

Decline and demise

1948 Willys-Overland Jeepster, the last phaeton to be made by an American manufacturer

The phaeton and the touring car were popular up to the 1930s, after which they were supplanted by the convertible, an open car which could be fully closed with windows in the doors. The Willys-Overland Jeepster was the last true phaeton produced by a major US automaker,[5] and was introduced ten years after the previous phaeton to be offered by an American manufacturer.[6]

In 1952, a year after Willys last offered the Jeepster, Chrysler built three Imperial Parade Phaetons for ceremonial use, one by New York City, one by Los Angeles, and one intended for the White House but ultimately used for events throughout the United States. These were dual-cowl phaetons custom-built on stretched Chrysler Crown Imperial Limousine chassis.

Cars called "phaeton"

After open cars disappeared from the market, manufacturers used the term "phaeton" to describe cars that resembled the open phaeton or touring car.

Buick included a "convertible phaeton" body style in its line during the 1930s that was actually a four-door convertible, as the doors had windows in them and the car could be fully closed.[7][8]

During the 1956 model year, Mercury marketed the four-door hardtop versions of its Montclair and Monterey models as "phaetons."[9]

In 2004, Volkswagen introduced a vehicle with the name Phaeton, despite the car not resembling an open car in any way.

Examples of later cars called "phaetons"
1934 Buick "Convertible Phaeton" 
1956 Mercury Montclair Phaeton 4-door hardtop 
Volkswagen Phaeton, despite its name, is not a phaeton but a sedan 


  1. 1 2 Roberts, Peter (1974). "Carriage to Car". Veteran and Vintage Cars. London, UK: Octopus Books. p. 111. ISBN 0-7064-0331-2. Phaeton A light car with seats for two and the minimum of coachwork, similar to an early racing car. Phaetons could be double (four seats), triple, or closed. Sometimes also calles a spider, or spyder.
  2. 1 2 Terry, Christopher W.; Hall, Arthur (1914). "The Varieties of Motor Bodies". Motor Body-building in All Its Branches. London: E. & F. N. Spon. pp. 1–6. Retrieved 15 May 2014.
  3. Gove, Philip Babcock, ed. (1966). Webster's Third New International Dictionary of the English Language, Unabridged. L–Z. Springfield, Mass.: G & C Merriam. p. 2417. ISBN 0-7135-1037-4.
  4. Culshaw, David; Horrobin, Peter (2013) [1974]. "Appendix 5: Coachwork Styles". The complete catalogue of British Cars 1895 - 1975 (e-book ed.). Poundbury, Dorchester, UK: Veloce Publishing. pp. 482, 484. ISBN 978-1-845845-83-4. Particular names originally associated with the Tourer tradition were Tonneau and Phaeton, the latter revived many years later, mainly in the United States up to the Second World War.
  5. Matar, George (December 2005). "1948-1951 Jeepster". Hemmings Classic Car. Retrieved 11 December 2012.
  6. Brown, Arch (1994). "Chapter Four Postwar Plans for Willys: 1945-52". Jeep: The Unstoppable Legend. Lincolnwoood, IL: Publications International. p. 76. ISBN 0-7853-0870-9. But it was an open carthe first American phaeton in a decadeand it certainly had a sporty flair.
  7. "Buick brochure". Retrieved 15 May 2014.
  8. Gunnel, John (2004). Standard Catalog of Buick 1903-2004. Krause Publications. pp. 40, 41, 43, 45, 47–63. ISBN 9780873497602. Retrieved 11 December 2012.
  9. "Four-door hardtop is the newest member of 1956 Mercury line". Popular Science. 168 (1): 136. January 1956. Retrieved 15 May 2014.
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