Opera Windows Went from Utility to Style

After an initial use on horse-drawn carriages, opera windows became a charming design trend in the 1950s… until reaching saturation in the late 1970s

On the 1955 Ford Thunderbird, the opera window is that circular window beside the door on each side (source: WheelsAge)
On the 1955 Ford Thunderbird, the opera window is that circular window beside the door on each side (source: WheelsAge)

Every now and then, my articles mention that cars are part of our society. I find that important especially when we talk about design because it is one of the most intuitive ways in which cars interact with us. We are drawn to cars we find beautiful. That fact is strong enough to often overlap rational considerations.

Digging into what makes us find a car beautiful would deserve an entire book. For now, we could say that one of those factors is familiarity. We like elements we have already seen elsewhere. The opera window is an interesting case because it was first used in horse-drawn carriages, then made its way to automobiles.

1976 Lincoln Continental Mark IV Bill Blass Edition with oval opera windows (source: WheelsAge)
1976 Lincoln Continental Mark IV Bill Blass Edition with oval opera windows (source: WheelsAge)

What is an opera window?

Simply put, it is that side window located on the car’s rearmost pillar. The 1955 Ford Thunderbird was one of the first cars to use it. In that case, the opera window improved visibility when its hardtop was in place. While it was primarily a utilitarian item, its distinctive shape quickly became a signature trait of that car.

The 1973 Chevrolet Monte Carlo had rectangular opera windows (source: WheelsAge)
The 1973 Chevrolet Monte Carlo had rectangular opera windows (source: WheelsAge)

Over time, that perception changed the opera window’s role. In the 1970s, it actually became popular as a style feature. Several car models would use it in many shapes and sizes, especially in North America. They became a go-to solution when the company wanted to give the car a refined and somewhat vintage air.

That utilitarian role went to regular rear-quarter windows. Those are larger, and their shape is integrated with the front ones within the same frame. The fact that this element became a trend back then makes it easy to mistake both types. All you have to keep in mind is that opera windows are visually detached.

The 1976 Ford Elite used a vinyl roof, double opera windows, AND a rear-quarter window (source: WheelsAge)
The 1976 Ford Elite used a vinyl roof, double opera windows, AND a rear-quarter window (source: WheelsAge)

A hint of style in the malaise era

The 1960s had two design trends that are important for this topic. One was the hardtop: a single structure from front to rear windshields which allows to forgo side pillars. The other was the vinyl roof: it came from horse-drawn carriages, whose roofs were removable and made of fabric. Some used opera windows too.

The 1976 Dodge Charger used opera windows split in three parts (source: WheelsAge)
The 1976 Dodge Charger used opera windows split in three parts (source: WheelsAge)

While those features were still fashionable in the 1970s, the budget constraints imposed by the oil crisis made carmakers resort to cheap workarounds. The most common was to cover steel roofs with vinyl and give them opera windows. That way, they could resemble removable hardtops like the 1955 Thunderbird’s.

As the pictures show, opera windows suddenly appeared in a variety of sizes, shapes, and even quantities, often associated with vinyl roofs. Coupé and sedan were the favorite body styles for that because of their short greenhouses (the region above the waistline), especially considering the design trends of that time.

1978 Chrysler Cordoba simulating a vinyl roof with opera windows (source: WheelsAge)
1978 Chrysler Cordoba simulating a vinyl roof with opera windows (source: WheelsAge)

Too many cars with opera windows

Just like in clothing fashion, the problem with style trends is that they quickly become overused. Through the 1970s, the four North American automakers used opera windows in many vehicles of all their brands. In the second half of the decade, we would see some Japanese automakers trying their chances as well.

The 1978 Daihatsu Charade has circular opera windows (source: WheelsAge)
The 1978 Daihatsu Charade has circular opera windows (source: WheelsAge)

At first, automakers tried to keep this item in fashion by giving it variations. Some were quite clever, such as the Dodge Charger’s three-part opera windows. However, they ended up neglecting the fact that they just do not go well with some cars. Basically, the longer the cabin, the less balanced those items would look.

On the other side of the spectrum, compact cars such as the 1978 three-door Daihatsu Charade were just too short. Opera windows are supposed to be visually isolated, sure, but there are always aesthetic limits to obey. Some companies made them too big that they actually became regular rear-quarter windows.

The 1979 Toyota Crown was one of the few Japanese cars with opera windows (source: WheelsAge)
The 1979 Toyota Crown was one of the few Japanese cars with opera windows (source: WheelsAge)

The sunset of a design trend

Besides the excessive use, the opera window fell into disuse because the trends changed. Vinyl roofs and their vintage appearance eventually became tacky, rather than elegant. Without that, the rearmost pillars became too large to be adorned by such small windows. That effect helped another trend to take over.

1984 AMC Eagle Coupé (source: WheelsAge)

Newer manufacturing techniques were opening new possibilities, and automakers wanted to use them all. One of them was to merge the rear windshield with the rear-quarter windows into one wraparound piece. Opera windows were rendered obsolete because there were simply no more rear pillars to install them.

One of the last cars to use those windows back then was the 1989 Chrysler TC by Maserati, with a similar arrangement to that of the original Thunderbird. Speaking of the latter, Ford made sure to bring back that style feature in 2000, when it released a completely new generation packed with retro design elements.

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