Landau is a term used in the automotive field to denote a particular style of roof or top. Unfortunately, what exactly is meant by the term is inconsistent.

In early days, before World War II, the term generally meant a car where the front row of seats had no roof or a convertible cloth roof that could be folded down, but the second and subsequent rows of seats had a full hardtop roof. This was generally an option for expensive cars, where the driver would not be the owner but rather a paid chauffeur; he was left to deal with the elements, while the passengers got protected, in a manner similar to a horse-drawn carriage.

Since then, the term generally is used to refer to a car that is made to look like a convertible but really isn't, generally by means of a vinyl roof which may be padded under the vinyl to make it more convincing. Often, but not always, the illusion is cemented by the fitting of simulated S bars to the sides of the wide rear pillar, mimicking the outside bars on a traditional convertible's roof that on a real convertible are part of the load-bearing structure of the folding frame holding up the roof.

Landau roofs were quite popular in the late 1960s through the 1970s, particularly on American luxury cars (or wannabe luxury cars). Cadillac produced models with landau roofs until very recently.

Most American hearses are landaus, and you'll probably be familiar with the landau style by thinking of the way hearses are styled, with a vinyl roof, very large rear pillar area and chromed S-bars on the sides.

If you lived in England in 1750-1900 and you wanted to be seen being wealthy, you did it in a landau. The landau was a fancy carriage, pulled by four horses, generally with two passenger benches facing each other, plus the driver's seat up front. There might also be a groom's seat mounted behind the carriage. The defining feature of the landau was that it was fully convertible. When the folding hoods were up the landau provided full protection from the elements, but when they were down the low sides of the landau were perfect for parading your finery through the park. Many landaus even had retractable glass windows in the doors, to turn the half door into a full door when the tops were up.

The landau was a nicer carriage than the more common brougham, but more useful than an open barouche or phaeton, as it was was comfortable even in the cold or rain. Even so, it was not particularity well suited to long journeys or quick outings, so rarely would someone own just a landau. Driving one indicated the you had a sizable carriage house back at the estate.

There were a number of different types of landau, but the most common were the landaulet, a shorted, two-seater version of the landau, the Shelborne Landau, which had a traditional, angular bottom, the Canoe Landau (or Sefton Landau), which had a gracefully curving bottom.

The landau is less familiar to us than the Town Coach (the traditional princess carriage, which was not convertible) or the barouche, which only had a half hood, and is often found providing carriage rides to tourists. However, the landau was more of a staple in wealthy households than either of these, and it remains somewhat common in those few modern contexts where horse-drawn carriages are still called for, perhaps more so in the UK than in America.

The landau was named after the German city of Landau where the design originated, and where most of the earlier landaus were imported from. It is pronounced 'lan-daw'. It wasn't until the 1830s that Lord, Hopkinson, coachmakers started producing these carriages in England.

Lan"dau (?), n. [From the town Ladau in Germany; cf. F. landau. See Land, Island.]

A four-wheeled covered vehicle, the top of which is divided into two sections which can be let down, or thrown back, in such a manner as to make an open carriage.

[Written also landaw.]

 

© Webster 1913.

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