The History of the Hatchback

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Hatchback/Image Credit: Alejandro Peralta from Pexels

Like a crossover that’s fun to drive, a hatchback pairs the nimble handling of a car with the spacious practicality of an SUV. As big vehicles become more and more popular, we decided to give the humble hatchback some love. We traced the history of the hatchback from its very beginning to today. The heyday of the hatchback may be over, but it still has a valuable role to play in the market.

What Is a Hatchback?

The most notable feature of hatchback vehicles is the rear door, which opens upward and is connected to the roof via a hinge. Typically, hatchbacks employ what’s known as the “two-box” configuration, in which there is no barrier between the rear passenger seats and the trunk storage area. The liftback (or “fastback”) variety is known for the graceful slope extending from the roof to the bumper in the rear.

Hatchbacks can be distinguished from other types of vehicles via several stylistic and design aspects. Sedans usually have a separate trunk space that opens beneath the rear window rather than being hinged to the car roof. Station wagons are generally longer than hatchbacks, with a more vertically inclined rear door and (in some cases) a third row of seats.

The Development of the Hatchback

The 1938 Citroen 11CV was the first hatchback/Image Credit: Citroenet

The first hatchback vehicle, the 11CV Commerciale developed by Citroen in 1938, initially targeted food vendors and other tradesmen who need to transport items in bulk. Prior to World War II, the hatch itself consisted of two separate pieces: an upper portion connected to the roof and a lower portion with a hinge on the bottom. Postwar models featured the one-piece hatch that continues to be the defining feature of hatchback vehicles today.

1965 Renault 16/Image Credit: Renault Group

Some sticklers don’t consider the Citroen models to be hatchbacks because of that distinction in the design of the rear door. The model that perhaps best defines the sleek, smooth style associated with modern hatchbacks came out decades later. The 1965 Renault 16 was built to suit middle-class families looking for a sensibly priced and fuel-efficient option relative to the larger sedan and station wagon models then flooding the market.

Hatchbacks on the Market

1968 Ford Mustang GT from the film Bullitt/Image Credit: Ford

Hatchbacks were first sold to salesmen and then to families, but later manufacturers targeted an ever-renewing wellspring of car customers: people who just want to look cool. Ford’s 1968 Mustang fastback helped define a generation’s taste in cars when Steve McQueen drove one in the classic film Bullitt. This hatchback had much less seating and storage space than previous models, but it could reach 60 mph in less than seven seconds.

1976 Golf GTI Mk1/Image Credit: Volkswagen

Other manufacturers sought to split the difference between style and functionality. Volkswagen set out to recreate the stunning success of its Beetle model with the 1976 Volkswagen Golf. This hatchback was notable for its lightweight frame, allowing it to reach 60 mph in approximately nine seconds. But it also offered more storage space than the Mustang fastback, making it attractive to a wide variety of customers. The unique combination of hatchback practicality and performance of the Golf GTI resulted in the model being dubbed the first “hot hatch” by many enthusiasts.

Hatchbacks Today

2022 Hyundai Veloster N/Image Credit: Hyundai

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, American car consumers began showing an appetite for larger and larger vehicles. The culmination of this trend was the introduction of sports utility vehicles (SUVs), which quickly began eating into the market share of hatchback vehicles. The popularity of the latter began to dip. Today, consumers continue to crave larger crossovers, SUVs, and trucks while smaller sedans, coupes, hatchbacks, and station wagons are purged from lineups.

It isn’t all bad news for the hatchback though. While there may be fewer hatchback models on the market than ever, the ones that remain are better than ever at fitting into their niche. For buyers looking for an affordable and practical vehicle that’s a little sportier than the average crossover, there are great options out there like the Honda Civic Hatchback or the Kia Rio.

And for enthusiasts, there are still a few “hot hatches” out there to deliver the thrills. The Hyundai Veloster N is one of our favorite performance bargains, period. And of course, Volkswagen is still producing the crowd-pleasing Golf GTI. In fact, that’s the only Golf they’re selling stateside anymore.

The hatchback is well past its glory days, but there are still great options out there for buyers focused on fun, practicality, and value. Ready to take one for a test drive? Find yours today!