In perfect weather, there is nothing like driving with the roof down. No helmet needed. Just the wind in your hair (assuming you still have). Listen to that sweet exhaust note.
Other names for convertibles include roadster, cabriolet/cabrio, spider/spyder, rag/drop/open/soft top, or open two-seater.
History of convertibles
The first automobiles were open-air vehicles without any roof or sides. As car engines became more powerful by the end of the 19th century, folding textile or leather roofs (examples are victoria or landau carriages) began to appear on cars. Examples of early cars with roofs include the phaeton (a two-seat car with a temporary roof), the brougham, or a coup’e de ville (having an enclosed passenger compartment at the rear, while the driver sat in front either in the open) or the landaulet (where the driver has a fixed roof and the passenger compartment has a folding roof). Less expensive cars remained either completely open air or were fitted with a rudimentary folding top and detachable side curtains.
In the 1920s, when steel bodies began to be mass-produced, closed cars became available to the average buyer and fully open cars began to disappear from the mainstream market. By the mid 1930s, the remaining small number of convertibles sold were high priced luxury models.
In 1939, Chrysler’s Plymouth introduced the first mechanically operated convertible roof.
Demand for convertibles increased as a result of American soldiers in France and the United Kingdom during World War II. The soldiers experienced the small roadster cars which were not available in the United States. These roadsters included the MG Midget and Triumph Roadster. United States automakers manufactured a broad range of models during the 1950s and 1960’s– from economical compact-sized models such as the Rambler American and the Studebaker Lark, to the more expensive models such as the Packard Caribbean, Oldsmobile 98, and Chrysler Imperial. In the mid-1960’s, don’t forget Ford’s ultra popular and well-priced Mustang.
During the 1970s, popularity of convertibles was severely reduced by the increased travel speeds on roads (resulting in more wind and noise for occupants). Proposed vehicle crash safety standards in the United States, were suggested during the mid-1970s for the 1980 model year. Standards proposed a 50-mile-per-hour (80 km/h) crash to the front; at 25 mph (40 km/h) on the sides; and a rollover at 30 miles per hour (48km/h). This was a test that open-top convertibles would unlikely be able to pass.
Air conditioning, “T” tops, and sun/moon roofs were also becoming popular, reducing the demand for convertibles.
Other downsides to old convertibles, include poor body/chassis rigidity, smaller trunks, and additional weight. Most older convertibles had rear plastic windows. Over time they’d go foggy and/or crack. Now glass rear windows are the norm. Some feature a rear window defroster.
In 1989, Mazda released the first generation (NA series) Mazda MX-5 (called “Miata” in North America), which has become the best selling convertible with over 1 million cars sold. The basic sportscar design took hints from the Lotus Elan. Unlike it’s British relatives, the Miata’s are very reliable! A factory option was a very light-weight hardtop roof, for cold weather. Now in its fourth generation, Mazda still builds them. While the trunk is small, at least you get one. GM’s (now defunct) Solstice or Sky, wouldn’t let you put a toothbrush in the trunk. Miata’s brilliant roof is effortless to drop or raise. You may recall, last year I wrote about my trip from Lunenburg, NS, to Orangeville, ON. We travelled in my friend’s 2006 Miata. It performed flawlessly!
Also in 1989, Toyota released the Soarer Aerocabin, which used an electrically operated retractable hardtop roof (PRT). Only 500 were produced, however the retractable hardtop design has become increasingly popular in the 21st century. Back in 1959, Ford offered the Fairlane 500 Skyliner.
Today, many makes and models offer retractable hardtop roof cars. While they offer year-round comfort, they tend to lose the true “sportscar feel.” They also have too many “goodies.” My uncle has a 2015 BMW Z4, with PRT. He agrees. PRT’s are an engineering marvel. They’re quick and quiet.
My convertible take? We get so few perfect days. Before I bought my 2006 Mustang in 2007, I considered a triple black Stang. Then I thought: black is sharp only when really clean. In the dog days of summer, I’ll roast! The roof will be up with the AC on. I bought a coupe/fastback. No regrets.
I did own a 1964 Sunbeam Alpine convertible. It felt like you were flying a WWII fighter…when it ran. This was thanks to (dreadful) Lucas electrics…The manual convertible roof was a pain, to lower and raise!
So, if your lucky enough to own a convertible, relish those few perfect days annually.
If you’re considering buying one, do a pro and con list. Research the brand and model. Talk to owners. Contact the many clubs. PTR’s will require very expensive repairs…someday. Test drive many and decide.
Written & Photo by Larry Barnett