The term convertible covers a huge range. Paul Niedermayer’s original proposal to the CC team mentioned “Anything that has a top that goes down or comes off.” So, here is gentle and unscientifically chosen selection of convertibles produced in Europe and seen at various car shows over the last couple of years.
First up, a 1928 Bentley Four and half litre, perhaps the most famous Le Mans winner ever. This example is the road going non-supercharged version, of which around 700 were produced. The bodywork on this car is by Gurney Nutting, and it has been subject to a full restoration over recent years. It was quite a sight in a petrol station earlier, where we both stopped to put our roofs up!
A little later, and more affordable, is this 1938 Rover 14 Tourer. Rover offered a selection of regular saloon bodywork and the underslung chassis enabled some attractive design to be offered. This car has a six cylinder 1.9 litre engine, Chassis specification included a four-speed freewheel gearbox, hydraulic brakes, automatic lubrication, and electric windscreen wipers.
The Tickford coachwork by Salmons & Sons of Newport Pagnell in England, and is typical of that was available on such a car before the war.
Or how about something a bit more formal? This is an Armstrong-Siddeley Whitley Laundelette, from 1951 and with a Royal history, as it was used for a Royal tour of Libya in 1954. It was originally supplied to the (British) Governor of Aden. Armstrong-Siddeley was a builder of high level, low volume luxury cars, as well as aircraft and aircraft engines.
The Armstrong element comes from the famous Armstrong group (don’t ask me too many questions about William Armstrong and his life, we’d be here all day!), which was acquired by the other great Victorian engineering group, Vickers, who sold off the aircraft and automotive interests to Siddeley, creating Armstrong-Siddeley. Luxury cars were produced until 1960, and the company then transferred to contract assembly, notably for Rootes of the Sunbeam Alpine. The company was eventually absorbed into what is now Rolls-Royce Aero-Engines.
This car has a 2.3 litre, straight six on a specially lengthened 122 inch wheelbase. Two such cars were made, the other going to the Sultan of Zanzibar.
If you weren’t a Governor or a Sultan, and had to drive yourself, how about a 1948 Jaguar 3 ½ Litre? This is the pinnacle of the first part of Jaguar’s life, with a developed version of the Standard engine in a Jaguar chassis, and to an essentially pre-war design. The next generation of Jaguar started to arrive in 1948, with the XK twin cam engine, first in XK120 and then in the MkV saloon.
Body work was produced by Jaguar and it was styled with the personal input of Sir William Lyons himself; this was a car for a successful professional who was happy to seen, and perhaps was the brand and business model that signalled that the future of Armstrong – Siddeley, and others such as Daimler, was bleak.
Thinking Daimler, this is a 1961 Daimler Dart, or SP250 as it was named in North America. A very simple chassis with a compact motorcycle inspired V8 that was also used in some Daimler saloons. The SP250 did not last long after Jaguar bought Daimler in 1961, since the E Type seemed a bit more like it!
Contemporary to the Daimler is this Austin Healey Sprite, known as the Frogeye Sprite in the UK, for obvious reasons. The front end of the car tipped open, E-Type style and the rear boot was accessible only from inside. Later versions were also marketed as the MG Midget side by side.
Competing against the Sprite and Midget was the Triumph Spitfire. The Spitfire (what a name of course) was based on the Triumph Herald chassis, complete with a similar full width forward hinged bonnet and the notorious swing axle rear suspension.
This 1968 example has been the subject of a lot of care and attention, rather than a restoration, and has the earlier pert rear end that shows the car’s compact form so much better than the later, longer square rear end. 1300c and overdrive!
Meanwhile, over at Ford, you could have bought a Zodiac Convertible. This is a 1959 -63 Zodiac Mk2, Ford of Britain’s top of the range car, and this version was built for Ford by Carbodies in Coventry, then as now a separate business, best known for building London taxis. 2.5 litre, straight six and around 90 mph, with a wheelbase of 107 inches.
Ford continued to offer convertibles during the 1960s, though these were always a conversion of some sort. This is a 1968 Corsair, modified by Crayford (check the number plate). In saloon form, the Corsair, using an American Ford name of course, clearly aped the style of the Bullet Thunderbird, though it was actually an acquired taste, as the resulting car was visually tall and narrow, and arguably the wheels were a bit lost as well.
The Corsair was between the Cortina and the larger Zephyr (a four cylinder Zodiac) in the Ford range, and came with a range of 1.5, 1.6 or 2.0 litre V4 engines driving the rear wheels. The engine had a reputation for being rough at idle and coarse as it revved, and contrary to popular rumour there were no significant aerodynamic effects, good or bad, from the distinctive nose profile.
The Corsair ran from 1963 to 1970, when it was effectively absorbed into the new, larger Cortina range.
And what of the other great nations in Europe? Well, Germany had the Mercedes-Benz 190SL, in this case a 1961 car. Stylistically this car was based on the immortal (there is no other suitable word) 300SL Gullwing, but built around the monocoque Mercedes Benz 190 Ponton (W121) range.
With around 120 bhp, it was good over 100 mph, and a third transverse rear seat was optional.
One advantage it did have over the 300SL Gullwing is that you get this view of a wonderful period dash and steering wheel; if the horn sounds as good as the horn ring looks……a wonderful car!
This car was succeeded by the Mercedes-Benz SL, the famous Pagoda. This example is a 1964 230SL, with a 2.3 litre straight six, and was based on the W111 saloon. It may only have around 140 bhp, but who cares if it looks like this? It was enough to win the Spa-Sofia-Liege, from Belgium to Bulgaria and back, in 1963.
Of course, the car was developed to the 250SL and later the 280SL and then set the template for the current Mercedes-Benz SL range.
Another lovely period interior, and you just cannot help thinking that there is no line out of place on this car.
Another, but very different Mercedes-Benz – a 1965 300SE Convertible W112 series. The W112 was based on the W111 but with a larger straight six and more chrome. Fewer than 1000 of these cars were built, so to see one in this condition at a “bring your car” event in England is quite something.
And, to finish, two French cars. The Peugeot 204 was a compact saloon, competing with the Simca 1100, Renault 12 and Citroen GS. The 204 was one of the first cars to follow the BMC/Issigonis transverse engine with gearbox in the sump template, and had Pininfarina styling as well, You could almost consider it a French Austin 1100. It launched in 1965, and was France’s best seller from 1969 to 1971. Power came from an 1130cc four cylinder OHC engine.
Peugeot offered four door saloons, five door estates from 1965 to 1976, and a two door coupe, and this two door convertible to 1969. Lead seller was the saloon, followed by the estate which had the option of a diesel engine and a van conversion, and which was a favourite for many French tradesman.
And finally, perhaps the most graceful car in this selection – a Peugeot 504 Convertible. The 504 has been covered previously on CC, and whilst it has many strengths, personally I’ve never be totally sold on its styling. But that is solved by the Convertible, and the related Coupe.
It is by Pininfarina, and is perhaps a prime example of the all that we want for a convertible: Open air, style, a bit of distinction, and a whole bucketful of elegance. Perhaps, the most elegant four cylinder car ever built, maybe the most elegant ever.
It has got to be my choice from this selection.