Welcome To Convertible Week – And A Very Short Illustrated History of the Convertible

Chrysler 1946 T&C conv snip

Summer has arrived (at least here – it’s over 90 as I write this), and that means that lovers of open-top motoring are once again enjoying the wind in their hair. So this week at CC will be 100% convertible, in the liberal definition as I set it out to the Contributors: anything with a top that can be lowered or removed.

And to kick it off, here’s a very quick look at the history of the convertible.

Benz 1896 ad

In the beginning, all motorcars were…convertibles. Well, they weren’t called that, as the term ‘convertible’ by itself is mostly a post-war construct. All manner of terms from the horse-drawn carriage industry were borrowed to describe the various bodies that were obviously…horseless carriages. And of course, it meant that one might be able to pull a canvas top over one’s head in a downpour, but that’s not the same as being inside a proper enclosed space.

Renault 1899 -Voiturette-Type-B-from-1899

Louis Renault is credited with building the first enclosed car, his Voiturette Type B in 1899. The appeal was not lost on those wealthy enough to afford protection from the elements.

Packard 1910 30 Limo006

Soon, the wealthy were riding in luxurious enclosed limousines, like this 1910 Packard, and often, the driver was left out in the rain. These folks were generous with their chauffeur.

Ford Model T winter

Meanwhile, the millions of folks snapping up Henry’s Model T had to be content with open-top motoring, or at least with a canvas roof flapping overhead. Truth is, most average folks put their cars away in the garage or barn for the winter, as conditions were not very conducive, unless one was willing to take extreme measures like these intrepid Model T motorists. You think they wouldn’t have preferred a sedan if they could have afforded one?

The key point: “convertibles” (open cars) were for the folks of modest means who couldn’t afford a closed car; and closed cars were a status symbol for the rich that could afford them.

Essex 1922 sedan

That equation was turned upside down, or inside out, by the 1922 Essex, by Hudson. It was priced a mere $300 more than the touring car version, or about a 30% premium, much less than other closed cars at the time. This was possible thanks to a creative collaboration between Hudson, Briggs and Budd. By drastically simplifying the closed body, using all straight pieces of wood for its frame save two, by using the same glass in all the side windows and other production parts and process refinements, the closed car (sedan) finally became affordable.

 

Ford Model T 1925

The Essex triggered a revolution. While Ford and other volume manufacturers had made closed bodies for their cars before, they constituted a small percentage of sales. Within three years of the Essex’ arrival, that was reversed: in 1925, closed cars outsold open cars for the first time. Americans preferred closed cars, and have ever since.

Duesenberg Tyron Power

The ironic effect on this sudden shift was that now the open car increasingly became the plaything of the rich and famous. Hollywood movie stars, like Tyrone Powers here with his Duesenberg, favored all manner of open cars, in which to be better seen.

rolls-royce -corniche

When I lived near Beverly Hills in the late 70s to early 80s, the Rolls Royce Cornice was the car to be seen in. If one couldn’t afford one, a Mercedes SL would just have to do.

Ford 1930 _Model_A_40B_Roadster_PCB614

Of course, the convertible didn’t just become a status symbol for the rich. But even the affordable ones, like the Ford, quickly moved up the food chain. In 1930, the Model A Roadster was still the cheapest Ford one could buy.

Ford 1934 roadtser

By 1934, the coupe had pushed the Roadster out of that position, but it was still the second cheapest body style.

ford 1949 custom-convertible-1949_r2

 

By 1949, the convertible was now the second most-expensive body style. Only the wood-planked Country Squire cost more.

Ford 1955 -sunliner-conv-dsf

The convertible’s climb in the pricing hierarchy was complete in 1955, when the Ford Sunliner finally eclipsed the Country Squire. And that’s where it stayed, until it died.

LA 1970_01_800

Convertible sales steadily trended downwards, and then nearly died in the mid 70s. What’killed’ the convertible? Freeways and air conditioning. Driving patterns changed as cities spread ever outwards. Who wants to sit and fry in the sun in rush hour traffic? Hardly anyone.

Cadillac 1976 eldo conv

The 1976 Cadillac Eldorado was to be the end of the line; the last classic American convertible. Proposed federal roll-over regulations (that never fully took effect) also had a role, but car makers couldn’t justify spending the money to tool up new models when sales had dried up.

Chrysler 1982 lebaron conv

The death of the convertible turns out to have been only a coma, and in 1982 the Chrysler Le Baron convertible revived the genre. Of course there had been sports cars and a few imports available all along, but the domestic production convertible took a time out.

drop-down-rental-compariso-front-end

And when it re-emerged, it established itself as a specialty vehicle that has found a limited niche in the marketplace, increasingly so for the rental car market. A drive around the big island in Hawaii, along California Hw 1, or certain other scenic roads just wouldn’t be the same without a convertible. Realistically, that’s the best way to experience one, although I’m sure some would beg to differ.

The convertible has evolved from being universal to a toy. But along the way, it’s given us many of the most appealing and beautiful cars ever made. This week we’ll give you a wide sampling of that.