Last month, I did something mighty rare for me: I drove a convertible. The occasion was a weekend visit with my sister and her family… and I simply couldn’t turn down an offer to drive their 2012 BMW 335i. So down went the retractable hardtop, and off we went into the cool late-summer evening. Before long, I found myself wishing for a convertible of my own, but I’m much too practical to buy a purely fun car, so I soon came back to my minivan-driving senses. But any ride in a convertible gets me thinking about how strongly I longed for top-down motoring when I was growing up, and also about the first time I was able to satiate that longing.
People’s perceptions of convertibles are likely influenced by when they grew up and formed their nascent automotive impressions. Having been born in the 1970s, I grew up in the Convertible Dark Ages, when droptops were firmly on the endangered species list. From the mid-1960s to mid-’70s, convertibles’ share of the US car market plummeted. A variety of causes – from safety concerns to shifting consumer preferences – led to that decline, and when the last 1976 Eldorado convertible rolled into history, this bodystyle’s fate appeared to be sealed. Consequently, convertibles seemed like forbidden fruit to me. They seemed like so much fun, but would I ever get to experience one?
Folks who are a generation older or younger than me likely have different impressions. Convertibles were a part of everyday life in the 1950s through much of the 1960s, and many popular car models ranges featured convertibles, in addition to coupes, sedans and wagons. People of my parents’ generation would often speak fondly of the convertibles of their youth. As this 1957 newspaper ad for used convertibles implies, convertibles were fun, relatively affordable, and common.
After the late 1970s-early 1980s Convertible Dark Ages, convertibles became more common – helped largely by Chrysler’s K-car convertibles, introduced in 1982. These cars ushered in about 20 years of steady growth in convertible sales, and people who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s likely viewed convertibles as more commonplace than I did, though still as exciting cars.
But we may be entering another sunset cycle for the convertible. Sales have declined for more than a decade, and convertibles now account for under 1% of North American vehicle sales. Like previous declines, several factors are at work here, from consumers’ preferences for SUVs, to an increasing aversion to the outdoors, to a lack of interest in convertibles from the globally-crucial Chinese market. However, I strongly suspect that the idea of a convertible will come back in fashion at some point in the future.
As for myself, I yearned to drive (or even just to ride in) a convertible. At some point in the early 1990s, my wish came true. My father – as a birthday gift, if I recall – took me to the nearest Alfa Romeo dealership to test drive a used Spider. I had dreamed of Alfas for years, and now I got to drive one! It was a beautiful spring day, and I took a drive with a rather emotionless Alfa salesman for my first-ever convertible experience. Sometimes, however, meeting your automotive heroes isn’t quite what it’s cracked up to be. I’d long heard of Alfa Romeo’s reputation for poor build quality, but on my short drive, two things fell off the car. First, a sun visor fell off, and then when the drive was finally done, the interior door handle broke off in my hand. The salesman calmly told me that “These things sometimes happen,” but Alfa Romeo got knocked down a few rungs on the ladder of dreams. Still, I was smitten with convertibles, and remain so today.
Convertibles remain elusive for me, though. Therefore, while at my sister’s house last month, I jumped at the opportunity to drive her BMW. A cool, late-summer evening is perfect convertible weather, and the 335i was the perfect car with which to experience it.
With its 300-hp twin-turbo six-cylinder engine, the 335 was a joy to drive – planting one’s foot on the accelerator was instantly rewarded by a thrush of acceleration. Adding to the euphoria was that this BMW benefited from the M Sport package, BMW Performance Power Kit, and aftermarket OZ Alleggerita wheels. Granted, my automotive expectations have been dulled by years of driving kids in minivans, but this was a seriously fun car – it was fast, had quick steering and the sport-exhaust burble meant that this is the only car I’ve driven that’s actually been fun to decelerate. It also displayed much less chassis flex than other convertibles I’ve driven. Though not the kind of car I would buy, I can absolutely see enjoying this BMW as a daily driver (especially given its retractable hardtop).
Like siblings everywhere, my sister and I are opposites. While I buy dull cars and keep them forever, my sister and her husband have Automotive ADD – buying interesting cars and then keeping them for about 6 weeks before tiring of them and then buying something else. This BMW, however was their longest-tenured vehicle in recent memory, having been in their garage for about seven years. I’m glad I drove it when I did, because just last week they traded it in for a new car. Perhaps reflecting the convertible’s latest decline, they didn’t replace it with another convertible, but rather a Subaru WRX. Oh well, maybe I’ll have to wait a few more decades to drive a convertible again….
Whenever I do drive a convertible again, it’ll be worth the wait. And I’ll probably still fondly recall the first time I drove one — the Alfa Romeo with pieces falling off. All that leads to today’s QOTD: What was the first time that you drove (or rode in) a convertible?