(first posted 6/8/2015. We may augment the reruns of some convertibles with a fresh one or two. I have a very special one I’ve been saving)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
By 1934, the coupe had pushed the Roadster out of that position, but it was still the second cheapest body style.
By 1949, the convertible was now the second most-expensive body style. Only the wood-planked Country Squire cost more.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I remember when the K-car convertible hit the streets. It was somewhat exciting. The new 5.0 H.O. motor in the Mustang came out about the same time. It seemed like a sign that American cars were going to improve.
Some terms that may be of interest to convertible lovers:
drop head coupe
You left out convertible sedan. This is the term applied to 4 door convertibles (the same manufacturers called 2 door convertibles convertible coupes). Buick, Cadillac, and Oldsmobile had 4 door convertibles up to 1941. Ford had them until 1940, as did Packard. Lincoln resurrected the body style in the 60s after a 21 year “hibernation”.
Didn’t the convertible sedan have framed doors, not unlike the current Fiat 500 which, I guess should technically be known as a convertible coupe since it only has two doors.
I think the 1961 Lincoln Continental, with its frameless doors, is known as just a straightforward convertible, even though it’s a four-door.
I think that to some degree, names for body styles have been a bit flexible. The classic convertible sedans had a removable center pillar. The one from Kaiser and Frazer had fixed window frames. The 60s Lincolns had neither.
how is a convertible sedan different from a cabriolet or a landau?
Cabriolet is when the roof drops away but the windows and window frames remain fixed in place like a Morris Minor
Maybe in NZ, but not in the US or Europe generally. Cabriolet was/is just a convertible coupe/sedan that also had windows, unlike a roadster. There was no specific term used for those cabriolets whose window frames stayed in place like that.
There was variation on the use of these terms. For instance, the term “convertible” by itself was not in common use before WW2; it was “convertible coupe”, convertible sedan”, or roadster, generally. After WW2, the prefix “convertible” became common
Also, “cabriolet” shows up in some of the pre-war brochures.
This is US terminology; in the UK and other countries, there were other usage patterns.
Ford continued to make a roadster model along with the more expensive Cabriolet, which had an integral windshield frame and roll up windows. The roadsters had side curtains which were not very convenient or effective. Other manufacturers had similar designs. Most of the European sports cars sold in the U.S. in the 50’s and early 60’s, were also true roadsters. I have owned several convertibles, and they are fun, at least for a limited period. Like the antique touring car, they are great for sight seeing. I’ve had many cars with glass sunroofs, which are my second favorite design. Although T Tops gave a likewise almost unrestricted view, I found using them tiresome.
It’s worth noting that those early convertibles didn’t have roll-up windows, or side windows of any sort (I guess that makes them roadsters). No rear seat was another factor in their low price. And that extra $300 for the 1922 Essex sedan wasn’t chicken feed back then, either.
As for the Hollywood stars and their convertibles, living in sunny Los Angeles would let you get away with such things.
I think the convertible enjoyed its best year in 1965, thanks in large part to the popularity of the Mustang. Unfortunately, the quick advent of efficient and affordable A/C was pretty much the death knell for the convertible a little over a decade later (for a while, anyway). The upkeep of the top was another factor that helped kill off the convertible, i.e., sun damage would quickly take its toll and the top would usually need to be replaced at regular intervals as it wore out.
In fact, considering their quite limited usage in the vast majority of the US (and how difficult it is to find a new vehicle ‘without’ A/C as standard equipment), it’s rather astonishing that relatively low-priced convertibles still exist to this day. I guess that means they tend to fall into that same category of open-air recreational machine such as motorcycles, snowmobiles, and boats. On those few days when the weather cooperates, that kind of stuff is great but, eventually, the charm wears off.
Chrysler sold a lot of LeBaron and Sebring convertibles to rental car companies, particularly in sun belt states where top down driving is possible most or all year round. They were very popular with the customers. Here in Miami, if you saw a Chrysler drop-top, it was likely a rental.
“It’s worth noting that those early convertibles didn’t have roll-up windows, or side windows of any sort (I guess that makes them roadsters).”
I think this is basically right. As others have touched on in other posts, a “true” convertible is intended to seal up tightly, and should have real side windows for the roof to seal against (whether they roll up and down, or are fixed in place). In fact, I think the terms “convertible coupe” and “convertible sedan” were intended to mean that, with their roofs up, these cars were supposed to be the equivalent of a coupe or sedan. An “open-bodied” car like a roadster really wasn’t. I’m guessing that the roofs on roadsters probably improved over time, but at least in the beginning, they weren’t really intended to seal off the passenger compartment. Roadsters also may have had side curtains, but not real side windows.
My sense is that open-bodied cars like roadsters were also built to a lower standard of fit and finish than “real” convertibles. (In reading up on Chevrolet’s early history, one thing I’ve learned is that the bodies for the open-bodied cars were built by Chevrolet, not by Fisher body, on completely different assembly lines from all of the other Chevrolets.) This would have been a factor in the price difference between the two. While pre-WWII roadsters may seem like just a variation on the convertible concept from today’s point of view, my sense is that pre-WWII automakers and consumers saw them as two totally different things.
“No rear seat was another factor in their low price.”
Yes and No. Until the 1930s, many closed-bodied coupes also had only a single row of seating within the passenger compartment, with either no rear seat at all, or a rumble seat. So this wasn’t unique to roadsters. On the other hand, whereas coupes with enclosed back seats eventually came into fashion, I think roadsters always lacked a true back seat, and over time this characteristic did become associated with roadsters. I’ve seen the Chevrolet Corvette referred to as a “convertible roadster”.
I agree with others that, with the possible exception of the pre-WWII usage of “roadster” (which was pretty much universally understood to be a two-door “open-bodied” car), different manufacturers have been so inconsistent in their terminology that it’s hard to assign specific definitions to the various terms people have brought up in this thread. The meaning of “cabriolet” or “convertible coupe” is simply whatever a particular manufacturer chose to use it for. Two cars so labeled may not have really been fundamentally different from one another, or from other cars labeled as just “convertible”.
In the 1920s and 1930s, Chevrolet referred to its open-bodied two-door cars as “roadster”. They were popular until about 1930, then their sales fell off sharply. The roadster was dropped after 1935.
In most years between 1928 and 1938, Chevrolet sold a two-door car with a fold-down roof under some variation of the name “cabriolet” (sometimes “convertible cabriolet”). As I understand it, this car was a true convertible (side windows, tight seal), but like most Chevrolet coupes of the era, it had only a single row of seating inside the passenger compartment, although a jump seat was available.
During 1931 and 1932, Chevrolet sold a 5-passenger coupe with an enclosed back seat. A convertible version was also offered, called the Landau Phaeton. As I understand it, it was “true” convertible (side windows, tight seal), although it had front side windows only, no side windows for the rear seat passengers. (“Phaeton” was what Chevrolet called its open-bodied four-door cars. I find its use on the Landau Phaeton to be confusing; maybe the thinking was that it referred to a car with a back seat within the passenger compartment.) These body styles were part of an expanded 1931 model lineup which had probably been planned before the Great Depression hit. They did not sell well and were eliminated in a body style purge at the end of the 1932 model year.
For the 1939 model year, Chevrolet made a clean break and moved all of its coupes to a body with a passenger compartment large enough to accommodate an enclosed back seat. There was no version with a fold-down roof that year, but one appeared in 1940. This was the first modern Chevrolet convertible, although in its early years I believe that it was still referred to as a “cabriolet”, just like the pre-1939 rumble-seat cars.
Chevrolet phaetons were still in production in Australia in the late 30s
Interesting to read about the Hudson Essex. You mention the price difference was a mere $300.00. What was what that as a percentage, as it still sounds like quite a sum?
From what I can find the base price was $1045 to $1245, so it looks like a 25% to 30% additive.
Which was still a bargain at the time. Closed car bodies before the Essex carried a very stiff price penalty.
Ford had a ‘center door’ Model T sedan in 1915 for $740 that, by 1922, he’d gotten the price down to $595. While nearly twice the price of the base Model T roadster, it was still quite a bit cheaper than the Essex. It’s worth noting that those center-door closed cars weren’t very popular and it wasn’t until the revamped 1923 car with a traditional door location that the closed Model T started catching on (even at the much higher price).
I don’t know when the prices of the convertibles started surpassing the closed cars. I’m guessing it was the point where the soft top cars got actual roll-down windows.
I just read up about the Essex. Hudson did some fine automobiles and the Essex is one of them. That is where I read about how Hudson produced the first enclosed Essex and everyone wanted one. Hudson dropped the Essex for the Terraplane which was ridiculously popular to the point where Hudson produced three Terraplanes to every Hudson by 1939.
Essex seems to be a very legit vehicle.
I am looking forward to this week, as some of my favorite cars are convertibles.
One other point in the run up the price ladder was the advent of roll-up glass windows. Early open cars were touring cars (4 doors) , and roadsters (2 doors). By the time of the Ford Model A, convertible coupes and sedans (with roll-up windows) were in the line as well, and were quite a bit pricier. The roadster and touring car/phaeton withered and died during the 30s, at least as mainstream offerings.
I agree with freeways & AC dealing pretty much a death-blow to the ragtops. Whether buzzing along the highway at speed or stuck in a jam in traffic with top down – or for that matter in a sedan with all windows down, especially with semis all around is maddening.
Wifey and I love convertibles – as a toy, but honestly, there isn’t a convertible on the market that remotely appeals to either of us right now.
A nice, comfortable sedan fits me just fine at present. After I retire, who knows?
I think only once did I see my grandfather actually drive his beige with white top and interior ’65 Bonneville actually lowered. The real glass rear window combined with the typical frosty cold GM AC made the car as comfortable as a hardtop even on the hottest Southern California days. He enjoyed the look of the car more than riding around exposed to the elements. Since the top was not insulated the white was good at helping to reflect the heat. It really was not much of a compromise for him, he just kept it parked under cover at home. But no extreme winters to worry about where he lived.
After my 1st post I found that Chrysler, Dodge, and Desoto also had 4 door convertibles (phaetons?), but discontinued them before the other car manufacturers. These 4 door convertibles are pictured as having NO post at the “b” pillar. Of course, it’s possible none of them had roll-up windows, either.
Fwiw, my aunt and uncle had a fair amount of money to spend on a new car and would often trade-in their car every other year. After a string of mid-level Chevy sedans, they splurged and bought a 65 Impala convertible. Their’s was white with a white interior and black top. When they special ordered it they did NOT opt for A/C, figuring they wouldn’t need it in northeastern Pennsylvania. It came with A/C anyway. They traded this car and never bought another convertible. Why? One summer afternoon my aunt, who was driving with my cousin and a few friends, had a blow out at speed that scared my aunt. The possibility they she nearly rolled that car and almost killed all those kids made her swear off convertibles. I think they did eventually own a Corvair sedan, though.
So the desire for roll-over protection was what got them out of a convertible.
“These 4 door convertibles are pictured as having NO post at the “b” pillar. Of course, it’s possible none of them had roll-up windows, either.”
I think that you will find the biggest difference with the top up. Every Convertible Sedan of the 1930s that I am aware of had a chrome center pillar that filled the gap between the front and rear side windows. That pillar either folded down or had to be pulled out when the top and windows went down. I don’t think the body engineering was worked out well enough to get a window-to-window seal.
This shot shows that Ford offered both full open and convertibles in both 2 and 4 door. It was the windshield and roof line that is different in an actual convertible, as both have to be designed to seal against the side windows.
Also, the real convertibles were at the high priced end of the line. The roadster and phaeton at $560 were the cheapest DeLuxe models, while the Club Cabriolet ($675) and convertible sedan ($780) were more expensive than the closed cars. The most expensive 4 door DeLuxe sedan was $650. These figures come from the Standard Catalog of Ford.
Very interesting history. Hard to imagine enjoying a convertible in the summer here in Houston but it could be a three season car. Had an MGB that was a convertible and I enjoyed it for a bunch of other reasons. Would have sprung for a hard top if one had been available where I was.
i had two odd convertibles over the years…the first was a Kia Sportage two door that was missing the canvas cover. Weird little car… it was one if the few ‘crossovers’ that was a truck underneath. I also had used 1997 Toyota Paseo droptop, one of a couple thousand made by ASC here in California. It was surprisingly peppy and tossable even with a 4 speed auto especially considering its Tercel roots. Fun car that unexpectedly got me lots of compliments.
As a convertible owner, I agree they are very much a novelty that comes with a number of compromises.
When I take the convertible out, I always want to have the top down, since that’s the whole point of having a convertible. (Obviously, that means I don’t take it out if rain is imminent.) I dress appropriately for the temperature. When my wife and kids are with me, they sometimes mutiny and insist on putting it up, complaining that it’s either too cold and/or windy. I usually offer to let my wife drive and I volunteer to sit in the back.
Driving the convertible is the only time I ever wear a baseball cap, and it’s almost a necessity. Not only to does it protect your head from sunburn, but it’s needed to stop glare from the sun. I find one can’t wear a hat with a full brim, because the wind comes up behind you, catches the brim at the back, and tries to push the hat forward in front of your face.
When planning a trip, I try to stick to roads with 50 MPH limit or lower and avoid multi-lane roads. It takes longer to get to the destination, but with better scenery and without getting stuck beside a loud transport truck.
BOC, you would like the Natchez Trace Parkway. A couple of hundred miles of forestland and wildlife and a 35 mph speed limit (at least in the sections I drove before diverting back to a highway).
The Natchez Trace Parkway is indeed beautiful. More than 400 miles of historical markers, Indian mounds, etc. although the 35 mph speed limit gets mighty tiresome mighty quick.
I used to live about two minutes’ drive from the northern terminus of the NTP, and we’d take a cruise down the Trace periodically on a weekend afternoon, or use it as a cut-through from our neighborhood to Franklin, TN via Highway 96. Never got to drive the full length down to Mississippi, and only now that we’ve moved away do we have a convertible that would have been perfect for the job (Z3 roadster). Someday…
BTW, the speed limit does increase to 45 mph on some of the northerly sections, or at least it did the last time I was there.
I just looked up the NTP on Wikipedia. It sounds like a great scenic drive. I bet you’d see some interesting vehicles on that road too, because everyone else that takes that route is probably thinking the same thing.
Haven’t ever owned a convertible. My wife would like one though–she had never driven one until a friend asked her to drive his back when picking up his other car from service. The convertible in question was a late 90’s Mercedes SLK230. She’s wanted one ever since. We did have a ’13 Camaro convertible as a rental on our honeymoon trip to the Florida Keys, and it definitely had its charms in that environment.
If we were ever to have one as daily transportation, though, it would have to be of the folding hardtop variety. The traditional canvas-top cars seem to have too many tradeoffs for a DD vehicle, including security, susceptibility to vandalism, wind noise, and passenger compartment sealing in inclement weather (or car washes). A Volvo C70 folding hardtop is very much in contention whenever the time comes to trade up from the Kia…
Folding hardtop definitely seems the best of both worlds. The main compromises would be topdown trunk room and the complexity of the system. All other things being equal, I would go with the folding hardtop over a soft top for sure, as a daily driver.
You are, of course, right about the functionality of retractable hardtops. However, I have yet to see one with the top up that looks just right. Amost all convertibles look good with the top up or down.
I think the C70 does a good job with that, one of the reasons it’s a possibility. First few times I saw one, I thought I was actually looking at a fixed-roof version of the car, only to find that there is no such beast.
Those are nice looking cars, but too bad they don’t still make the C70 as a straight up 2 door hardtop with a turbocharged engine and manual trans. Still, that looks pretty good with the roof up, as you said near indistinguishable from a coupe. Ive never cared for soft tops on ‘cars’ (old school 2 door 4x4s look great with ragtops) especially on compact/midsizers or with modern body lines. What works on a slab sided 60s era car like the first few Mustangs or an Engel era Mopar doesn’t fit so well on more jellybeaned styling. Just my opinion, of course!
I had a 75 Buick Lesabre convertible for a few years. My favorite time to drive it top down was on warm evenings. Stars overhead, wind in the hair without the sun, cruising down a lightly traveled road…. just can’t beat that!
Make mine a Jeep Wrangler, please. Does that count?
Absolutely! I’d like to own another one, although not as dolled-up as the one we owned for a while. Still fun, though.
More or less. A CJs/Wranglers aren’t really true ‘convertibles’ in that the hard or soft top is meant to be removed entirely as opposed to stowing on board for an easy up or down. Ive had 5 Jeeps, mix of CJ/YJ/TJ. Love them, and miss having one now. Ive done freeway roadtrips with no top/doors except for a bikini top in case of rain. Not ‘comfy’ but definitely exhilarating.
ZM, you must have owned yours in the ’90s, or at least that’s when it was ‘dolled up’, since that much chrome and those wheels reek of that era! haha! My own ’95 YJ had some brightwork, which Ive grown to hate.
We owned ours from July, 2008 to March, 2010. Not very long. Ours was a 1992 and issues started coming up, especially with the clutch doughnut that you had to almost remove the transmission to fix. That got expensive real quick. Chrysler used to be known for their engineering prowess, but I guess when they designed this, they must have been asleep.
Never heard of that issue. What I do know about these is if you have a 4cyl YJ, the transmission is an Aisin-Warner AX-5. Its wretchedly weak, even behind a 4 banger so it has no biz anywhere near a Jeep. I experienced 5th gear puking on my ’95. They showed me my AX-5 next to the AX-15 from a 4.0L model…it was about 1/3 the size of the heavier trans. That tranny frequently eats itself on 4 cyl Jeeps. Might be ok for a little 2wd Japanese minitruck (A/W is a Toyota subsidiary I think) but on a Jeep it’s total garbage.
FWIW, Chrysler products seem to have a habit of cheaping out a few things on models with base engines or drivetrains but using top notch hardware with the bigger/better powertrain options. The standard manual trans on normally aspirated PT Cruisers is just ok, vs the Getrag unit my GT had. The G288 was also used on Euro spec diesels and was a beast as fwd transaxles go. It would hold an insane level of torque.
Chrysler didn’t design the ’92 Wrangler; AMC (and Renault) did.
Why did the convertible die? In my opinion: Women’s hair. And attitudes.
Back in the fall of 1959 I talked my father into getting an Impala convertible as his 1960 company car, rather than the Impala 2-door hardtop that was de rigeur between ’58 and ’65. I seem to remember that we put the top down twice during the year he had it on the weekly Sunday afternoon/evening ride. And my mother spent the entire time bitching about how it was wrecking her hair, how the sun was too hot, how it was too cold, etc., etc., etc.
Even at the august age of 10, I knew better than to even suggest dad get another convertible when it was time to order his ’61.
And it was 2013 when I finally got my own convertible – an ’05 Pontiac Solstice. Which I only kept for a year and a half, because I realized that a convertible couldn’t compare to a motorcycle for open air motoring. Probably won’t bother buying another.
Agreed. I briefly owned one convertible (Alfa Spyder), but only briefly. Not as much fun as a motorcycle and not much more practical either. Though given the nice weather here, and the fairly low usage it gets, we might have preferred my wife’s New Beetle as drop top.
Yep. Dad bought new 61 Bonneville convertible. It seldom had the top down if Mom was along. She would tie a scarf over head to keep her hair in place and still not be truly happy. Best memory was the night at the local drive in when the car was still new. the film was the original Parent trap with Haley Mills. The 61 was traded on a 63 Bonneville hardtop, Moms 61 Corvair coupe was traded on a 63 GP the first of her many GPs.
There’s also the Detroit Urban Legand of a Car Company Exec’s wife who never let the drop-top down, saying “It looks better up”. Thus, hardtop coupes.
Also, seemed like every TV show featured a convertible as the ‘star car’, for obvious filming reasons. A few Brady Bunch eps have the kids at Drive In with top down on Dad’s car.
The Brady Bunch even varied from what had been full Mopar product placement and gave Mike Brady a Chevy convertible when Chryco dropped theirs.
Now that’s a traffic jam I wouldn’t mind being in!
I personally never was that into convertibles, or even dedicated roadsters for that matter from an aesthetic standpoint. There’s one or two rare exceptions but it’s just my opinion coupes look more “complete”. I went through a brief fascination with them during childhood because thew were different, and being fascinated with mechanical things I was enamored the first time I saw a soft top operate. But alas the compromises just are too much for me, structurally and aesthetically, and I’m none to fond of the longterm ownership potential when there’s basically a controlled waterfall of rain water around the seams going into oh so unaccessable and unfixable places. It’s much easier to roll down the windows of my closed in car and get a certain small percentage of the experience, which I do all the time if it’s not cold or raining (I absolutely hate air conditioning)
This brings up a point I always was fascinated by – I always found it hard to imagine how people coped with the pre-closed in cars here snowbelt climates, or even mild but rainy climates. It’s one thing to have a true convertible with real side windows and a relatively well sealed soft top most have but those Model Ts just look miserable to own, and with the abundance of wood and whatnot, and the general likelyhood that water will get EVERYWHERE, there must have been no delusion of keeping a car “like new” as most people try to do today. It’s quite fascinating to realize just how different life used be in those days, cars really were just another tool… NOT an appliance mind you! Well used tools, like those cars, one can form an attachment to (what tinkerer among us doesn’t have that one tool that you’ve managed to use for everything, intended purpose or not, for years and refuse to replace?).
Growing up in the suburbs in the 90s-00s, where everything is 10 miles away and resale value is a major factor in car ownership it’s just so ridiculous to imagine putting the one and only car away for a few months and going about life in a traditionally pre-20th century way.
You forgot the smell.
Back then the smell of burning oil was very common. Lots of unfiltered exhausts, leaky mufflers and smells. People forget how much cars used to smell.
Anyone else notice something about that Patent Motorwagen ad? Apparently Benz started the practice, right from the get-go, of showing the fully optioned model in the ad. The caption under the picture of the car says (rough translation): “Patent-Motorwagen with available half-roof [convertible top] and spatter shield.”
I would suggest to mr Niedermayer a full translation of the Benz ad. It is simply charming and, at the same time, really advanced , as stated by the Magyar fellow.
Sunroofs also must’ve played a role in the decline of convertibles. Not quite as open, but nowhere near as many compromises for the openness you do get.
I think sunroofs had a negligible impact on the decline, as they were very expensive and seldom ordered options in the late 60s and early 70s, the only car I recall with them equipped in any notable numbers were the Lincoln Mark IIIs. I think the sunroof’s rise to popularity came more in the wake of the convertible’s extinction, as did T-tops briefly. They might currently play a role in the lack of convertible comeback though, I love the one in my Cougar, which I keep perpetually open in the summer.
Agreed- I thought sunroofs really became common in the early 80s- I’ve seen a lot of DIY add-on ones.
Today, I think the convertible just isn’t practical. You can get 80% of the fun with a sunroof, with added practicality. It seems like a decent trade-off….
Sunroof VW’s were very common in the ’60’s. The price premium was way less than the convertible.
Interesting to read of the Essex’ place in all this.
In the first picture of the Town & Country, the driver is a 10-year-old girl who couldn’t possibly reach the pedals or the steering wheel.
Artists often scaled down people to make small cars or small houses look more spacious, but it seems counterproductive for a really big car like a Chrysler.
Not going to lie, I’d love one of the gunboat Eldorados. However, now that I have a hardtop sedan I do feel as though I have most of the upsides of a convertible for nice-day driving, without any of the downsides.
This is definitely a roadster.
We dont currently have a good top or side curtains.
Growing up in Toronto there was a newsagent downtown that sold British and European magazines. Every so often when I got to go downtown and I had enough money I would buy a British magazine, either Motor or Autocar. I think it was in 1962 I had a new copy of Motor and there was a full page ad with the heading “Austin Healy 3000 goes convertible”. I was quite confused until I realized it meant that it now had a folding top and the side curtains had been replaced by roll-up windows. That still seems to be the British distinction between roadster and convertible.
It’s Tyrone Power, not Powers.
I got a melanoma-inducing sunburn on a GTO convertible roadtrip, followed by sandblasting on Ocracoke Island below Hatteras. Fortunately, it was on the front of my thigh, so difficult to miss when 5 years later a mole bulged, changed color, and bled. Yet I bought a ’76 Eldo convertible a few months after surgery, but I soon lost interest in it after a wheel bearing left me stranded overnight when moving to another state. I’ve thought about convertibles since then, but you really need an enclosed garage, so you don’t wear out the top material and mechanism.
I’ve had one convertible and since it was the tiny first generation Miata, I had to drive it with the top down in order to see out of it. I grew comfortable being exposed to the elements around Chicago and took it out for many day-long country rides.
Expressways are not kind to convertible occupants. Being blasted by 80 MPH wind looses its charms after ten miles. Then there are your occupants. The ladies don’t want to get whipped around, yell at you from across the car, or get roasted in the sun.
Finally, I had to go through getting my car cut into through the convertible roof. That totally wrecked my experience. I’ve had a Jeep regularly broken into, and the Miata was assaulted with a knife. No fun.
There are many practical reasons to have an enclosed vehicle that outweigh any fun a convertible offers. God bless convertibles, but it is not my go-to vehicle style.
We just bought our first convertible – an NA8 Miata. The first of only a few mods was a rear wind screen which took 15 minutes of LITE wrenching to add two brackets to the top snaps and PRESTO wind annoyances are a thing of the past. Happy wife, happy _____.
It won’t be a DD and I don’t think we will ever drive it at 80, or take it for long cruises on any highway, but around town this car makes people (us esp) smile!
I’ve never owned a convertible but then again, I live in a place where it pours rain at least half the year.
The names used for these things are interesting. In the United States of the mid-nineteenth century, a roadster was a horse suitable for travelling and by the early 1900s, the definition had expanded to include bicycles and tricycles. In 1916, the US Society of Automobile Engineers (SAE) defined a roadster as “an open car seating two or three”, a meaning which endures to this day. Despite the origins, use was patchy in the US with the word applied to vehicles as diverse as the front-engined USAC (Indy) racing cars of the 1950s, a variety of 1930s convertibles and the custom post-war creations otherwise known as hot-rods.
In pre-war Europe (though less so in the UK where “sports-car” or “open two seater” tended to be preferred), roadsters were often those with most rakish or flamboyant bodies, offered either by the factory or outside coachbuilders. After the war, the term came to be restricted to what were once known as sports cars, the smaller, lighter and most overtly sporty of the line. British manufacturers also distinguished, within a line of convertible two-seaters between lightweight roadsters and the more lavishly equipped drop-head coupés (DHC). Interestingly, the early Jaguar XK120s and 140s (1949-1957) were marketed as open two-seaters (OTS) in UK and roadsters in the US, the home market not adopting the export nomenclature until the XK150 in 1958.
The cabriolet long predates the automobile, documented in English from the late eighteenth century. It was from the Italian cabriole & cabriole (horse caper), from the Latin capreolus (wild goat), ultimately from the Proto-Indo-European kápros (buck, he-goat). English picked up the form from French. The French cabriole was literally “little caper” a meaning derived from its light movement; a more upscale version, the cabriolet, or “cab” was later imported from France. The sense of a “light two-wheeled chaise” was noted first in 1766, a direct adoption from the French cabriolet (derivative of cabriole), the word “cab” enduring in many English-speaking countries as a synonym for taxi, a legacy of the handsome cab, an early, horse-drawn form of urban, hired transport and cabriolet to describe convertible cars emerged in the early years of the continental motor industry because of the conceptual similarity to these, light two-seater carriages. It was in the mid-twentieth century that Daimler-Benz, with Teutonic thoroughness, codified the five variations of cabriolet as Cabriolet A, B, C, D and F. There seems never to have been a Cabriolet E.
Cabriolet A: Cabriolet with two doors and room for two passengers; was sometimes built with room for one additional passenger seated sideways behind the front seats.
Cabriolet B: Cabriolet with two doors and room for four or five passengers; fitted with a rear-quarter window for the rear seat.
Cabriolet C: Cabriolet with two doors and room for four or five passengers with no rear quarter window.
Cabriolet D: Cabriolet with four doors and room for four or five passengers.
Cabriolet F: Cabriolet with four doors, built on an extended wheelbase, usually for state or formal use with room for six or more passengers.
Mercedes-Benz used other terms for open or partially open cars. Roadsters were open, two-seaters and there were the landaulets, a kind of inverted sedanca-de-ville with a fabric roof over the passenger compartment which adhered to the tradition of landau better than many models offered by others. The 600 offered these with long and short convertible tops and there was late a rather unfortunate version of the Maybach.
Phaetons were a type of type of light, open four-wheeled horse carriage, English in 1742 picking up the word from French usage, coined in 1735, the connection thought because the occupants were exposed to the sun. Until the modern age, they remained popular, despite the availability of partially and fully enclosed carriages. Indeed, they were the most popular form of coachwork in the early age of the automobile but were close to extinct by the 1930s, supplanted by closed vehicles and those with convertible tops. The last recognised form of pre-war phaeton were the twin-screen convertibles although, being very expensive in a time of austerity, few were built. Technically, they weren’t actually phaetons at all because a phaeton differs from a convertible in having no windows in the doors, nor any permanent roof, rigid or folding. However, because they were marketed as dual-cowl phaetons, the appellation stuck.
Last of the breed were the three Chrysler Imperial Parade Phaetons, built in 1952 for ceremonial use by the US government and other authorities. Still in use, they’re owned by the cities of New York, Los Angeles and Detroit. A 1997 revival was introduced as a concept car, called the Chrysler Phaeton. It was rather overwrought.
Photo top row: Roadster, Landaulet (long), Landaulet, Cabriolet A
Photo bottom row, Cabriolet B, Cabriolet C, Cabriolet D, Cabriolet F
A wonderful recap of the progression of topless (or semi-) vehicles!
Presumably they also apply to autos with folding hardtops. Yet how did VW justify their Phaeton with a hard roof that wouldn’t (under normal driving conditions)?
I currently have a 2005 Mustang convertible with 64 k miles on it. I’ve had several convertibles over the years:
1965 Vette roadster
1965 Ford Fairlane conv.
1960’s VW Beetle conv.
1968 Chev Malibu conv.
1989 Mustang GT conv.
2003 Mustang conv.
2002 BMW 325 ci
Loved them all and I use the one I have now in nice weather even though I am in Houston, Texas and retired. I may have left one or two off the list…..LOL
I remember all the mid-1970s hubbub about the 1976 Cadillac, “The Last Convertible,” and all that. I figured that safety regulations were killing off the breed rather than consumer choice, but never really thought about it.
I remember the Rabbit/Golf convertible coming to market not too long after that bicentennial Cadillac–with a roll bar people could live with, and a very snug and non-primitive roof that was surprisingly quiet and well-insulated. I took one through a few Wisconsin winters just fine: