The advance and evolution of the convertible automobile is a story as old as the car itself.
From the birth of the motorcar more than a century ago, the convertible has advanced in lockstep with automotive design, construction and technology.
Along the way, they’ve come and gone in and out of fashion, and through the 1970s nearly became extinct as an automotive species.
Variations on the convertible theme have included the “rumble” (or in parts of Europe, “mother-in-law”) seat, an open, rear-mounted seat that folded out from the trunk; to t-tops with panels that unlock and lift from the roof; to multi-layered folding cloth affairs—both powered and not—that shun water and provide some sound insulation when raised.
Monopoly to bust, then halfway back
All cars were open at first, with their occupants exposed to the elements. Essentially motorized horse buggies, early cars came to sport flimsy metal and canvas manual folding roofs that leaked in the rain and were uncomfortably draughty and noisy, not to mention difficult to secure.
By about 1925, sales of closed cars exceeded those of open ones; sales eventually dwindled to single-figure percentages and since then, convertibles have never accounted for much more than about 10 percent of overall market share, and more often about half of that or less.
A 1940 Plymouth Deluxe Convertible Coupe advertisement, boasting a then-new “Power Operated Top”
The emergence of the convertible as a bona fide automotive segment came in 1927, says automotive historian and journalist Bill Vance. That year saw true convertibles introduced by Buick, Cadillac, Chrysler, duPont, LaSalle, Lincoln, Stearns, Whippet and Willys.
Just two years later, the onset of the Great Depression hit the automobile industry hard, “especially the sporty end of the spectrum where the convertible resided,” said Vance.
Ironically, it was also the era of some of the most extravagant convertibles ever, offered by such manufacturers as Auburn, Cadillac, Chrysler, Cord, Duesenberg, Marmon and Packard, “although they sold in very low numbers.”
A breakthrough for convertibles came in 1939 when Plymouth introduced the first convertible with a power-operated top, activated by pneumatic cylinders; it removed a major inconvenience of open cars: having to manually lower and raise the often heavy and awkward roof which in some convertibles was a two-person effort.
After the end of the Second World War in 1945 and through the prosperous 1950s, manufacturers returned to commercial manufacturing from wartime production, and convertibles made their successful return.
A 1976 Cadillac Eldorado convertible, the “last American ragtop”
The death of the convertible (and its revival)
Convertible sales began to slip through the 1960s but fell to their lowest ever percentage of sales – around one percent – through the 1970s, a decade plagued by not one but two oil crises, Vance said.
Burdened by economic difficulties and more concerned with fiscal survival, people stopped buying convertibles almost completely. Cadillac announced in 1976 that its Eldorado would be the “last convertible in North America.” Thankfully, it wasn’t.
The convertible was saved from ignominious extinction in 1982 when Chrysler’s Lee Iacocca, who wanted to spruce up the image of his newly rescued company, introduced the Chrysler Lebaron convertible, based on the ubiquitous K-car platform. Cheap and cheerful, Iacocca expected to sell maybe 3,000 units; it sold 23,000, became an instant success and prompted Chrysler’s competitors to revisit affordable drop-tops.
Today’s wondrous electronically-controlled power-folding hardtops convert from closed to convertible and back in a matter of seconds. And when closed they’re as quiet, as water- and airtight, and as secure as a fixed-top sedan.
As collectibles, convertibles have generally commanded higher prices at auction than fixed top cars, even though they seldom performed or handled on par with their roofed counterparts. More precisely, the demand among collectors is for their vastly more limited numbers, and overall sense of adventure, style and perceived sportiness.
Rattle and roll: driving a “flexi-flyer”
In the ride and handling departments, early convertibles were woefully inferior compared to their hardtop siblings. Cowl shake over bumps and road irregularities often elicited squeaks and rattles from within the body.
Taking the roof off a car brings with it a host of structural challenges, and pre-1980s attempts often resulted in cars with all the flexibility of a cardboard shoebox, earning them the dismissive appellation “flexi-flyer” among those to whom such things matter.
Trying to hustle a pre-1980s convertible through a corner was typically an exercise in frightening one’s self as the frame and body twisted and flexed nervously through corners, from turn-in through apex to exit. No, until recently convertibles were best suited to leisurely cruising on warm summer evenings.
Automakers have since almost universally focused on adding structural rigidity to convertibles, both with the top up and down.
It appears now that convertibles are definitely here to stay, with most manufacturers offering at least one, and some offering many models. Current offerings range from the small, sporty Mazda MX-5 (formerly the Miata, the biggest-selling convertible in automotive history) to the large, sporty and luxurious Mercedes-Benz SL and Chevrolet Corvette Stingray.
What also seems clear is that with a few exceptions, like the MX-5 and its manual folding cloth top, the folding hardtop convertible will continue to dominate the convertible market for the superior characteristics outlined above, and the year-round drivability it affords.
Meanwhile, advances in materials and design will, it seems, continue to bring down the cost and weight of retractable hardtop systems.
Top-down driving has never been more accessible and practical, or more fun, than it is today.