Convertibles: A Love Affair

2002 Lexus SC430 by Marty Padgett (7/9/2001)
Classics: Corvair Ramblings by Eric Peters (6/18/2001)
2001 Mercedes-Benz CLK430 Cabriolet by Marty Padgett (5/28/2001)
Talk about convertibles in the TCC Message Boards!

Convertibles are alive and well. Just look at the assortment of offerings for 2002 and you’ll see the classic ragtop has never been better.

For example, the 2002 Ford Thunderbird goes back to its 1950s roots when it appears this summer with a removable hardtop that contains the signature porthole. Several new models will get retractable hardtops similar to that on the Mercedes-Benz SLK. The 2001 Honda S2000 will have an optional removable hardtop (which can be retrofitted for current S2000 owners). And there are always the traditional canvas soft tops, such as the Ford Mustang and BMW's new M3 convertible. Even the upcoming 2003 Dodge Viper will have a drop top.

Convertible owners love their vehicles, but al fresco motoring is neither trouble-free nor inexpensive, according to both J.D. Power and Associates' Initial Quality Study (which measures initial quality of ownership after 90 days) and its Automotive Performance Execution and Layout (APEAL) study (which measures what makes a vehicle appealing).
On average convertible owners pay $4000 more for their vehicles and report significantly more problems with them — eight more problems per 100 vehicles
— than folks who don't buy convertibles.

Those problems are water leaks, wind noise, poor-fitting tops, and blemished and distorted rear windows, said Richard Bongiorno, manager, product research group, J.D. Power and Associates, a marketing information firm headquartered in Agoura Hills, Calif.

High APEAL

Despite the premium price and the problems, however, convertible owners rate their vehicles more appealing than consumers who do not own convertibles. Convertibles tend to receive APEAL scores 24 points higher than vehicles without convertible tops, he said.

2001 Mercedes SLK320 Owners of convertibles with retractable hardtops such as the one on the Mercedes-Benz SLK report few, if any, problems with wind noise and water leaks and seem to be much more satisfied with the way they work, Bongiorno said.

A problem-free experience was not what owners of the first hardtop convertible that sold in any sort of volume found, however. That was the 1959 Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner.

"There were quality and reliability nightmares with a tremendous number of motors and little switches that would always go wrong," said George C. Peterson, president, AutoPacific, an automotive consulting company headquartered in Tustin, Calif. But despite the trouble they caused original owners, today they are valuable as collector cars, he said.

But don't expect fully retractable hardtops to become common because they are expensive to engineer, he said.

"The issue is can you make them pay back? You have to do that by selling a lot of cars or a lot of cars at a high price or a few cars at a high price," Peterson said.

But they are making a comeback, if you can call two a comeback. The 2002 Mercedes-Benz SL and Lexus SC 430 models will have retractable hardtops.
One person who thinks we are going to see more retractable hardtops is Eric Noble, president of The CARLAB, an automotive product planning and positioning firm in Santa Ana, Calif.

"What you want is what the SLK will do, a hardtop and a convertible at the push of a button. With modern kinematics, motion control, and computer software, you can do folding hardtops all day long. There's no downside. It's quiet, doesn't leak, and there's a real back window, not a brown faded plastic thing. All the things that were bad about soft tops we can get rid of," he said.

SSR innovation

2000 Chevrolet SSR Concept One of the more innovative retractable hardtops is the one designed for the Chevrolet SSR concept vehicle that is part pickup truck, part convertible sports car. Its automatic two-piece retractable hardtop folds and slips in to stow vertically behind the seats and in front of the cargo bed. Chevy wants to keep the same design when the vehicle makes it to production, which is expected to be in 2002 as a 2003 model.

An alternative to retractable hardtops is a dual lining for soft tops, which helps to reduce wind noise and provides better insulation.

"That's a trend we're seeing," Bongiorno said. That and a trend to glass rear windows away from plastic, which scratches, cracks and tarnishes.

Despite these challenges, convertibles are automotive survivors.

"People have always wanted open-top driving. In a lot of ways it's really impractical but a lot of people still love them," Peterson said. "A lot has to do with the presentation possibilities in a convertible. See my car; see me. You are able to show yourself when driving your car."

It's in the premium sporty segment, which includes the Porsche Boxster, Chevrolet Corvette and BMW roadsters, where people really enjoy showing themselves off. In that segment, 72 percent of owners report that they have convertibles. And 62 percent want their next vehicle to be a convertible.

The next largest segment with convertible tops is the mid-sporty segment, which includes the likes of the Ford Mustang, Mitsubishi Eclipse Spyder and Chrysler Sebring. In that segment, 27 percent of owners say they have convertibles and 36 percent want their next vehicle to be a convertible.

The first convertible

Of course, the first cars didn't have tops. The first true convertible, one with a detachable top, was introduced at the Fourth National Auto Show in 1904, according to the premier issue (1983) of the journal Convertible. Five years later, in 1909, the first one-man folding fabric tops appeared on a variety of convertible models.

Convertible sedans such as this 1939 Plymouth rolled in the pre-war era.Coming out of World War II, convertibles were a very popular body style. "All these GIs were coming out of the army and going to college on the GI bill and able to afford a car with a little bit of flamboyance, a car with some sex appeal," Peterson said.

Convertible sales stayed pretty strong until 1970. In 1963, convertibles accounted for 6.7 percent of domestic passenger car sales, according to the journal Convertible. In 1964 along came the Ford Mustang.
"One of the most popular convertibles of all time surely was the 1964 to 1966 Mustang," said Keith Martin, editor of Sports Car Market magazine.

By 1970 that dropped to one percent, according to the journal Convertible. Much as Al Gore supporters blamed Ralph Nader for costing Gore the presidency, the journal blames Nader for a "monster drop in convertible sales," as a result of his blasting Detroit in his book Unsafe At Any Speed.

Ralph was only part of it. Automakers spent the ‘70s and much of the ‘80s focused on complying with a host of safety and smog standards that were enacted. One that they were concerned about was a roof crush standard that was being discussed, although when it was implemented in 1973, convertibles were excluded because the government could not pass a regulation that would outlaw a complete vehicle category, according to a NHTSA spokesman.

"It wasn't until the '80s that all those standards stabilized enough for manufacturers to be able to focus on other things — like fun," Martin said.
Martin pins the revival of the convertible squarely on the 1990 Mazda Miata, which debuted in the summer of 1989. Mazda executives say that the Guinness Book of World Records recognizes the Miata as the best-selling two-seat roadster of all time. Over 520,000 have been sold.

"Mazda came in and built the most perfect British roadster there had ever been. After the Miata, suddenly the market came alive again."

Although convertibles have made somewhat of a comeback, Peterson points out there are not a tremendous number of pure drop-top convertibles on the roads and that the world is still waiting for that next full-size convertible.

"Some big boat with a lot of presence for all the boomers who are ready for one," he said.

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