Glamorous automobiles with enormous emotional appeal—conjuring up romantic images of youthful couples speeding across wide-open spaces, sun shining on their tanned faces, wind rushing through their hair as rock music blasts from the radio—convertibles have survived to the end of the century as a symbol of the good life in America.
The term "convertible" refers to a standard automobile body-style designation adopted by the Society of Automotive Engineers in 1928. Short for "convertible coupe," a convertible typically describes a two-door car with four seats, a folding fabric roof (hence the convertible synonym "ragtop") that is permanently attached to the frame and may be lifted and lowered at the driver's discretion, a fixed-position windshield, and roll-up side windows. In the early days, when automobiles were still built in backyards and small blacksmith shops, they resembled the familiar horse-drawn carriages of the day. Open body vehicles, some came with optional folding tops similar to those on wagons. By the teen years, manufacturers had begun to design automobiles that no longer resembled carriages and to offer various body styles to the driving public. By the late 1920s, practicality pushed closed cars to the forefront, and, ever since, convertibles have been manufactured in smaller numbers than closed cars.
The first true convertibles, an improvement on the earlier roadsters and touring sedans, appeared in 1927 from eight manufacturers. During the 1930s, the convertible acquired its image as a sporty, limited-market auto, surviving the Depression because of its sales appeal—it was the best, most luxurious, and most costly of a manufacturer's lineup, a sign that better days were ahead. 1957-67 was the golden age of convertibles, with the sixties the best years: convertibles held 6 percent of the market share from 1962-66. By the 1970s, however, market share had dropped to less than 1 percent.
Their decline came about because of their relative impracticality (deteriorating fabric tops, lack of luggage space and headroom, and poor fuel economy because of heavier curb weight); the introduction of air-conditioning as an option on most automobiles, which made closed cars quieter and more comfortable; the introduction of the more convenient sunroofs and moonroofs; decline in wide-open spaces; availability of cheaper, reliable imports; the impact of the Vietnam War on a generation of car buyers; and changes in safety standards—due to the efforts of Ralph Nader and insurance companies alarmed by the enormous power of many cars during the 1960s, Washington mandated higher standards of automotive safety and required manufacturers to include lap and shoulder belts, collapsible steering columns, side impact reinforcement, chassis reinforcement, energy-absorbing front ends, and five mph crash bumpers; the threat to pass Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard No. 216 (roof crush standard) caused manufacturers to lose their enthusiasm for convertibles. Furthermore, the adage in the automotive industry, "When the market goes down, the top goes up," may have been proven true again as the recession of the 1970s drove a stake through the convertible's heart during that decade. In fact, according to Lesley Hazelton in "Return of the Convertible," no mass-market convertibles were available from the early seventies through the early eighties, though a driver could purchase a convertible "for a price: the Rolls-Royce Corniche; the Alfa Romeo Spider; the Mercedes-Benz 450SL, 380SL, or 560SL."
In 1982, Lee Iacocca, chairman of Chrysler, brought back the convertible after a six-year absence. Buick introduced a new convertible that year, and Chevrolet, Ford, Pontiac, and Cadillac soon followed. With only seven American convertibles and a handful of European and Japanese convertibles being manufactured in the mid-1990s, some question whether the convertible will remain after the turn of the century. Others believe that convertibles will remain an automotive option so long as there are romantic drivers who wish to feel the wind in their hair.
—Carol A. Senf
Gunnell, John "Gunner." Convertibles: The Complete Story. Blue Ridge Summit, Penn., Tab Books, 1984.
Hazleton, Lesley. "Return of the Convertible." The Connoisseuer. Vol. 22, May 1991, 82-87.
Langworth, Richard M., and the auto editors of Consumer Guide. The Great American Convertible. New York, Beekman House, 1988.
Newbery, J. G. Classic Convertibles. New York, Brompton Books, 1994.
Wright, Nicky. Classic Convertibles. New York, Metro Books, 1997.
con·vert·i·ble / kənˈvərtəbəl/ • adj. able to be changed in form, function, or character: a living room that is miraculously convertible into a bedroom. ∎ (of a car) having a folding or detachable roof. ∎ (of currency) able to be converted into other forms, esp. into gold or U.S. dollars. ∎ (of a bond or stock) able to be converted into ordinary or preference shares. ∎ Logic (of terms) synonymous. • n. 1. a car with a folding or detachable roof. 2. (usu. convertibles) a convertible security. DERIVATIVES: con·vert·i·bil·i·ty / -ˌvərtəˈbilitē/ n.