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Ragtops: Whoosh Fulfillment

Ragtops are back with the wind in your hair, but no noise
Paul A. Eisenstein
From the Print Edition:
Raquel Welch, Jul/Aug 01

The tires squeal as we blast through a hard right turn. Then another switchback, a solid wall of stone looming menacingly to our left, a steep drop to the canyon floor on the right. Let¿s just say that we¿re doing extralegal speed. All right, just slightly short of twice the speed limit as we hit the straight and level pavement at the base of the long grade, my foot pressed firmly to the floor -- and a pair of blue lights suddenly flashing in the rearview mirror. This is not going to be pretty -- and it's all the car's fault.

Driving a convertible is normally an exercise in joyous masochism. There's a unique feeling of bliss as the wind whips through your hair. But the flip side is the buffeting and wind noise that wear you out in a hurry, especially when you're soaring along on a freeway, shouting at the top of your lungs so your passenger can hear you. It's no wonder most people think of ragtops as blue highway cars. Skip the interstates and stick to the back roads, where speeds are lower, traffic is lighter, and you can stretch even a short journey into an all-day event. But the new Lexus SC 430 is an open-air coupe for any

highway and any time. A single touch of the button and the trick, retractable hardtop vanishes into the trunk in a matter of seconds. Stomp on the accelerator, and the big 4.3-liter V-8 roars with approval, the speedometer soaring from zero to 60 in 5.9 seconds. Yet, somehow, Lexus engineers have found a way to channel the airflow, so while you still feel the breeze tousling your tresses, buffeting and wind noise have been reduced to a minimum. Even at 120 mph, it's possible to hold a conversation or listen to the custom Mark Levinson audio system.

Unfortunately, the California Highway Patrol officer has a thing about speed limits. So we park the champagne convertible on the side of the road -- a half mile short of our lunch stop -- and wait while he runs my license through his computer and decides just how big a ticket to write. It is, as they say, an occupational hazard. Yet despite the hefty fine, it's hard to diminish the morning's experience.

The SC 430 is the first convertible from Toyota's luxury division. Original plans called for the Japanese automaker to introduce a ragtop version of the older SC 400 coupe. But Lexus engineers decided it wouldn't live up to their demanding standards and so, after testing several prototypes, they started from scratch. This ground-up design went on sale just in time for spring, the season when -- not surprisingly -- the vast majority of convertibles are sold in the United States.

The waiting line so far has been long -- Lexus presold 7,000 of the 12,000 SC 430s allotted for the United States in 2001. Despite the recent slowdown in overall car sales, ragtops remain hot. That might be hard to believe considering that a decade ago, you'd have been hard-pressed to find a single open top in anyone's lineup. When production of the 1976 Eldorado convertible ended at Cadillac's old Fleetwood assembly plant, "It was wildly ballyhooed as ¿the last convertible,'" recalls writer and automotive historian Mike Davis. And for nearly seven years, it was.

The convertible concept actually predates the automobile. Folding tops were commonplace on horse-drawn carriages. And as far back as 207 b.c., during the Han Dynasty, the sedan chairs of China's royalty had silk coverings that could be raised or lowered.

For some reason, the idea of marrying a fold top with a runabout seemed to have been missed when the first cars hit the road. They were absolutely open to the elements. Often seen as a rich man's toy, those first flivvers were "fair-weather friends," seldom used in inclement weather, notes Jim Wren, another automotive historian.

The term "convertible" itself didn't appear until 1903, when it was coined to describe the Thomasine, a primitive horseless carriage built by the long-gone E.R. Thomas company. Also dubbed a "California top," it wasn't a convertible in the modern sense, but a removable hard top -- a concept that would catch on again, but not for more than half a century.

The first true convertible appeared in 1915, when two other long-gone manufacturers, Briscoe and Owen, simultaneously rolled out models with tops that could be raised or lowered, and were always attached to the vehicle. The idea was quickly adopted by just about every manufacturer from Ford to Packard, and by the early 1920s, virtually everyone was driving a convertible. Ragtops like the Stutz Bearcat were the "cat's meow" with the kids of the day, but there was a more fundamental reason why they were so popular: closed cars cost up to twice as much as the convertibles of the era.


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