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Two Seats to Paradise

Roadster Redux! Once an extinct breed, the two-seater--wind in the hair and all--is on the road again
Paul A. Eisenstein
From the Print Edition:
Bo Derek, Jul/Aug 00

The sun is slowly sinking into the Atlantic Ocean, a fire in the sky matching the color of Lanzarote's volcanic shores. My hair begins blowing in the brisk breeze, even before I slip the key into the ignition, but perhaps that's appropriate, for even parked on this craggy bluff, the Mercedes-Benz SLR seems like a car in perpetual motion.  

Busloads of tourists are swarming, drawn as much to the machine as the stunning Canary Island scenery. Sleek, silver and wantonly sexy, this one-off SLR roadster prototype--and the coupe parked alongside--bear the unmistakable stamp of Mercedes' wildly successful Formula One race program. Ragtop and hardtop share a dramatic, knife-edged nose borrowed almost wholly from the Mercedes-powered McLaren Silver Arrow that has dominated the Formula One circuit in recent years.

The automaker's goal is to take that speedway heritage and technology and translate it into street form as an automobile few could ever imagine owning, never mind mastering. The coupe will go into production in 2003. Plans for the roadster are still uncertain, but based on the rabid reaction the ragtop generates, there's a good chance it will soon follow down the assembly line.  

When I turn the key, the engine responds with a deep-throated, resonant rumble. As I slip the shifter into gear, my Mercedes copilot, in his thick German accent, suggests I be gentle on the throttle and sparing of the brakes. It is not a request. Despite the police escort that has been lined up to sweep the streets ahead of us, the waterfront roads of Lanzarote are not designed for high-speed testing. And, after all, this is a handmade prototype built for the stage, not the street. So, the engine burbling, I press on the accelerator pedal gently, as if it were an egg. That's still enough to toss us back in our seats, as we race past gawking onlookers, waving as if we were royalty.  

What is it about a roadster that stirs the soul of those behind the wheel--as well as those left behind in its wake? There's something deeply visceral about driving in the open air. And sexy, bringing to mind images of dancer Isadora Duncan, her long scarf billowing in the breeze. (Of course, the image wasn't so sexy when the scarf got caught in the wheel spokes and broke her neck.) Today's coupes and sedans have become so well mannered that they isolate you in a cocoon of glass and steel. However, if you have a top to pull down, you suddenly become one with your environment. There is the satisfying exhaust note, the solid "chunk" of shifting gears, the staccato pattern of tires on pavement and the rush of the wind. You discover new sights and notice new details in familiar surroundings. Barring that sudden, unexpected shower while you're stuck in traffic, all seems right with the world.  

Now what we're talking about here is not just any ragtop. "Every roadster is a convertible, but not every convertible is a roadster," cautions Ken Gross, director of the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles. The difference is oft-times subtle, like trying to define good art.  

"You know it when you see it," suggests Mike Dale, a former race driver, long-time purveyor of British roadsters, and, most recently, retired head of Jaguar Cars North America. Sporty cars, like Jaguar's XK-8 convertible, no matter how fast, no matter how elegant, don't make it in Dale's book. Nor do muscle cars, like the Mustang. True roadsters have two seats, though the Corvette convertible doesn't quite make the cut, either. To be absolutely particular, a roadster was designed specifically to go topless.

Simplicity defines the breed, and classic roadsters shouldn't even have roll-up side windows, asserts Gross, who also serves as a judge at the prestigious and persnickety Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance. Traditionalists, however, have gotten more tolerant over time. A modern roadster is sleek, low-slung, and fast, with "power normally apportioned to a couple of trucks to move two passengers in utter glory," concluded the legendary automotive journalist, the late Ken Purdy, in his book, The Kings of the Road.  

Allowing for roll-up windows and a few other modern conveniences, the list of roadsters is becoming quite substantial, ranging from the affordable Mazda Miata to the lavish Mercedes-Benz SL. German marques dominate the segment, with products like the Porsche Boxster and BMW Z3. But the Japanese are gearing up for a roadster revival, with the likes of the new Honda S2000 and Toyota's reborn MR2 Spyder. What you won't find are the venerable British brands, Triumph, MG, Austin-Healey. These were the names that captured the heart, mind and pocketbook of the American motorist in the post-War years. These spartan and all-too-unreliable nameplates went on to become counterculture symbols for a generation of Boomers disdaining Detroit's heavy metal. Then they vanished--and in the process, nearly killed off the roadster entirely. 

But we're getting ahead of ourselves.  

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