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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.  

The roadster traces its roots back to the horse-and-buggy age, when those with the money could afford a carriage for two. They were perfect for touring the countryside on a warm spring day, but wholly impractical for anything else.

The first horseless carriages took a utilitarian bent, but as more and more automobiles rolled out onto the nation's expanding roadways, buyers started demanding vehicles with another purpose--to have fun. The earliest American sport roadsters, dating back to 1911, bore names like Stutz Bearcat and Mercer Raceabout. They were elegant, sophisticated and fast. They were also far out of reach of the ordinary driver. When commodity transportation, like the Ford Model T, could be had for less than $600, these examples of indulgent excess cost five times as much.  

Automotive design reflects a market's tastes--and driving conditions. As U.S. roads grew longer and wider, designers shifted gears, the American roadster morphed into the highway cruiser, a car that could reach incredible speeds, but that were best achieved in a straight line. Their engines were often borrowed from the race cars of the day, vehicles designed to do endless loops around such long, sweeping ovals as the Indianapolis "Brickyard."  

European roadsters began to follow a separate evolutionary path. The best of the breed, such as the Bugatti Type 55 and Alfa 8C2900, notes Gross, were "thinly disguised racing cars." And they remained truer to form, perhaps because European road courses, like the legendary, 16-mile Nurburgring, twisted and undulated unforgivingly. It took more than brute power to master these tracks--or the continent's primeval roads.  

Some of the grandest roadsters of the 1920s and 1930s featured one-off bodies. If you had the money, you would order custom-built coachwork from such carrossiers as Hibbard et Darrin, De Villars, LeBaron or Park Ward (the latter best known for its long affiliation with Rolls-Royce). However, of those custom coachbuilders who survived the Depression, fewer still made it through the Second World War.  

Peacetime brought prosperity to the United States, though all but a few of the biggest auto manufacturers had closed their doors. And with rare exception, those left were focused on mass production. A rare few roadsters made it past management, sold as "halo cars" that could lure buyers into showrooms, where they'd settle for more mundane sedans, coupes and convertibles. Detroit was uncomfortable with the notion of low-volume specialty vehicles. The legendary Thunderbird, which debuted in 1955, quickly devolved from a roadster into a bloated, "sporty" coupe aimed at the masses. The Corvette did remain a low-volume two-seater, but by the late 1950s, it was transformed from an elegant, if underpowered, roadster into a steroidal muscle-mobile.  

In Great Britain, it was another matter entirely. Roadsters were ideally suited to the country's narrow lanes, and as the island nation wound down its wartime economy, it had plenty of small plants ready to go back to work. With the exception of a few big brands, post-War British motor-car production was quite truly a cottage industry. MG, one of the best known of the British brands, began life as Morris Garage. Operations were primitive. Until it closed in the early 1980s, there was no moving assembly line at the British Motor Cars plant in Abingdon-on-Thames. MGs and Triumphs were pulled by hand from one workstation to the next atop wooden trolleys.  

Simplicity itself was likely part of the appeal of the British roadster. They were minimalist statements, thrillingly Spartan. Their notable unreliability only enhanced the sense of self-reliance one got from owning an MG-B or Sprite. For a brief moment in history, Britain became one of the world's biggest automotive exporters, with boatloads of roadsters sailing into ports from Tokyo to Tangiers. Nowhere were these vehicles more popular than in the United States, where, by the mid-1960s, MG and Triumph alone were racking up sales of nearly 60,000 a year. That accounted for almost 85 percent of their global volume. "We were totally dependent on the U.S.," recalls Dale.  

If Detroit was blissfully ignorant of the roadster's success, the Japanese were warily eyeing an opportunity. Datsun burst onto the scene in the 1960s with several early models, such as the 1800 and 2000, then scored a smashing success with its 240Z sports coupe, which debuted in 1969.  

Despite the added competition, the market seemed ready to absorb all comers, especially in the wake of the first energy crisis. But even as roadster sales soared to record levels, the seeds of disaster were being sown.  

It's hard to say what did the most damage. New safety regulations certainly didn't help. They seemed designed, as much as anything, to drive the convertible off the road, and eventually, that's what happened. The Japanese quickly converted their roadsters to government-sanctioned coupes. The British hung on, in large part, Dale recalls, "because we didn't have the resources to do anything else." Shifting exchange rates worsened the situation. Endearingly affordable in their early days, British roadsters were suddenly priced beyond the reach of most American buyers when the pound surged to $2.45 in the late 1970s.  

But quality was the real Achilles heel. British roadsters seemed to have an unnerving ability to sense the worst time to break down--and then do precisely that. "Why do the British drink warm beer? Because they have Lucas refrigerators," went the old joke, a reference to the main supplier of electrical components to the British auto industry. "You need to keep two identical cars in your garage," went the common wisdom of the era, "one to drive, the other for parts." I can personally attest to knowing several British roadster diehards who did just that. In an era when the Japanese were setting new standards in automotive reliability, fewer and fewer motorists seemed willing to put up with such problems. Sales steadily dwindled, both in the United States and abroad.  

By 1980, MG pulled the plug. A year later, Triumph closed its doors as well. (There was such a backlog of unsold inventory at U.S. ports that dealers had enough cars to keep their doors open for several more years.) In the age of downsizing, diesel engines and double-nickel speed limits, the roadster had become an anachronism, something relegated to museums and weekend car shows. Or so the masters of the automotive universe surmised.  

One company seemed willing to challenge conventional wisdom. In California, Mazda quietly assembled a small team of Japanese and Americans, convinced there was room for a roadster revival. Relying on extensive customer research--and plenty of gut instinct--they secretly went to work. In 1989, Mazda introduced the Miata, billing it as both reliable and affordable.  

You knew something was special about the Miata even before you slipped behind the wheel. Driving it down the interstate for the first time back in the summer of 1989, I found people pulling alongside, waving and giving the thumbs-up. When I got off the freeway, one driver followed, rolling his window down when we reached a stoplight. He'd grown up in the '60s, owning a procession of Triumphs and MGs, he said wistfully, and was glad to see they'd gone back into production. They hadn't, I noted, explaining that the new Miata was a Japanese car. "Oh," he responded, his face brightening. "Well, it's the best British sports car the Japanese have ever made!"  

It didn't take long to realize how right he was. Perhaps no other roadster ever succeeded so well in capturing the styling cues of the MG-B, TR-6 or Austin-Healey. Making the package even more appealing was the fact that the Miata wasn't likely to require endless tinkering to keep it running. It wasn't a perfect car, but in an era of banal design, its quirkiness made it even more alluring. The first-generation roadster's pop-up headlights, even the underpowered, 1.6-liter engine just enhanced its personality.  

Mazda could barely keep up with the demand, and today, more than a decade later, the Miata remains one of the world's most popular roadsters. But in recent years it's had to square off against a growing list of competitors.   BMW's Z3, launched in late 1995, has become the nation's best selling roadster, helped by repeated improvements, including new 2.5-liter and 2.8-liter powerplants. The Mercedes-Benz SLK, with its distinctive, retractable hardtop, seems as much at home at the club as on the track. Mercedes has also launched a new performance version, the SLK320. The Porsche Boxster is arguably the purest of the German roadsters. For 2000, Porsche added an even higher performance Boxster S model, though there are few places to really exercise its 3.2-liter, 250-horsepower flat-six. The newest German addition to the fold is Audi's 2001 TT Roadster.

Unlike the 2+2 TT Coupe, it's a true two-seater, offered with either a 180-horsepower engine and manual roof, or in 225-horsepower form, with a powered top that takes just 15 seconds to operate.   Deutschland uber alles? Close, but not quite. While the Germans now dominate the roadster market, the Japanese are returning with a vengeance. Last year brought the launch of the Honda S2000, with its bright red "start" button and a race-derived engine that will turn 9000 RPM before hitting redline. Meanwhile, in April Toyota debuted an all-new and more-affordable version of the MR2 Spyder. Other Japanese models may follow. Mazda is actively pursuing development of a new RX-7, though it's not clear if a ragtop is also in the works. Nissan is closer to production with a reborn Z, though it's also declining comment on whether there'll be a roadster version, along with the coupe.  

Long gone from the American market, Alfa-Romeo may soon stage a comeback, a benefit of the recent deal between General Motors and Fiat, Alfa's Italian parent. GM reportedly intends to market several Alfa products in the United States, most likely through its Cadillac dealer network. One European roadster that may never reach American shores is the MG-F. It was developed by BMW, which until recently owned rights to virtually all the great British roadster marques. BMW has decided to sell off its Rover division, though it appears likely to continue building the MG-F, launched three years ago as an affordable European roadster. Fearing the MG-F might compete with the Z3, BMW has made no plans to bring it to America.  

British stalwarts, take heart, however. There was an audible gasp when the covers were lifted off Jaguar's stunning F-Type during the North American International Auto Show last January. At once boldly modern, yet mindful of its historic roots, it could again redefine the roadster form. Going into the morning event, the F-Type was little more than a concept car. However, the overwhelmingly positive response wasn't lost on officials from Jaguar's parent, Ford Motor Co., which would have to authorize the project. When asked what would be the only thing to prevent Jaguar from manufacturing the sensuous sports car, Ford CEO Jac Nasser had a one word answer: "Stupidity."  

Ford is readying a classic American roadster as well--a very retro-looking Thunderbird, which is due on the market next year.

When you add them all up, roadsters are having a clear impact on the American market. Essentially gone just a decade ago, roadsters accounted for sales of roughly 63,000 vehicles last year, and volume is likely to top 80,000 by 2004, forecasts the consulting firm, AutoPacific, Inc. That figure doesn't even include the F-Type, Thunderbird or Mercedes SLR, though even if the latter goes into production, it won't do much to move the sales needle, with projected volume of, at most, 100 or so a year.  

Obviously, if you're an automaker, sales numbers count. But how does one measure the real value of the roadster? Can one put a price tag on primal pleasure? Or measure the worth of wind in one's hair? In an age of increasing mass conformity, the bottom line is this: the roadster provides a sense of freedom, of self-determination that is quite truly priceless.  

Paul A. Eisenstein runs The Detroit Bureau, an independent automotive news service.

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