Ragtops: Whoosh Fulfillment

Ragtops are back with the wind in your hair, but no noise

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.
That began to change with the introduction of the 1922 Hudson Essex Coach. The closed-top two-door cost just $1,245, only $200 more than the open touring car, and sales soared. It was a period of rapid evolution, and breakthroughs, like the all-metal body and in-car heaters, started shifting public demand. "The seminal point came in 1925," notes Davis. "That was the year when more closed than open models were sold in the U.S." In 1919, only 10 percent of American cars were closed. By 1929, the numbers had turned upside down.
Even so, the convertible remained a vibrant and vital part of every manufacturer's mix. Ford had six separate ragtops in its 1936 lineup, including the four-door convertible trunk sedan rediscovered decades later by the movies Paper Moon and Chinatown. Technical improvements made ragtops easier to operate and less likely to break or wear out. In 1939, Plymouth introduced the first power-operated top, an electro-hydraulic design that remained in use through the 1950s.
In terms of raw numbers, convertible sales didn't hit its peak of 510,693 until 1965. But by then, the ragtop had lost its momentum, accounting for a modest 5.8 percent of the U.S. market that year.
Manufacturers struggled to breathe new life into the genre. One of the more bizarre attempts was the Ford Skyliner. Introduced in 1957, it was a great example of the optimistic excesses of that era. For day-to-day driving, the Skyliner was a hardtop coupe. But on a sunny weekend, with the touch of a button, the entire steel roof rose up and stowed away inside the massive trunk. The concept drew a lot of attention, but not many customers. Only 50,000 were sold in its three years on the market.
Then there was the Buick Riviera Hardtop Convertible -- which really wasn't a ragtop at all. Gone were the "B-pillars," the posts between the windows, but the roof was fixed in place. The sunroof also started eating into convertible sales. Easier to operate, even at high speeds, they were more secure than ragtops, which were a thief's easy prey.
Industry legend suggests the final blow was delivered by federal safety regulations. Indeed, in the 1970s, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration passed tough automotive rollover standards. But reluctant to regulate an entire class of cars out of existence, the highway board gave the ragtop a waiver from the new rules.
It didn't matter. By the '70s, convertibles had become passé. "It wasn't safety that killed the convertible," says Wren. "It was poor sales." The fatal blows, he argues, were delivered by the new network of interstate highways -- which raised speeds to a point where convertibles were just plain uncomfortable -- and air conditioning. By 1972, 72 percent of the cars sold in the United States were equipped with factory air.
And so, when the last Eldo rolled off the line in 1976, it was lamented by only a slim few. But it proved harder to keep the ragtop down, so to speak, than anyone might have imagined.
Guilty. Guilty. There's a late-winter snowstorm blowing back home in Detroit, but here in Phoenix, the sky is clear, the air is warm, and it only enhances my shamefaced pleasure as I roll back the top of my Audi TT Roadster.
I have to come clean right up front. From the moment I first saw the original concept car that eventually became the TT, I was hooked. Virtually unchanged for production, the original coupe was curvaceous, inviting. The sleek interior, with its satiny aluminum dials and buttons, only enhanced the appeal. It was a car begging to be touched and admired, as well as driven. That's not to say the coupe was perfect. It needed more power and a convertible top to complete the package. Now Audi has delivered on both desires.
On some ragtops, engineers simply cut the steel tops off their original design and substitute a folding top. In the case of the TT, a distinct convertible was engineered simultaneously, with special attention paid to ensure the roadster's structural integrity. Audi removed the rear seats, replacing them with an aluminum bulkhead. The added stiffness translates into a convertible that is both nimble and responsive, especially with Audi's Quattro all-wheel-drive package, available only on the 225-horsepower edition (the 180-hp model has front-wheel drive).
Audi engineers also wanted to make sure they wouldn't lose the TT's distinctive crescent-moon rooflines. It meant doing away with the rear seats, but that's a small price to pay. The 180-hp TT Roadster comes with a manually operated roof, which takes only a few motions to open and fold back. The 225-hp edition's top is powered, and lives up to Audi's claim of taking just 15 seconds to operate. In Teutonic fashion, Audi downplays the engine upgrade, opting not to trumpet it with a chrome badge. Besides the six-speed manual, you can spot a TT equipped with the bigger engine by looking for the dual exhaust pipes and 17-inch tires.
The late 1970s and early '80s were like a long winter for automotive aficionados. Rising fuel prices, new federal rules and shifting consumer demand conspired to turn the automobile into a boring commodity. Land yachts like the Eldorado downsized or disappeared. The V-8 all but vanished. Even speedometers fell victim to the new mindset, barred from showing a top speed above 85 mph.
But it proved impossible to crush America's love affair with the car. One by one, "fun cars" started showing up at dealer showrooms again. Ford rolled out the Mustang GT with a performance-tuned V-8. Chrysler showed up with the LeBaron convertible. Actually, the automaker was just looking for another way to spruce up its cheese- cutter-styled K-Car. It took the boxy little coupe, and shipped it to an aftermarket conversion shop, which shaved off the roof. The LeBaron wasn't pretty, but it was 1982's unexpected sensation.
The message wasn't lost on Chrysler's competitors. If they couldn't justify building convertibles in-house, they'd turn to aftermarket suppliers and sell the clunky, often leaky, results at a premium.
Today, depending on how you count them, there are as many as 30 ragtops on the road. Sales have more than doubled since the late 1980s, though at 280,000 units, convertibles account for less than 2 percent of the American market.
Unlike the LeBaron, today's convertibles are fully assembled at the factory, and like the TT and SC 430, more are being designed from the ground up as ragtops, notes DaimlerChrysler planner Bob Goldenthal. The automaker's recently redesigned Chrysler Sebring is another example, and the Sebring's unusually roomy rear seat has helped make it the market's most popular touring car.
Convertible sales got a kick start with the 1990 introduction of the Mazda Miata, an instant classic modeled after the legendary British roadsters of the 1950s and '60s. The market has been buoyed by a wave of Euro-styled followers from BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche and Honda (see related story in the August 2000 Cigar Aficionado).
But these are just some of the options that ragtop enthusiasts now have. General Motors currently offers nearly as many convertible models as Ford did back in the mid-1930s -- ragtops for every taste and wallet, including the Pontiac Firebird and Sunfire, and the Chevrolet Cavalier, Camaro and Corvette. Nearly half a century ago, the 'Vette etched its way into the collective conscience of America as the true star of the classic TV road show, "Route 66." It has had its ups and downs, but the newest model, known to aficionados as the C5, has been hailed as one of the best sports cars on the road. Delivering a mix of muscle and open-air freedom, the ragtop is one of the most popular body styles in the Corvette lineup. It's also one of the easiest manual ragtops to operate, taking less than a minute to raise or lower.
That's a far cry from the ill-fated Allante, the two-seat Cadillac roadster of a decade ago. The Italian design was meant to be graceful, rather than convenient. Operating the top required an engineering degree and a half hour's effort. Most of today's ragtops are designed for convenience, and a growing number offer one-touch operation.
There are convertibles for every pocketbook, from the entry-level Sunfire to the opulent, if slightly dated, Mercedes-Benz SL. Indeed, Mercedes has about the broadest lineup of ragtops. On the "entry" side, there's the two-seat SLK, starting at $38,900. One of this roadster's most attractive features is its retractable hardtop, which provides improved security, reduced noise and greater safety while in the up position.
The newest Benz convertible is the sleek CLK, which adds a new open-air performance package just in time for spring. The CLK 55 Cabriolet features a 342-hp, 5.4-liter V-8 virtually hand-built by Mercedes' special AMG unit. Call it a hurricane on wheels. Reportedly, you can hit 155 mph with the top down -- if you can stand the blast.
At the top end of the Benz lineup is the SL600, which will set you back $129,595. Superbly engineered, but getting a bit long in the tooth, the SL is to be replaced with a new version. Set to debut in Germany late this year, it will arrive on American shores in time for the spring thaw of '02. Details are rather sketchy, but expect an array of engines to include the current 5.0-liter V-8 and 6.0-liter V-12, and possibly several other new power train combinations. The next SL should be Benz's technological showpiece, featuring an array of high-tech hardware, including aerospace-style brake- and steer-by-wire technology, as well as radar-guided Active Cruise Control. And, like the more modest SLK, it will feature a trick, foldaway hardtop.
The concept is beginning to catch on. Lexus borrows the foldaway hardtop concept for its new SC 430. The trade-off, as you might expect, is a serious lack of trunk space when the top is stored. So other designers have opted for something less convenient, but nonetheless useful -- the removable hardtop, which proves that everything old is new again. It's basically the same idea pioneered by the 1903 Thomasine.
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