Convertible comeback: Why it’s back in style to drive topless

Convertible autos are back in a big way, with just about every carmaker offering at least one topless model.

The ragtop renaissance is upon us.

Just about every carmaker now offers convertible models in their vehicle lineup.

The top-down cruising experience can be found in autos ranging from the compact Fiat 500 right up to luxury land yachts such as the $1.4-million Maybach Landaulet.

But it hasn’t always been that way. In the early days of motoring, just about everything on wheels was a convertible. Like many horse-drawn carts, Karl Benz’s 1885 Motorwagen was an open-topped car — a three-wheeled vehicle recognized as the first modern automobile.

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Pioneer automakers focused on motor-powered mobility, so driver and passenger well-being took a back seat, as inventors raced to develop the best mechanical workings rather than providing shelter from the elements.

However, by the turn of the century, most cars were enclosed with windows, body panels and roofs made of canvas, denim or leather.

The 1910 Cadillac sedan was the first closed-body car in North America. A decade later, 90 per cent of all automobiles still had open or retractable tops. Some could be removed for the summer and refastened (often with great difficulty) for winter driving.

Wood-framed, leather or canvas roofs, known as “California Tops,” were introduced at about this time and were soon followed by the detachable hardtop, which offered both weather protection and security.

World War II technology ushered in the use of fiberglass and plastic, making lighter and stronger detachable hardtops a popular option for roadsters and sports cars, such as the Chevrolet Corvette and Ford Thunderbird in the 1950s. By the 1960s, they were optional on many makes, from compact to full-sized cars.

At the same time, British-built convertibles became popular imports, such as Jaguar, MG, Austin-Healy and Triumph.

Detachable hardtops or folding cloth roofs were considered options, which raised the price of the car. Retractable soft tops became the more practical choice, since owners didn’t need to find extra storage space for a removable hardtop.

In various forms of auto racing, the detachable hardtop was the way to go for safety, and some motorsport series made them mandatory.

In the 1970s, higher insurance rates, stricter government regulations, and people’s fear of fatal rollover accidents led to a decrease in popularity for convertibles. Removable T-tops became a more sensible option for car-makers.

When Corvette stopped making a convertible in 1976, and General Motors advertised the Cadillac Eldorado as “the last convertible in America,” it was a clear sign of the changing times.

However, the rest of the world continued to embrace top-down touring, with Volkswagen, Mercedes, BMW and many others still offering the option. The Corvette convertible returned in 1986.

Motorists’ tastes changed again in the 1990s, when imported soft tops such as the Mazda Miata (which debuted in 1989) became a hit in North America.

After 35 years, production of the Chevrolet Camaro ended in 2002 due to poor sales. But it returned with a muscle-car roar in 2009 in both hardtop and convertible models.

The Fiat 500, which began selling in North America about two years ago, has become a big hit. The 500c with its rollback-style retractable roof accounts for 28 per cent of the 500s sold in Canada.

One reason convertible cruising has become popular again is their improved safety.

“Since the 1970s, many vehicle safety regulations have been upgraded and new regulations have been introduced, which have resulted in significant safety improvements,” says Maryse Durette of Transport Canada. “Convertible cars need to meet the same standards as all vehicles.”

With mandatory seat-belt legislation, better structural design and built-in safety features, such as roll bars, roof-pillar support and airbags, convertibles have come full circle. These days, it’s hard to find many car companies that don’t offer convertible models.

  • Convertible comeback: Why it’s back in style to drive topless
  • Convertible comeback: Why it’s back in style to drive topless
  • Convertible comeback: Why it’s back in style to drive topless
  • Convertible comeback: Why it’s back in style to drive topless

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