Tuesday, July 25 2017 5:52

Drop the Top

Written by Jack Smith

Safer, more comfortable and more convenient, convertibles are here to stay.

It marked the end of an era when, on April 22, 1976, a red, white and blue convertible rolled off the Cadillac assembly line. One of 200 luxury drop tops in patriotic trim, the Caddies were a tribute to this country’s Bicentennial and, the luxury carmaker pronounced, the last ragtops America would ever make.


Decline and Resurrection

Who could argue with GM, as convertibles had fallen categorically into ill repute. Without a sturdy steel roof, what was there to protect driver and passenger in case of a roll over? Besides that, at a time when the Arab oil embargo was driving the price of oil from $3 per barrel in the U.S. to nearly $12 globally, convertibles were heavier and got worse mileage than hardtops.

Performance suffered too, as the absence of a reinforcing steel roof produced greater flex and less comfort on washboard roads. Congress, sensing the public mood, threatened a ban on ragtops. But basically it was the market that moved the manufacturers to curtail production—people simply stopped buying convertibles the way they once did.

Then came Lee Iacocca. Determined to do at Chrysler what he had done while chairman of Ford—instill it with a more youthful, exciting image—he commanded his design team to cut the top off the ubiquitous K-car platform and turn it into a convertible, which he then personally chauffeured around Detroit.

As legend has it, Iacocca got so many compliments from his fellow car guys that in 1982 he decided to put his “one-off” into production. Expected to sell maybe 3,000, the “Le Baron,” as it was dubbed, sold 23,000 while spurring Chrysler’s competitors to build convertibles of their own.

By 2004 even Cadillac was back in the topless motoring market. And open air driving was more enjoyable than ever.


Fast Forward

The “cowl shake” that was the bugaboo of top-down driving in the 1970s has been engineered out and passenger compartments are no longer drafty and noisy. Power roofs are generally designed to take up less space and slide into place in a matter of seconds. While roll overs are still theoretically possible, handling and stability have improved to a level where—given reasonable operation—they’re no longer a concern.

For that matter, as some motorists have discovered, top-down driving is actually safer in many respects than travelling in a hard top, given the absence of blind spots and benefit of superior acoustics.


Cruising American Style

By now it should be apparent that as long as Americans continue to enjoy cruising leisurely down a country road—the wind in our hair, the sun on our faces, the envy of everyone we pass—convertibles are here to stay, with most manufacturers offering at least one and often several models.

Urbanites may opt for the diminutive Fiat 500, the Mini Cooper or the VW Beetle. In a more retro line there’s the jaunty Mazda MX5, the best-selling convertible in automotive history, or the youthful Mustang.

If you miss the Le Baron, which fueled the return of the convertible, you might lean towards the successor drop tops from Chrysler. For something more muscular there are supercars from Porsche, Corvette, Audi, BMW, Jaguar and Mercedes, while for sheer luxury it’s tough to beat the open-air land yachts from Rolls Royce, Bentley and Maserati.

But if its comfort and conveniences you’re after, you might wind up behind the wheel of a Buick Cascada.

Easy Riders

Okay, the Cascada isn’t the kind of convertible that set the Beach Boys to serenading and not just because it’s hard to find something that rhymes with Cascada. Instead of setting pulses pounding, it’s designed to have a soothing effect on its occupants. This is, after all, a Buick.

An affordable, midsized four seater, the Cascada’s wedge-y lines and platform were borrowed from GM’s European division. Happily for all concerned, the company’s engineers were able to create a suspension that would produce a soft, Buick-y ride without totally neutering its European performance characteristics.

Its front wheels are powered by a turbocharged 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine that produces 200 horsepower. Nervous Nellies who still see rollovers behind every curve will take comfort in the fact that, in case things go topsy turvy, protective roll bars deploy from behind the seats. Conveniences include a one-touch power top that can be raised or lowered at speeds up to 31 m.p.h. and electric seat-belt presenters that bring the front shoulder belts into easy reach when the door is closed.


With the Evoque, Less Is More

If any car indisputably demonstrates the magic of the convertible it’s the Range Rover Evoque. Yes, that’s Range Rover as in British SUV, but this four-seater vehicle has little to do with utility and everything to do with turning heads. With its sloped steel roof ripped off the hard top, the Evoque takes on a whole new persona, at once more masculine and more fashionable.

But it’s more than a head turner—its 240 horsepower engine and all-wheel-drive powertrain are capable of powering it up a 45 degree grade. Safety features include a circular scan system to prevent head-on collisions while, true to its utilitarian pedigree, it provides sufficient space to house a picnic basket for four.

It’s the most fun you can have in a British convertible this side of riding down the road in a bathtub.


Drive It Again, Tony

Once upon a time there was a car called the Fiat 124 Spider. A jaunty roadster from acclaimed designer Pininfarina, it suggested a smaller Ferrari. The difference being, the Fiat—which was far less powerful and sold for a fraction of the Ferrari’s MSRP—somehow had more charm.

Alas, the Fiat support system was lacking. Critics claimed Fiat stood for “Fix It Again, Tony,” and by the 1990s the Italian badge had disappeared from the American motoring scene.

But car buffs are a forgiving lot, so erstwhile Fiat owners were thrilled at the news that the newly reinvigorated Italian marque was planning to team up with Mazda to collaborate on a new two-seat roadster based on the MX-5 Miata’s platform. But would the result be a Fiata—facelifted Japanese two seater?

Happily, as a week of tootling around Chester County at the wheel of a new Spider proved, the new roadster doesn’t just emulate the look of the old 124, it captures the feel. The new roadster’s proportions are almost identical to the Miata, yet the car is visually different, without a single shared panel of sheet metal. Its bulbous hood covers a unique 160 horsepower powertrain that you won’t find in a Miata, and no less important, power is sent to the rear wheels, not to the front.

It doesn’t just look like an Italian sports car, it sounds like one too, with a specially tuned dual exhaust system.

Welcome back, Fiat, all is forgiven.

Jack Smith has been a car buff since childhood, when his father designed auto bodies for Philadelphia’s E. G. Budd Company. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Town & Country, GQ and the Robb Report, where he created the “Connoisseur at Large” column. He won three gold “Motos” for automotive travel writing.