Convertible History

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Everyone remembers their first ride in a convertible. Hitting the open road on a beautiful day with the top down and the wind blowing in your hair—it’s an experience that’s hard to forget.

Because of its fun-loving purpose, the stylish convertible has come to symbolize freedom

Whether it’s on a classic cross-country road trip or behind the wheel of a luxury sports car, driving a convertible is an iconic American pastime. The name “convertible” actually refers to the style of car with a convertible, top-down roof compared to other enclosed cab vehicles on the market. Convertible makes and models may vary by price and manufacturer.

Early cars were built without tops based on a horse and carriage modification. The first closed vehicle was manufactured in 1910. Convertible modifications began just decades later in the first retractable hardtop system invented in 1922. The first power-operated retractable hardtop was produced by Peugeot in 1934; Chrysler manufactured their version of the hardtop convertible car in the 1941 Chrysler Thunderbolt.

The name for the convertible car is fairly self-explanatory

A car manufactured with a flexible roof that can be opened or closed before driving is a convertible. A convertible car may also be referred to as:

  • roadster (two-seater)
  • cabriolet
  • tourer
  • drophead coupe
  • drop top
  • ragtop

Open-air convertible driving is a popular way to spend a lazy Sunday afternoon.

If you have ever seen a classic film featuring a stylish convertible driven on a road trip—think 1967’s Two for the Road starring Audrey Hepburn—then you may appreciate America’s love affair with the drop top car. Convertibles are classic collector’s items, as well as multifunctional vehicles that represent the laid-back lifestyle every man and woman craves.

How much do you know about the beloved convertible car?

Here are 10 intriguing facts about the roadster

  • of drivers feel very attached to their cars—which may explain the deep love of convertible enthusiasts.

  • of drivers call their car an “old friend.”

The top five states for convertible sales

  • convertible car

  • Roadster

A convertible is technically different from a roadster; a convertible car allows you to roll up the top and windows, while a roadster often has clip-in side curtains without a top permanently attached to the car body.

Hollywood stars have famously driven convertibles on the silver screen for decades, greatly contributing to their popularity

Convertible cars are frequently featured in local and national parades as transport for beauty queens, mayors, and even presidents.

  • of men are attached to their car because of its aesthetic

  • of women are attached to their car because of its aesthetic

The ragtop version of the standard Mini Cooper costs only $4500 extra.

Convertible safety has been questioned time and again due to rollover risk in an accident; however, modern convertibles are manufactured with improved safety features in handling and stability to drastically reduce rolling risk.

Jeeps offer a different convertible body style and feel, ideal for off-roading or a day at the beach; the 2008 Jeep Wrangler was priced at $19,680.

BMW produced a relatively affordable convertible in the 2008 128i, with a price tag of $33,875.

Today’s convertible comes in all shapes and sizes, makes and models, uses and purposes.

While you may prefer a trendy convertible as a status symbol, your neighbor may drive a compact city convertible for better gas mileage and easy urban parking. Convertibles also come as coast-to-coast cruisers preferred by road trippers, top-of-the-line collector’s vehicles, and modified sedans and coupes driven by families.

Find out how your favorite convertible got its start as we explore the evolution of the drop top in the Unites States…

The Evolution of the Convertible

Decade by Decade

In the early days of the automobile, every car was topless.

That is to say, all vehicles were built with an open top—without a windshield, roof, window glass, or doors. The perfect example of the pre-convertible can be found in the 1896 Ford Quadricycle. The Quadricycle was Henry Ford’s interpretation of a 19th century buggy based on the prototype of a horse-drawn carriage. Vehicle designs with fabric roofs emerged in the early 20th century; some cars were produced with rudimentary folding tops.

The true spirit of the convertible was born just a few decades later, based on the ingenious design of one Ben P. Ellerbeck:

  • The first retractable hardtop convertible design was introduced by Ben P. Ellerbeck; the hardtop was manually operated on a Hudson coupe yet was never produced.

  • Automaker Peugeot produced the first power- operated retractable hardtop in the 601 Éclipse; the design was patented by Georges Paulin.

  • Automakers updated basic 1940s convertible designs with window seal and rattling issues; convertibles like the 1950 Nash Rambler featured full-frame doors with a folding fabric top.

  • Ford reemerged in the convertible market with the popular and reliable Ford Skyliner from 1957 to 1959. In the same year, convertible sales boomed to garner 5% of the market.

  • The 1961 Lincoln Continental convertible was introduced to revive the bland 1958 to 1960 Continental design. Sales boomed after a slump thanks to the beautifully designed Lincoln Continental sedan convertible; sales doubled in 1961 and increased 20% more in 1962.

  • Convertible sales declined directly related to the oil crises of the decade. Manufacturers dropped their convertible models in response; the 1976 Eldorado Cadillac was called the “last convertible in America.”

  • Chevrolet Cavalier Ford Mustang

  • The Cadillac Eldorado convertible with Biarritz trim was reintroduced.

  • The 90s were considered the new era of contemporary retractable hardtop convertibles
    • The 1995 Mitsubishi
      3000 GT Spyder

    • The 1998 Mercedes-Benz SLK.

  • the largest sliding glass panel vehicle design in the world

    • The 2013 Audi A8

    • The 2013 Lincoln MKZ

    The latest convertible technology to hit the scene was evidenced in the oversized sliding glass paneled roof, which ran from the rear of the windshield header to the top of the backlight.

1922

1927

1929

1934

1941

1950

1953

1957

1960

1961

1968

1970

1982

1983

1984

1989

1995

2007

2013

2014

  • A multitude of convertibles were introduced to the market by manufacturers like Buick, Chrysler, Cadillac, LaSalle, Lincoln, and Whippet.

  • The Great Depression caused a slump in the sporty convertible industry.

  • Chrysler rolled out their retractable hardtop Chrysler Thunderbolt.

  • The Ford Motor Company made waves in the newly-engineered Continental Mark II convertible with a servo-operated retractable roof; the $2 million concept was later rejected from the Ford lineup.

  • Convertible sales rose to a high of 6% of the automobile market in the 1960s and dropped as low as 1% in the early 1970s.

  • An inventive convertible variation was introduced, along with air-conditioning in fixed-top car models—Heinz Prechter launched a hardtop/convertible combination design in the modern sunroof. The entrepreneur partnered with Ford Motor Company to produce the first factory-made vehicle with a sunroof in the 1968 Mercury Cougar.

  • American convertible production was not dead, as many believed; the 1982 Chrysler LeBaron revived the US convertible market using the ever-popular K car platform. Once LeBaron convertible sales success boomed at 23,000 units, other automakers jumped on the drop top trend yet again.

  • Toyota launched the modern retractable hardtop MZ20 Soarer Aerocabin convertible, complete with an electric folding hardtop in a two-seater vehicle design.

  • Peugeot was the first automaker to introduce a four-door retractable hardtop convertible in the 2007 Peugeot 407 Macarena; the convertible hardtop could fold back in just 30 seconds.

  • 2014 was a big year in convertible revival.
    • The 2014 Volkswagen Beetle Convertible was introduced in honor of the beloved original model.

    • Luxury convertibles cornered the market with the “most powerful and technologically advanced standard Corvette to date” in the 2014 Corvette Stingray Convertible.

  • 1922

    The first retractable hardtop convertible design was introduced by Ben P. Ellerbeck; the hardtop was manually operated on a Hudson coupe yet was never produced.

  • 1927

    A multitude of convertibles were introduced to the market by manufacturers like Buick, Chrysler, Cadillac, LaSalle, Lincoln, and Whippet.

  • 1929

    The Great Depression caused a slump in the sporty convertible industry.

  • 1934

    Automaker Peugeot produced the first power- operated retractable hardtop in the 601 Éclipse; the design was patented by Georges Paulin.

  • 1941

    Chrysler rolled out their retractable hardtop Chrysler Thunderbolt.

  • 1950

    Automakers updated basic 1940s convertible designs with window seal and rattling issues; convertibles like the 1950 Nash Rambler featured full-frame doors with a folding fabric top.

  • 1953

    The Ford Motor Company made waves in the newly-engineered Continental Mark II convertible with a servo-operated retractable roof; the $2 million concept was later rejected from the Ford lineup.

  • 1957

    Ford reemerged in the convertible market with the popular and reliable Ford Skyliner from 1957 to 1959. In the same year, convertible sales boomed to garner 5% of the market.

  • 1960

    Convertible sales rose to a high of 6% of the automobile market in the 1960s and dropped as low as 1% in the early 1970s.

  • 1961

    The 1961 Lincoln Continental convertible was introduced to revive the bland 1958 to 1960 Continental design. Sales boomed after a slump thanks to the beautifully designed Lincoln Continental sedan convertible; sales doubled in 1961 and increased 20% more in 1962.

  • 1968

    An inventive convertible variation was introduced, along with air-conditioning in fixed-top car models—Heinz Prechter launched a hardtop/convertible combination design in the modern sunroof. The entrepreneur partnered with Ford Motor Company to produce the first factory-made vehicle with a sunroof in the 1968 Mercury Cougar.

  • 1970

    Convertible sales declined directly related to the oil crises of the decade. Manufacturers dropped their convertible models in response; the1976 Eldorado Cadillac was called the “last convertible in America.”

  • 1982

    American convertible production was not dead, as many believed; the 1982 Chrysler LeBaron revived the US convertible market using the ever-popular K car platform. Once LeBaron convertible sales success boomed at 23,000 units, other automakers jumped on the drop top trend yet again.

  • 1983

    Chevrolet Cavalier Ford Mustang

  • 1984

    The Cadillac Eldorado convertible with Biarritz trim was reintroduced.

  • 1989

    Toyota launched the modern retractable hardtop MZ20 Soarer Aerocabin convertible, complete with an electric folding hardtop in a two-seater vehicle design.

  • 1995

    The 90s were considered the new era of contemporary retractable hardtop convertibles

    • The 1995 Mitsubishi
      3000 GT Spyder

    • The 1998 Mercedes-Benz SLK.

  • 2007

    Peugeot was the first automaker to introduce a four-door retractable hardtop convertible in the2007 Peugeot 407 Macarena; the convertible hardtop could fold back in just 30 seconds.

  • 2013

    the largest sliding glass panel vehicle design in the world

    • The 2013 Audi A8

    • The 2013 Lincoln MKZ

    The latest convertible technology to hit the scene was evidenced in the oversized sliding glass paneled roof, which ran from the rear of the windshield header to the top of the backlight.

  • 2014

    2014 was a big year in convertible revival

    • The 2014 Volkswagen Beetle Convertible was introduced in honor of the beloved original model.

    • Luxury convertibles cornered the market with the “most powerful and technologically advanced standard Corvette to date” in the 2014 Corvette Stingray Convertible.

Convertible types and styles vary greatly—based on

price range, manufacturer, and purpose

Convertibles may come as two-seaters or roomy four-seater models, affordable or luxury brand, hardtop or soft-top, mid-size or more powerful V8 engines, and manual or automatic. Luxury features can be further upgraded to include GPS systems, heated seats, automated climate control, iPod dashboard interface, keyless ignition, Bluetooth, sun-reflective leather upholstery, and built-in wind deflectors.

Convertibles of All Time

If you’re ready for a Sunday drive, you need the right convertible to complete the picture.

An investment in a convertible is money well spent, as both a lifestyle choice and mode of transportation. Here are 10 of the most impressive convertibles of all time for your inspiration:

  • What many consider to be the first manufactured convertible, the French Peugeot 601 Eclipse offered the first retractable hardtop roof on the market. More than half a century later, Peugeot is still going strong and manufacturing hardtop convertibles for the modern-day luxury driver.

  • The Morris Minor was a classic car of the 1940s that came in a number of body styles. One of the most popular styles, the Tourer, was the trendy convertible that every stylish driver considered a must-have. Sadly, popularity waned in the decades to follow, and the last Minor Tourer was produced in 1969.

  • Inarguably, the original Volkswagen Beetle is one of the most popular cars ever produced. Although the convertible version was not as prevalent in the 1950s, the adorable open-top Beetle was iconic nonetheless; convertible Beetle production lasted for approximately 30 years.

  • Classic cruising of the 1950s wouldn’t be complete without the Chevrolet Bel Air convertible. The Bel Air drop top falls within the class of Tri-Chevys, produced from 1955 to 1957.

  • This lux Ferrari convertible was originally valued at $14,000 with current estimates at $4.6 million today. The LWB, or long wheelbase model later replaced by the short wheelbase in 1960, is a breath-taking open top Ferrari that is guaranteed to turn heads on any stretch of open road. Enzo Ferrari outdid himself in this exclusive Ferrari design.

  • This flashy convertible puts the “sports” in sports car; originally valued at $5592, the convertible currently sells for over $80,000. Even Enzo Ferrari considered this model of Jaguar the “most beautiful automobile” he had ever seen. Picture yourself zipping through city streets with your love by your side—the Jaguar screams adventure, mystique, and sex appeal.

  • This 1967 convertible was originally valued at $3,950, with a current value of $23,288. You may recognize this Alfa Romeo from the smash-hit film The Graduate in 1967. The Duetto Spider is a classic status symbol turned pop culture icon, favored as a thrill-seeking 1960s ride.

  • The Saab 900 put family fun back in Sunday driving—the 1986 Saab 900 was the first of many Saab models marketed as more economical, family-friendly convertibles. The Saab 900 welcomed a new era of open-top compact luxury cars within the first generation from 1978 to 1993, followed by the new generation from 1994 to 1998.

  • The much-coveted Mazda Miata sold for $17,895 in 1995, with a current value of only $4327. The popularity of the Mazda Miata convertible may be attributed to its Fiat 124 Spider and Alfa Romeo Spider roots; the Mazda MX-5 Miata is the best-selling two-seater sports car of all time, according to Guinness World Records.

  • The new millennium brought the 2004 Aston Martin DB9 Volante, first priced at $160,000; current average retail value starts at $68,400. The impressive convertible had all the bells and whistles—silky smooth leather, real wood interior, and V-12 engine. Aston Martin convertibles are irresistible thanks to their infamous James Bond association.

Convertible styles and purposes are as unique as their driver

Because of their versatility and carefree nature, convertibles are a staple in American culture. Cruising, off-roading, zipping down the Pacific Coast Highway on a Sunday afternoon, and navigating metro traffic—you can count on a convertible to get you where you need to go in style.

SOURCES

  • Sass, Rob (10 December 2006). “New Again: The Hideaway Hardtop”. The New York Times.
  • Nerad, Jack. “Ford Skyliner”. DrivingToday.com.
  • “Why We Can’t Seem To Break Up With Our Cars.” thecarconnection.com.
  • “10 Fun Convertibles That Won’t Pinch at the Pump or the Lot.” Popular Mechanics.
  • “Top 50 coolest convertibles.” Top 50 coolest convertibles.

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