In Praise of Convertibles

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Sep 10, 2018

I’m a convertible guy. I’ve had one or more continuously since I was in high school. My twin brother and I almost accidentally acquired a bright red 1962 Chevy II ragtop (from my grandmother!) and I just loved that wind in the hair, smell-the-grass-grow thing that came with it.

In the summer, I almost never drive my convertibles with the top up. Why have one if that’s what you’re going to do? I see ads on 30-year-old convertibles that proudly boast, “top never down,” and (to quote a popular current event) I think we’re in Crazytown.

Look at that guy enjoying his surroundings in a 2018 Audi S5 Cabriolet. I'm not as suave as that guy. (Audi photo)

Convertibles seem to be in eclipse. Look at this from Bloomberg:

From 2011 to 2015, annual sales of convertibles in the U.S. dropped by 7 percent, according to data from Edmunds.com. In the same period, the U.S. auto industry at-large swelled by 37 percent.  Fewer than one in 100 vehicles sold in the U.S, now comes with a foldable top.

There are only 36 convertible models on the market now, down a third from the peak in 2008. Despite this sad news I was pleasantly surprised this week to get my hands on a sterling current example of the breed, a 2018 Audi S5 Cabriolet 3.0T Quattro Tiptronic. Long name, nice car. I’ve been driving it for the past week, and I’m struck by how similar it is—in conception at least--to my two Saab cabs, 1992 and 1996 900 Turbo convertibles. Euro convertibles have a continuity.

The Audi clocks in at a bracing $70,625, a price that includes a Bang & Olufsen 3D sound system I enjoy cranking. It’s darned sporty, but in the same way the Saab turbo is.

My 1996 Saab 900 Turbo has a fancy power top, and I've had to replace the tonneau motor. Now it's acting up again. (Jim Motavalli photo)

I wonder who’s buying cars like the Audi today. Since more than half of automobile purchases today are SUVs, the convertible has been relegated to a niche market. They won’t go away, but most people seem content to open their sunroofs every now and then.

One that got away, a 1963 Dodge Dart 270 convertible, just like Tom Magliozzi's old one. (Jim Motavalli photo)

But trust me, that’s not even vaguely the same thing as a full-on convertible. With the roof down, you’re half in, half out of the car. Instead of being blasted by air conditioning, you’re at the mercy of the real world. Bugs in the face, bird droppings, junk off trucks, it’s all headed your way. I wouldn’t trade it, and I don’t.

The current project is a 1992 Saab 900 convertible. The top is mildewed, but it goes up and down without complaint. (Jim Motavalli photo)

But there are tradeoffs. Here are a few convertible headaches:

  • The tops wear out. Canvas or plastic, you’re eventually going to get to the point where duct tape isn’t enough. The glass rear windows fall out, and the zippers break on the plastic ones—plus the once-clear plastic yellows and cracks. I paid $1,900 for a convertible top recently. Yikes. Who ever heard of replacing the roof on a sedan?
  • You can get caught in the rain. I have nightmares about my convertibles being caught in downpours, and it happened to me just last week. I went in to visit an ailing relative, leaving my Saab outside in bright sunshine. Minutes later it was pouring, and I didn’t realize it until the interior was thoroughly soaked. They take ages to dry out, and the inside of the windows steams up.
  • Getting Wet. You think the White House has leaks? Just try a Jaguar roadster with side curtains. There’s nothing like the steady drip, drip, drip on your leg to swear you off convertibles. 
  • Power tops are a pain. On my newer Saab 900, there are several electric motors involved, and I had to replace the one that controls the tonneau cover. Now its acting up again. Hydraulic tops are even more of a headache. The Audi’s top operates similarly to the Saab’s. Sure, it’s fine now, but just wait 20 years. People advertise these old Euro ragtops with phrases like, “The tops work fine in manual mode.” But these cars don’t have a manual mode. My 1999 Miata lacks a power top, and I don’t miss it because it’s simplicity itself to go topless in that car.
  • Unique parts. Convertibles have unique back seats, trim and switches that can be hard to find.
  • Noise. What did you say? Can’t hear you, the top is up. It’s not just wind. Convertibles, lacking roofs, tend to be flexible, creaking and groaning in a symphony you have to learn to respect. Not when they’re new, of course. The Audi is as tight as a drum.
  • Safety. If it flips over, well...I won't let it flip over.

But it’s all worth it. When everything is working, the weather is perfect, and you hit that top down button, all is forgiven. Ragtops rule!


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