Nothing says summertime like a top-down cruise. It’s a visceral experience, a tactile sensation. You’re moving through space and time yet connected to the world around you, a magic carpet ride on four wheels. Sights, smells and just the right song have the ability to transport you and your drop-top time machine to another place.
Early days of motoring were ripe with convertible conveyances. Indeed, early motor cars were little more than powered horse-drawn carriages and tops were generally non-existent or crude in their construction and operation. This did little to promote the automobile as an all-weather transport, and by 1910 Cadillac made the hardtop a standard feature of their product line as consumer demand grew. The 1920s saw vehicles with true convertible tops designed to be put up and down repeatedly. The Peugeot 601 introduced the world to the retractable hardtop in 1934, and Chrysler introduced their version on the 1941 Thunderbolt but by then, manufacturers had addressed many soft-top issues with better seals and roof stability features, Plymouth even offered a motor controlled convertible top in 1939.
Through the 1950s and '60s nearly every automobile manufacturer had convertible offerings in their lineup. The 1968 Mercury Cougar offered a compromise in the first factory-installed moonroof that let in light and heat but little else.
But it was the 1970s that put the brakes on drop top cars. A few factors conspired against the retractable roof, including the gas crisis, which took the wind out of the hair of most car enthusiasts (pun intended), and these were the target convertible buyers.
Speed limits were increasing on secondary roads, making top-down cruising an exercise in wind-blown survival. (This also may be where some disco-era hairstyles originated, but that’s just my unofficial observation). Increasingly more common, available and reliable air-conditioning systems kept roofs and windows up, too.
Although hotly contested, the most widely accepted reason for the demise of the convertible was the proposed new federal motor vehicle safety standards, which were to include rollover protection. Many of these proposals were never actually enacted, but it’s believed that automakers, looking to get a jump on the new regulations, began to wind down production to comply with these future regulations.
So sure was General Motors that the convertible was dead, their Cadillac division in 1976 offered the Eldorado billing it as “the last convertible in America.” Collectors, speculators and investors flocked to Cadillac showrooms purchasing all 14,000 units produced. Unfortunately, six years later, when Cadillac reintroduced its new Eldorado convertible, an unsuccessful class-action lawsuit was filed against Cadillac for misrepresentation in their previous marketing.
It didn’t take long for nostalgic car buyers to make their demands known, and by 1982, Chrysler introduced the LeBaron convertible based on the company-saving K-car platform, thereby beginning a revival of the affordable convertible. The next year, GM followed with the Cavalier convertible and Ford’s Fox bodied Mustang, already responsible for bumping up the image of that legacy pony car from the prior economy based Mustang II debacle.
Of course, there was always a contingent of open-air roadsters imported directly from Europe, but those mostly went away by the early 1980s as increasing safety and emission standards in the U.S. reduced their performance and aesthetics to such unacceptable levels that their manufacturers decided to pull out of America rather than try to comply. These roadsters, the likes of MG-Bs and Midgets, Triumph TR series and Spitfires, Fiat Spiders and various other marques were mostly two-seat sports cars and didn’t really fit the genre of the American cruiser.
Early SUVs were built with flexibility in mind, and many could swap tops between full- and half-length hardtops, as well as various soft-top styles. Jeep’s CJ series, the first generation Ford Bronco and IH Scout, were made to remove the top and doors, and the Chevy/GMC Blazer/Jimmy and early Dodge Ram Charger also had removable, if heavy, fiberglass tops.
These, too, were less than ideal street cruisers, and they lacked creature comforts and easily retractable top operation. Soft tops and frames on early SUVs were more like an erector set with a vinyl covering held down with numerous snaps that never all lined up. If you took the top down in the heat of the day and tried to put it up at night, it was a workout in stretching material and snap-rivet integrity as cool temperatures shrank the vinyl to an impossibly small size.
As the 1980s rolled on and more vehicles became available with the option of a full convertible or partial roof, T-tops that allowed the roof panels over the driver and passenger to be removed, sunroofs and Targa tops grew in popularity. Porsche offered the 911 and 912 in a Targa configuration that removed the entire roof panel, and earlier models came with a soft back window mimicking a true open-air experience with the added safety and rigidity of a roll bar.
An entire industry sprang from the demand for vehicle top removal. Larger concerns like ASC (American Sunroof Co.) handled top-chopping for corporations like Chrysler, while smaller conversion businesses like Griffith would turn a Toyota Celica into a Sunchaser or an AMC Eagle or Spirit into a Sundancer by removing the top and installing a fiberglass hoop that housed a soft, drop-down back window and a removable roof panel.
Having owned a Sunchaser in college, I can tell you it looked cool but leaked like a sieve in the rain. Fit and finish were definitely aftermarket, but for a kid in the 1980s, it was worth putting up with the squeaks and rattles and wet seats.
I was chatting with my buddy Dave recently, and he thought that car deserved a mention. We shared a lot of laughs and swapped a few cars back then, including this one, so it was a good excuse for a little relevant reminiscence.
The convertible has had its ups and downs (sorry), but as long as there are car enthusiasts out there, demand for convertibles will live as long as sunlight shines in the summertime.
Eric and Michelle Meltzer own and operate Fryeburg Motors, a licensed, full-service automotive sales and service facility at 299 Main St. in Fryeburg, Maine. More than a business, cars are a passion, and they appreciate anything that drives, rides, floats or flies.