Convertibles otherwise referred to as cabriolets, are passengers cars that allow drivers to ride with or without its roof in place. Each model uses a different method of removing and storing its roof. Driving in a convertible allows for outdoor enjoyment while offering peace of mind knowing that the roof is accessible when needed.
Over the years, convertibles have battled with reduced structural integrity and a lack of cargo space. Most convertibles utilize a textile-based, folding roof design. Some others include a retractable hardtop or detachable hardtop.
Most major manufacturers have offered convertibles as part of their major car lineup.
Other Names for a Convertible
Convertibles receive many names from customers and automakers. Some of the other titles include drop top, cabriolet, open two-seater, Cabrio, soft top, open top, spyder, or spider.
The name cabriolet also referred to a two-wheeled, two-passenger light-weight, a one-horse carriage that had a folding top. Cabriolet isn’t often used for this purpose anymore, and typically refers to a convertible instead.
In the UK, a fully enclosed convertible that has two doors is called a drophead coupe. They also name the convertibles with four doors an all-weather tourer.
History of the Convertible
Most early cars came without sides or roofs, naturally making them open-air versions. Towards the end of the 19th-century, more powerful engines were placed in vehicles so folding leather or textile roofs started being used.
Some examples of these early cars included the brougham, landaulet, or phaeton. Cheaper cars like the sporting roadsters, touring cars, and runabouts, were either open-air full-time, had detachable side curtains, or a basic folding top.
During the 1920s, automakers mass-produced steel-bodies so the closed models became accessible to buyers. That’s when the fully open vehicles disappeared from mainstream venues. In the mid-1930s, the small number of convertibles that were sold were geared toward the high-end luxury market instead.
The demand for cabriolets in America came as soldiers in the UK and France experienced these convertibles during the Second World War. At the time, there was nothing like them available for purchase in the United States. These early roadsters included the Triumph Roadster and MG Midget.
Growing Popularity in the US
U.S. manufacturers made many models throughout the 1950s into the 1960s. There were some compact-sized, budget-friendly options like the Studebaker Lark and the Rambler American. On the other end of the spectrum, there were also more expensive options such as the Chrysler Imperial, Oldsmobile 98, and Packard Caribbean.
In the 1970s, convertible popularity lessened as the travel speeds on major roads increased. As people drove the cabriolets faster, they found that the noise and wind became a nuisance at these speeds. There was also an increase in the proposed safety standard for the U.S. market at the time. With cars offering sunroofs and air conditioning, consumers began to move away from the convertible market.
While most manufacturers have produced their own version of a convertible, the most popular in the United States was the Mazda Miata, otherwise known as the MX-5 in other countries. It’s been in production since 1989 and Guinness Book of Records has confirmed it to be the bestselling two-seater, open-top convertible sports car in history.
Convertible Roof Designs
The soft-top is constructed from a textile material that’s flexible. Conventional materials used included canvas, cloth, latex, rubber, vinyl, rayon, and acrylic. The early convertibles were made from canvas. At the time, automakers had issues securing the materials needed to fulfill post-war orders. This limited their manufacture.
Most modern-day convertibles utilize a cloth-based construction. Many of them are made from two layers with the top made out of PVC and the lower layer using a fabric design. With the textile roof, it’s easy to add some other features to the folding frame such as a cosmetic lining or sound-dampening ability.
The majority of newer convertible models come equipped with a three-layer fabric for maximum insulating properties. The newer the vehicle, the more likely it is to have sound-dampening capability.
The detachable hardtop has been around since the 1950s. These roofs stow away in the car’s cargo space. When they’re in the car, they offer additional weatherproofing, durability, and soundproofing in comparison to the fabric tops. Some vehicles also come with glass rear windows and defrosters.
Some of the early detachable hardtop models included the Chevrolet Corvette convertible, Ford Thunderbird, Mercedes W113. On some early vehicles, consumers had the option to choose between the folding top design or a detachable hardtop.
During the 1930s, Ford offered a “Carson top” on some roadster and convertible models. This acted like a convertible but didn’t have the folding mechanisms so it has more of a removable hardtop personality and lowered faster.
Over the years, there’ve been so many improvements made to the canvas top convertible that the detachable hardtop design is rarely used. The biggest downside to a removable hardtop is that there’s nowhere to store most of the tops when they’re not in use. This requires the driver to store the top in a garage or other location away from the vehicle while it’s on the road. This poses a problem when the weather turns bad.
The retractable hardtop design is otherwise known as a coupe cabriolet or coupe convertible. It’s a vehicle that features a self-storing hardtop that automatically opens. It operates like the textile version but offers a solid construction.
The increased benefit of this style is an improvement in climate control and additional security. However, these add extra weight, cost, and mechanical complexity to the vehicle while reducing luggage space.
One of the first vehicles to introduce this design was the Toyota Soarer Aerocabin in 1989. While there were just 500 of these convertibles produced, the release helped this design to become more popular among car owners.
Other Convertible Features
Convertibles sometimes come with additional features including a Tonneau cover. When the folding convertible top is retracted, it often doesn’t hide all the mechanisms internally which exposes the underside to fading and sun exposure. With a Tonneau cover, the convertible top is better protected.
The wind blocker, otherwise known as a wind deflector, reduces the noise and slows the rushing air from reaching the driver and passenger. In the 2008 convertible Chrysler Sebring, engineers estimated that the wind blocker reduced the noise by up to 12 dB.
Other convertibles offer an additional heating duct directed at the neck area of the occupant. This is sometimes referred to as an Air Scarf. They’ve been seen more often in luxury brands like Audi and Mercedes.
Other convertibles offer a rear window that’s part of the car’s roof assembly. In the majority of cabriolets, the rear window was soft and constructed from plastic. However some use a glass construction to offer better weather and sound protection.
A significant concern among many consumers is the safety of a convertible. That’s why there’ve been many pieces of modern safety equipment designed especially for these vehicles.
Some of these equipment features include:
- Heated rear windows to improve visibility
- Rollover Protection Structures, otherwise known as ROPS. These use pyrotechnically-charged roll hoops located behind rear seats which deploy when the car rolls.
- A-pillars that are steel-reinforced
- Unique safety cage design. It’s shaped like a horseshoe and wraps around the cabin for increased strength.
- Side-impact airbags located on the door. These inflate upward unlike the curtain airbag, to offer additional head protection when the window’s open.
Roadsters are a version of convertible that are also called a spyder or spider. These open two-passenger cars offer a unique sporting appearance and ride compared to the typical open-air vehicle.
Initially, the term was used to designate a horse that was suitable to travel with. Eventually, the name spread to include tricycles and bicycles. By 1916, the term was defined by the U.S. Society of Automobile Engineers as “an open car seating two or three. It may have additional seats on running boards or in rear deck.”
The additional seating in the rear of the vehicle was called a rumble seat. In addition, the main seat sat further back than most cars, more like a touring vehicle. They usually contained a hooded dashboard as well.
The first roadster cars utilized a basic body that didn’t have doors, weather protection, or windshields. During the 1920s, these automobiles looked more like a touring vehicle with windshields, side curtains, basic folding tops, and doors.
They were available on automobiles from many classes and sizes. Some of the most common were the Ford Model T, Cadillac V-16, Austin 7, and the Bugatti Royale.
By the 1970s, the term “Roadster” became synonymous with an open-air vehicle. It’s mainly used when referencing a car that has a sporty character and appearance. They also seem to apply to the higher-end of convertibles; the models that are well-equipped.
Roadster Race Cars
Roadster vehicles include the front-engine AAA/USAC Championship racecars used in the Indianapolis 500. The drive shaft and engine are offset from the center of the car to allow the driver the ability to sit down inside the chassis. This facilitates a beneficial weight counterbalance perfect for the oval tracks.
The first roadster entered to race was built by Frank Kurtis and registered as a participant in the Indianapolis 500 of 1952. The driver was Bill Vukovich. He led the race most of the way until a major steering failure ended up eliminating him.
Vukovich went on to win both the 1953 and 1954 races with the Howard Keck team inside the same vehicle. Then, in 1955, Bob Sweikert won shortly after Vukovich was killed while leading the pack.
The front-engine roadsters disappeared from the competitions by the 1960s when rear-engine vehicles made their appearance.
The Cabrio coach is otherwise referred to as a semi-convertible. They feature a retractable textile top that’s much like the traditional design. The difference between the two is that the Cabrio coach has a B-pillar, as well as the C-pillar, and some other bodywork intact. All that’s replaced from a regular vehicle is the roof skin.
The biggest advantage of this design is that the original structure remains mostly intact leading to higher structural rigidity.
Convertible with Four Doors
Four-door convertibles existed at times, but are rare. The majority of production cabriolets were two-door models. Some examples of convertibles with four doors include the Buick Series 60, the Oldsmobile 98, and the Lincoln Continental. The only long-standing vehicle to be considered a four-door convertible would be the Jeep Wrangler Unlimited.
In 2006, Peugeot offered the 407 Macarena concept vehicle. It featured a top that folded down in just 60 seconds and had a steel reinforcing beam located behind its front seats. They even incorporated some LCD monitors into the car’s cross member to entertain rear passengers.
Over the years, numerous off-road vehicles featured a removable top. Some of the most well-known include the Suzuki Vitara, Jeep Wrangler, Suzuki Jimny, Land Rover Defender, Ford Bronco, Mercedes G-Class, and even some of the earlier models of the Toyota Land Cruiser. Most times, the soft top attached to the installation points or roll cage of the body.
The Landaulet is when the rear passengers of a vehicle are covered with the convertible top. This most often happens when the driver sits separate from the rear occupants by use of a partition, such as in a limousine.
Landaulets were commonly used in the 20th-century by public figures during formal processions. Now, they aren’t used often, mainly because of terrorist attack threats.
The Targa top, otherwise just called Targa, is a semi-convertible style that offers a removable section of roof with a full roll bar located behind the seats. The term started in 1966 with the Porsche 911 Targa and continues to be a registered trademark of the company.
Most Targa models feature a fixed rear window, but there are some with a folding or removable option. If a vehicle has an attached metal piece of trim that goes from one side of the car to the other by way of the roof, this is called a Targa bar, Targa band, or wrap over band.
There is a difference between T-tops and a Targa top because the T-top has a non-removable bar that runs between the windshield and rear roll-bar. There are also usually two distinct roof panels that sit about the cabin and fit between the central T-bar and windows.
Their popularity grew during the 1960s through the 1970s when the Department of Transportation discussed banning convertibles due to safety concerns.
In more recent years, the popularity declined in favor of full convertibles that have folding metal roofs or retractable hardtops.
The first retractable glass roof debuted on the 1996 Porsche 993 Targa. It retracted below the rear window. There was a shade to prevent the greenhouse effect from occurring. In 2014, Porsche released a motorized roof which replaced the original manual lift-out panels of earlier models.
Ferrari was the first automaker to release a hybrid variation between the folding metal roof and a Targa roof. The 2005 575 Maranello Superamerica had a 180-degree rotating roof. The Renault Wind from 2010 utilized the same concept.
NASCAR Convertible Division
Early on in NASCAR history, there was a convertible division. It debuted in 1956 and continued through 1962. There are still two variations of this in operation today: NASCAR’s Monster Energy Cup Series and the Can-Am Duel.
History of NASCAR Convertible Racing
In 1955, NASCAR purchased the Society of Auto Sports, Fellowship, and Education, otherwise known as SAFE. It was an all-convertible group of champions, but the majority of the drivers never made the transition.
This division ran from 1956 through 1959. Some of them raced in the Grand National, now known as the Monster Energy Cup. This pitted the cars against hardtops. In the 1959 Daytona 500, there was a qualifying race specifically for roadsters and another for the hardtop variants. At the time a third of the cars were convertibles. This led to the creation of the Budweiser Duel qualifying races.
The Bojangles’ Southern 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series held at the Darlington Raceway was also once a convertible race. This lasted from 1957 through 1962. The first Rebel 300 began in May of 1957 and got delayed one day due to rain.
NASCAR Convertible Racing Champions
A couple of champions came from the NASCAR Convertible Racing Circuit. They include:
- 1956, 1957, and 1958 Bob Welborn
- 1959 Joe Lee Johnson
Best Convertible of All Time
In a 2014 Motor Trend article, they created a list of the best convertibles of all-time. These included the:
- 1966-1960 Alfa Romeo Spider (Duetto, Veloce) Series I
- 1958-1961 Austin-Healey Sprite Mark I
- Bugatti Veyron 16.4 Grand Sport Vitesse
- 1959 Cadillac Eldorado
- 2014 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray
- 1967 Ferrari 275 GTS Nart Spyder
- 1965 Ford Mustang Convertible
- 1915-1927 Ford T-Bucket
- 1961-1967 Jaguar E-Type Series I
- 2012-2014 Jeep Wrangler/Wrangler Unlimited
- 1961 Lincoln Continental Convertible
- 1962-1973 Lotus Elan
- 2005-2014 Mazda MX-5 Miata
- 2013-2015 Porsche Boxster S
- 1962-1967 Shelby Cobra
4 Fun Facts about Convertibles
1 – With the 360-degree visibility inside a convertible, blind spots are less of a concern.
2 – It’s easy to transport your golf bag or other large objects in a convertible.
3 – Most modern convertibles utilize popup rollbars in the case of a accident. These protect your head from hitting the ground during a rollover incident.
4 – People attempt to make their own four-door convertibles all the time. Just check out these videos we found.
Frequently Asked Questions
Are Convertibles Safe? The IIHS has conducted extensive crashworthiness tests on a variety of vehicles and found that the death rates aren’t higher in convertible cars, but they conclude that a roof is still the safest option. Driving in a closed car allows your head and arms to remain inside the vehicle during a crash or rollover, which gives occupants less chance of injury. Most modern convertibles also come with sophisticated safety features that offer more protection than ever before.
Are Convertibles Fun? Not only do convertibles offer a classic, stylish look, but they can be a lot of fun to drive as well. There’s more headroom, which is great for taller occupants. Plus, there’s some additional visibility out the front without a roof and door frames.
Who Makes Convertibles? Most major automakers offer at least one convertible model in their lineup. In 2017, some of the most popular cabriolet models included the Ford Mustang, Audi A5 Sport, Nissan 370Z, and the Fiat 500c.
Do Convertibles Leak? While the materials used on convertible roofs have improved over the years, there’s still no guarantee that all the water will remain outside of the car. Even with a hard-top, it’s possible to end up with some leaks, especially after heavy snow or rain. That’s why it’s best to store a convertible in a garage.
Do Convertibles Cost More to Insure? Typically, yes. There are several reasons for this. First, they tend to cost more and expensive vehicles cost more to insure. Second, they often have higher horsepower which causes rates to rise. They are susceptible to vandalism and theft which insurance companies don’t like. Finally, they tend to weigh more than their non-convertible counterparts which remains a factor for insurance rates.