In Depth

Stephen Bayley in praise of the convertible

The design guru sings the praises of the convertible and attempts an explanation of the irrational appeal of driving with the roof down

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Wind in the hair, grit in the eye, sun on the face, flies in the teeth and, if in town, noxious diesel particulates in the nasal passages, plus soot on your collar. Thus, the pitiless engagement with nature and pollution made when you boldly choose a convertible. You must suffer to be beautiful.

There are few better examples of the magnificent absurdity of human desire than wanting a car with no roof. We could have a perfectly sealed pod, isolated from noise, weather, dirt and insects. Our pod could be thermally and acoustically protected, climate-controlled, discreet and invisible. Instead, if we have money to spare, we will buy a car that charges extra for discomfort.

The irrationality does not stop there. An element of the convertible’s appeal is a vague suggestion of racing cars. But convertibles perform less well than their hardtop counterparts. The loss of a roof means a loss of structural rigidity, so suspension and steering work less well. Necessary stiffening adds weight and, if the convertible roof is actually deployed, aerodynamics are worse. So, it also costs more to go slower.

But who ever said that consumers are rational? Putting the roof down immediately connects us to primal notions of escape and freedom that are essential to the religion of the motor car. The 1966 Alfa Romeo Series 1 Spider Duetto might not have been such a wonderful machine, but the sequence from The Graduate with Dustin Hoffmann driving his red example across the Bay Bridge from Yerba Buena Island to the Embarcadero has located it for ever in the popular imagination as a symbol of young love and hopeless yearning. Another literary convertible? Jay Gatsby’s bright-yellow, ragtop Rolls-Royce: the triple distillate of arrogant, doomed wealth.

There’s a clear hierarchy of convertible types, each with subtly different meanings.  Some of the names derive from the coachbuilding trade: a cabriolet, for example, was originally a two-seat horse-drawn carriage. According to Pininfarina, inheritors of the greatest coach-building tradition, the spider (no one can explain that etymology) is ‘la vettura sportiva per eccelenza’ – the highest expression of the sports car. A roadster is not really a convertible, because the hood does not actually convert; rather, it needs to be completely disassembled and put in the boot – the original Porsche Speedster was an example. Not terribly practical but, often, the most wonderful things on earth – lilies, for example – are not. Then you have drop-heads, soft-tops and tourers. Buy a convertible and increase your vocabulary.

In this language of convertibles, you have every nuance of cupidity. It’s as if status itself can be calibrated by the precise method used to convert your car’s roof from open to closed: the stately country-house tourer and the sexually predatory spider bracket the emotional scale. Today, an extreme convertible – a Ferrari California, perhaps – has a solid roof that, in a mechanical ballet of electro-hydraulic actuation, deploys into the boot. This performance can still stop crowds on a street. 

The first crowds gathered sur le trottoir for such a show in Paris in 1934, when Georges Paulin’s Peugeot 402 Éclipse Décapotable – which translates as ‘beheaded’ – effortfully stowed its hard top beneath a vast and wobbly clamshell tail. But the locus classicus of mechanical actuation was the fabulous Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner, a masterpiece of machine-age hedonism and elaboration manufactured between 1957 and 1959. 

It took 40 seconds for the Skyliner to stow its roof, a process involving 10 power relays, the same number of limit switches, four lock motors, three drive motors, eight circuit breakers and 610ft of wiring. Despite a 300hp V8 engine, all this extra weight meant that the Skyliner’s six passengers on two vast bench seats could be accelerated to 60mph in a leisurely 10 seconds. But, if the sun is shining, what’s the hurry? Contemporary owners of the delightful smart cabrio merely punch a single button and wait only moments until they become Dustin Hoffmann.

Personally, I have an interest in sunshine and fresh air that’s quasi-erotic in its intensity, so I adore convertibles. I was given a classic MG for my 21st birthday and here I learnt the disciplines, the pleasures and pains, of convertibility. The stiff, unyielding Leathertex was attached to the body by nasty press-fit snaps called Dzus fasteners, which were certain to break your nails. The same roofwas in a loose relationship with a crude metal frame with finger-threatening hinges. The whole lot took about five minutes to raise or lower. In fact, the process was so painful that I soon began to leave the hood perpetually stowed, having learnt that wonderful secret of the convertible: as long as you keep moving, the rain does not get you.

There, if you like, is another example of how the convertible car – absurd yet desirable – is a metaphor of life itself. We are always in pursuit of pleasure and need to keep moving. You’ll mess up your hair but, at the same time, you’ll keep smiling.

Stephen Bayley is one of the world’s best-known and most outspoken commentators on art and design. He says, these days, the sunroof of his Mercedes-Benz is never closed.

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