There’s just something magical about a convertible. Feeling the wind through your hair, and hearing that growl of the engine surround you as you accelerate – it all just seems to make the driver feel more alive behind the wheel. Whether it’s a cliffside ride overlooking a magnificent ocean view, slowly cruising down a busy city street, or taking a jaunt in the countryside, having the roof down lives in our imaginations as the drive that can help us achieve true freedom.
Popularized for decades in Hollywood film lore, the convertible gained mystique as the car that seemed reserved for the rich and famous or the rebel without a cause. They have all kinds of names – from cabriolet to roadster, to drop-top, ragtop, and tourer – each of these simply referring to a vehicle with a roof that can be removed and stored.
So where exactly did the idea for convertibles come from? Let’s take a quick look at the evolution of a car that’s managed to persist in the imaginations of the most fervent auto fanatic as the ultimate driving experience.
From Horse-Drawn Buggy to the Open-Air Vehicle
When cars were first invented in the early 19th century, they were nothing more than motorized versions of the horse-drawn carriage. Slow-moving as they were, the first cars simply didn’t need roofs, and most were built without them.
Once the more powerful internal combustion engine was invented towards the end of the 19th century, cars became a lot quicker, creating the need for a fully enclosed cabin for comfort and safety. Sturdier frames and bodies followed to include rather rudimentary foldable fabric or leather roofs, eventually leading to full steel-bodied frames.
The Beginnings of the Retractable Roof Explained for Auto Mechanic School Students
By the time fully enclosed steel-bodied car production ramped up in the 1920s, early convertibles were still around, but had all but disappeared from the roads due to primitive designs creating an uncomfortable ride for drivers.
It was Peugeot that took the roofless car to the next level in 1934, with Georges Paulin designing the first retractable, self-storing roof. Students in auto mechanic school will no doubt recognize this roof design, which has stood the test of time as the go-to retractable hardtop of the convertible.
Dissatisfied with the continued need to tuck the roof away manually, it was Plymouth that advanced things further in 1939 with its game-changing power-operated convertible top. Like magic, the car roof could now be easily raised and lowered with the simple push of a button.
Continued Innovation to Meet Every Budget
After American soldiers in the Second World War experienced a taste of the MG Midget and other early versions of the modern convertible during their time in Europe, intrigue about the vehicle began to spread across the pond.
Recognizing an increasing demand for the cabriolet, US automakers continued to work on technological advances to resolve issues with noise and draftiness, and overly inflated price-tags. Newer models began to be drummed out to meet every budget, from the Chrysler Imperial and Oldsmobile 98 for the luxury market, to the Rambler American and Studebaker Lark, which became token toys of Middle America.
The Sunroof Overtakes the Fully Open-Car Concept
The popularity of the convertible began to wane in North America with the exciting introduction of the hardtop sunroof, designed by Heinz Prechter and introduced into mass production with the 1968 Ford Cougar.
Not only could the driver experience the feel of the open air with this invention, but they also lost the noise and draft that turned drivers off convertibles at higher speeds. The convertible market was also deeply impacted throughout the 1970s by proposed US government safety regulations that never came into fruition, but nonetheless ground production and sales to a halt.
How the Convertible Resurrected and Endured
After nearly a decade of convertibles losing their spark, the public’s taste for them was reignited in the 80s, with a wave of new inexpensive soft top options introduced from all the major US automakers. To this day, the soft top convertible remains a hot seller across North America due to its simple and inexpensive design.
As you may discover in automotive school, most automakers throughout the world have produced some version of the convertible, and many continue to enjoy profits from the concept that saw its humble beginnings connected to the horse-drawn buggy. Convertibles may have had their ups and downs throughout history, but have nonetheless stood the test of time in the imaginations of car lovers around the world.
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