1986 Chrysler Town and Country Convertible
1986 Chrysler Town & Country Convertible. Click image to enlarge

Story and photo by Bill Vance

After being fired from his job as president of the Ford Motor Co. by Henry Ford II in 1978 (“I just don’t like you” was Ford’s explanation), Lee Iacocca surfaced at the ailing Chrysler Corporation a few months later.

In his new job as president, soon to become chairman, he was faced with a formidable task: pull this once mighty corporation back from the brink of bankruptcy.

Through a combination of charisma, hard-driving leadership, U.S. government loan guarantees, and the sturdy K-car that spun off an unbelievable number of variations, Iacocca pulled it off. He gradually nursed Chrysler back to health and was able to pay off its loans by August, 1983.

Iacocca was always a flamboyant executive, so when he got Chrysler back on its feet, he wanted to start injecting a little excitement into its car lines; and what better way than with the revival of the darling of alfresco motorists, not to mention car collectors, the convertible.

In the beginning all cars were open, directly descended as most were from buggies and carriages. Weather protection was minimal, provided by flimsy fabric tops and side curtains.

Then motorists discovered how much more pleasant it was to be warm and dry in a closed car. By 1925 the closed car had surpassed the roadster and convertible in popularity.

Even though the first true convertibles, such as the LaSalle with snug warm tops and roll-up windows appeared in 1927, closed-bodies continued to dominate.

The open car always had more panache, and was the one that drew customers into the showrooms, however customers usually ended up buying a sedan. Nonetheless, there was a sense of excitement about flying along in a convertible with the wind in the hair and the sun in the face.

The arrival of imported sports cars in the 1950s, first from England and then from other countries, heightened the interest in open cars. Through the 1950s and ’60s, North American manufacturers steadily sold five to six percent of their total production as convertibles. Then in the ’70s something strange began to happen, interest in open cars declined steeply to less than one per cent of the market.

Although there is no definitive answer as to why this happened, there were a number of contributing factors, among them the feeling that the decade of the ’70s was not a happy one for motoring.

Problems in the Middle East quadrupled the cost of gasoline and even placed its supply in doubt. Added to this was the relentless pressure for lower exhaust emissions and increased fuel economy, which resulted in some rough running cars. It brought a new term, “driveability,” into our language.

There was also the rising concern about safety, ignited by consumerist Ralph Nader, adding to the perception that the convertible was less safe than a closed car.

The result of all this was that interest in convertibles waned to the point where they were no longer a profitable proposition. As the market dried up, domestic manufacturers gradually abandoned the segment.

By 1976 Cadillac announced that it would stop building its open Eldorado (14,000 would be built), and advertised it as “The last convertible in America.” Many people bought them as collectable items, often paying premium prices in the hope that their value would quickly escalate.

That seemed to be the end of an era, the completion of the evolution from the fully open American car to the completely closed one, except for the increasingly popular sun/moon roof. Then the extroverted Mr. Iacocca announced that the “New Chrysler Corporation” would reintroduce the convertible.

He approached it by having an experimental Chrysler LeBaron convertible built, and driving it as his own personal car. It was an immediate sensation. As Iacocca wrote in his 1984 autobiography: “I felt like the Pied Piper. People in Mercedes and Cadillacs started running me off the road and pulling me over like a cop. ‘What are you driving?’ they all wanted to know. ‘Who built it? Where can I get one?'”

Apparently based on nothing more than these reactions, in other words, without the benefit of the usual market research, Iacocca decided to get back into the convertible business in 1982.

It was meant to be an image builder for the company, and for the reliable but prosaic K-car. It proved to be the right move; sales went far beyond projections for the Chrysler LeBaron/Dodge 400 convertibles. As Iacocca stated in his book: “Turned out, we sold 23,000 the first year instead of the 3,000 we had planned.”

Others quickly responded. Buick brought out a limited edition convertible Riviera in 1982, and Chevrolet and Ford were back with open cars for 1983. The fun, as epitomized by the convertible, had returned to motoring.

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