July 18, 2007
1951 Chevrolet Bel Air hardtop convertible. Click image to enlarge
Story and photo by Bill Vance
Although true hardtop convertibles are becoming popular now, there were a few earlier attempts that weren’t so successful.
In the beginning, virtually all cars were convertibles, most descended from open carriages and buggies. Rudimentary canvas tops were normal as carmakers were more concerned with mechanical reliability than passenger protection – and automobiles were rarely operated in the winter anyway.
As reliability improved and cars were used year-round there was increased interest in weather protection. Enclosed cars gradually evolved, helped immeasurably by the introduction of the all-steel body by the Dodge brothers in 1914, thanks to the steel-stamping genius of Edward Budd of Philadelphia. By 1925 closed cars surpassed open ones in sales.
Nonetheless open cars always retained an air of intrigue and excitement. Alfresco motoring was more romantic, and convertibles became higher priced and more collectable.
In spite of their allure, convertibles had disadvantages. They were more expensive to build and maintain, could be leaky and drafty, and were noisier than closed cars. Folding tops deteriorated, and before power operation they were often difficult to erect. Why not combine the best of both; a hardtop that looked like a convertible?
Industry lore has is that the phoney hardtop convertible idea evolved because a Buick executive’s wife loved the look of her convertible but always kept the top up to avoid mussing her hair. Her husband took the story to the office and the result was the convertible that didn’t really convert.
The big splash for hardtop convertibles came in 1949 when General Motors introduced the Cadillac Coupe de Ville, Buick Roadmaster Riviera and Oldsmobile 98 Holiday coupe. Although they had fixed roofs their two-tone paint schemes, pillarless design and disappearing side windows made them look like convertibles with the tops erected.
Although popularized by GM, the idea goes back a long way. Again it was John and Horace Dodge and their 1916 Dodge Brothers car with the “California” top. When the removable frame between the side windows was taken out and the windows lowered a true “hardtop” feeling was achieved.
The next step came from Chrysler just after the Second World War. In 1946 it built a few prototype hardtop convertibles based on its woodsided Chrysler Town & Country coupe, but didn’t put it into production. Chrysler revived it in 1950 after GM showed that there was a viable market.
GM’s upscale hardtop convertibles were an instant success, and it followed up in 1950 with the Chevrolet Bel Air and Pontiac Chieftain hardtops. Within a couple of years all domestic manufacturers except Kaiser-Frazer, who couldn’t afford it, had hardtop convertibles. In 1953 one of the prettiest hardtops, the Studebaker Starliner coupe, made its appearance.
Hardtop convertibles continued to gain popularity, with the next big development coming in 1955 when GM introduced the four-door Buick Riviera and Oldsmobile Holiday hardtop sedans.
As before, other manufacturers soon followed. It was just a short step from there to a four-door hardtop station wagon, and it came first on little American Motors’ 1956 Nash Rambler Cross Country. Oldsmobile and Buick hardtop wagons followed in ’57.
The faux hardtop convertible continued as a staple on the North American automotive scene into the 1970s, and then largely died out. In that dismal automotive decade the public simply lost interest, as it had with true convertibles.
We must also note that, just as today, there were some real hardtop convertibles that actually lowered their tops just like a regular convertible. The first came from Peugeot in France in 1934 when Peugeot unveiled its Eclipse coupe model with an electrically operated hard top. The rear-hinged deck lid rose up and the top slid back into the trunk.
1958 Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner hardtop convertible; photo courtesy Stephen Foskett. Click image to enlarge
A little more than 20 years later the idea was revived by the Ford Motor Company when it introduced the mid-1957 Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner retractable hardtop. Compared with the Peugeot it was a complicated affair that required six electric motors instead of the Peugeot’s one. The reason was that the Ford was a much larger four/five passenger car with a considerably longer roofline.
This required the top to rise up and slide into the trunk as did the Peugeot’s, and the leading edge of the roof had to fold under. Trunk space was reduced to a small rectangular washtub-like container. The Ford Skyliner proved just too complicated and was discontinued in 1959.
True hardtop convertibles have made a comeback and they are much more efficient than Ford’s retractible, although trunks continue to be compromised. Slick-folding hardtops now come from Mercedes-Benz, Lexus, Cadillac, Pontiac, Mazda and others. Chevrolet even offered one on its SST pickup truck.
Today’s folding hardtops are the real thing, but those ersatz hardtop convertibles of yore met the desires of a small niche in the market that wanted the advantages of a hardtop with the appearance of a convertible.