Motoring Memories: The history of the convertible motoring memories
1939 Plymouth Convertible
First convertible with a power top
Photo: Bill Vance

by Bill Vance

In the beginning, all cars were open, evolving as they did from buggy and bicycle technology. Weather protection was secondary to making cars run reliably, and few were used in the winter.

When reliability had been achieved, attention turned to comfort and convenience. Drafty, leaky canvas tops gradually gave way to closed cars, helped by the introduction of the Budd all-steel body on the 1914 Dodge Brothers car.

The open roadster (two-door), and the touring (four-door), yielded progressively to the closed coach and sedan. But by 1925 the sale of new closed cars exceeded open ones, whose sales gradually dwindled to a small percentage of the market, where they have remained.

Although the open car gradually lost market share, it never lost its appeal entirely. It was seen as more dashing, adventurous, and sporty, which is why convertibles are more valuable as collectibles.

As a point of definition, a convertible is generally defined as a car with a folding top and wind-up windows. An open car with side curtains rather than wind-up windows is a roadster or touring.

Other names have also been applied to convertibles, such as phaeton and cabriolet, the latter being favoured in Europe. But in North America the term convertible is most universally recognized.

If one point could be identified with the emergence of the convertible it would be 1927. That year saw true convertibles introduced by Buick, Cadillac, Chrysler, duPont, LaSalle, Lincoln, Stearns, Whippet and Willys.

More followed in 1928, although the sale of closed car still predominated, now taking about 90 per cent of the market, up from 10 per cent a decade earlier.

In 1929, the onset of the Depression hurt the automobile industry, especially the sporty end of the spectrum where the convertible resided. Ironically, it was also the era of some of the most extravagant convertibles ever. Such manufacturers as Auburn, Cadillac, Chrysler, Cord, Duesenberg, Marmon and Packard offered them, although they sold in very low numbers.

A breakthrough came for convertibles in 1939 when Plymouth introduced the first convertible with a power top. It was activated by pneumatic cylinders, and removed a major inconvenience of open cars.

After the 1942-45 war-time production interruption, manufacturers returned to building pre-war design, including convertibles, until they could develop new ones. Then came the prosperous ’50s, and by 1957 convertible sales reached five percent of the market. Ford dominated convertible sales in the ’50s as it had in the ’30s. Such imported sports cars as MGs, Jaguars and Austin-Healeys also gave open cars a sales boost.

Then in the late ’60s convertible sales started to slip. They fell from a high of close to six percent of the market in the ’60s, to about one percent in the early ’70s.

The decade of the ’70s was a dismal one plagued by two oil crises, and the clamour for cars with the seemingly incompatible requirements of higher fuel economy and lower emissions. The fun seemed to be gone, and few people thought about convertibles.

As convertible sales continued to slide, more and more manufacturers dropped them. It was not surprising when Cadillac announced that its 1976 Eldorado would be “the last convertible in America.”

Importers continued to offer open cars, and some, like the Volkswagen, would even take on a kind of cult aura. But the Eldorado was seen as the end of the North American production convertible.

There were several reasons cited for the demise of the North American convertible in the ’70s. Some claimed it was due to impending roll-over legislation, which never came. And sun/moon roofs offered a type of open air motoring without the convertible’s disadvantages. It was even said that the three-point seatbelt wouldn’t function in them, which we now know is not true.

What really happened was that American manufacturers quit building convertibles because the public stopped buying them. They were merely heeding what the market told them.

Then in 1982, after the sad ’70s were past and electronics were giving us better running cars, the fun started to return. Motorists were again ready for convertibles.

When Chrysler’s saviour Lee Iacocca wanted to spruce up the image of his newly rescued company, he brought out the 1982 Chrysler LeBaron convertible on the ubiquitous K-car platform.

It was an instant success. Iacocca had shown that he still had the good car sense that had led him to offer Ford’s ultra-successful Mustang. Hoped-for first year LeBaron convertible sales of 3000 ended up being 23,000. Other manufacturers were quick to follow.

After a five-year hiatus, American manufacturers were again making convertibles. Iacocca was a double hero; he had not only saved Chrysler, he had revived the glamorous convertible.