Like badass custom built trucks, bubblegum, and bourbon, the convertible has become synonymous with American culture over the last century. Millions of Americans have opted to go topless just for the hell of it. But when sales began to slump a few years back, and refused to bounce back, it was a noticeable shift in American auto culture.
According to a recent report by Bloomberg, “fewer than one in 100 vehicles sold in the U.S, now comes with a foldable top,” and despite all of their modern mechanical magic, very few people want this 1%. Data from Edmunds.com shows that from 2011 to 2015, annual sales of convertibles in the U.S. dropped by 7%, while in the same period, the U.S. auto industry grew by 37%.
“Look at why SUVs are so popular: the higher ride height, the safety, the utility. Convertibles are the exact opposite of all that,” says Bloomberg Intelligence analyst Kevin Tynan.
Even though convertibles may not be the most practical vehicle, they certainly are fun. Argue all you want about how they are heavier, pricier, slower, less rigid, and less safe than a hardtop, but this is the missing link between motorcycle and automobile, and we cannot let it go extinct.
This is a freedom-inducing, “I couldn’t care less about responsibility” kind of car, designed for fun and little more, and the shear amount of sports cars that are still being made available as a convertible serves as testament. Everything from the Ford Mustang to the Mazda Miata are infamous for going around town topless, and with cars like the Range Rover Evoque seen here opting to go this route, this trend of driving with the wind in your hair still seems quite alive.
But looks can be deceiving. Bloomberg’s report says “this year, only 36 vehicles come in top-down versions, almost one-third fewer than during the market’s peak in 2008,” with the fastest disappearing version being the daily driver. Everything from the Volvo C70 and the Toyota Solara to the Volkswagen Eos and the Chrysler 200 are fading from sight, leaving us with small open top cars like the Fiat 500c, Smart Fortwo, and Mini Cooper.
Still, there’s a bit more to it than preferences because a lot of it has to do with driving habits, government regulations, automaker interest, and the way in which the modern American operates these days.
A study conducted by NPR last year shows that new, more strict fuel economy regulations are partially to blame for the impending extinction of the convertible. Jack Nerad of Kelley Blue Book speaks of his owns experiences: As an avid classic convertible Corvette owner for over 40 years, Nerad says that even though he lives in an area of California that’s ideal for driving one, his Vette rarely leaves the garage.
“You typically don’t drive one when you have one, frequently,” Nerad says, adding that convertibles are “typically the second or third car because while fun, they lack practicality.”
Many convertibles also still come with cloth tops, which are easy to damage and even easier to break into, and are prone to being smaller, less comfortable cars for taller individuals. Plus, rear seat room is typically reserved for small kids and Oompa-Loompas, and since they are usually prone to being quite noisy at higher speeds, a lot of owners prefer to ride with the top up and the air conditioning on in summer months.
But back in the 1950s and 1960s, the golden age of convertibles, air conditioning wasn’t a standard feature but a luxury add-on, and since going topless was the ultimate cooling element, the frame and body of most cars remained separate. Cars nowadays are made using unibody construction, and automakers can no longer easily turn something like an Accord into a convertible by lopping the top off.
Engineering woes aside, ragtops are simply less fuel efficient. Since automakers need to get their fuel economy gains up to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025, the inclination to pursue these vehicles is very low. Convertibles are also typically heavier due to all of the the mechanisms required to raise and lower the roof, and Nerad says that this is counter-intuitive to the direction in which automakers are headed.
But not everyone is giving up on the open-top side of automotive engineering. Rod McLaughlin of Mazda describes the redesigned MX-5 Miata as “the most unadulterated encapsulation of everything we are.” General Motors has also recently gone to bat for the iconic car design by launching the Buick Cascada, and luxury automakers like Jaguar and BMW continue to crank out killer convertible options for enthusiasts.
“I don’t think the days of the convertible will ever go away,” McLaughlin says, “It’s cyclical and there’s a point where people feel they do need to drive other cars … and there was a point when everyone wanted a station wagon a while ago.” Let’s just hope that he’s right, because losing the convertible entirely would be an automotive travesty, regardless of how impractical they may have become.