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The Wonderful World of Convertibles – 1

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Ragtops & Roadsters
By Alan Paradise – Photos by Alan Paradise, Bruce Wartlieb & courtesy of GM & Daimler-Chrysler Archives

They are the vehicles of romance, of sport and of freedom. They’re the drop-top, wind-in-your-face symbols of a carefree lifestyle. They are convertibles. No other style of car is as important to the essence of image and spirit as the convertible. It is the niche that has come to represent personal style, passion and status.

 

 

 These Franklin Mint pieces—a 1948 MG TC (left) and a 1935 Mercedes 500K—are two of the newest diecast convertibles representing the early years.

Born out of necessity rather than passion, the image of convertibles switched places in the early 1950s. Before World War II, automakers produced roadsters—low-cost cars (and sometimes trucks) with tops made of canvas stretched over metal bows. Popular cars were produced in this manner until the mid-1930s. The primary reason was that the technology of rolling steel consistently across large areas such as a roofline required highly skilled craftsmen and a great deal of time on the assembly line. Coupes and sedans of the era often had canvas tops secured to wooden ribs to bridge the gap from windshield to rear window.
During this time, the roadster was the least expensive car in a given brand’s lineup. For example, in 1921, Ford offered six models, four of which were open cars—among them was the Runabout. At just $325, it was Ford’s least expensive car. In contrast, if you wanted a Model T coupe, you had to shell out a staggering $725.
While all the world’s carmakers built roadsters, no company built more than Ford. It was only fitting that the king of auto production should change the purchasing habits of car buyers. In 1928, Ford introduced the Model A. For the first time, the coupe was marketed as the leader of the industry. With a retail price of $70 more than the low-end roadsters, coupes outsold the open-air cars. A year later, the two-door sedan outsold the roadster by a margin of two to one.

Convertible production rapidly declined throughout the 1930s, despite the fact that these were still the least expensive models of most brands. By 1938, the cost of producing such cars caused prices to ratchet up until the convertible became the most costly vehicle offered.
The marketing image of the convertible changed after World War II, and production skyrocketed as the automotive landscape of the ’50s exploded with more stylish and luxurious models.
There were many reasons for the convertible’s rise in popularity—a trend that lasted into the mid-’60s. The most important was image. To be seen in a sporty convertible came to mean being sophisticated, adventurous, fashionable and often financially and/or emotionally secure. Every automaker used the convertible as its halo vehicle, and even the most obscure company had at least one model with a fold-down top.
During the fabulous ’50s, Ford owned a large share of the convertible market. From 1949 to 1951, Ford sold a remarkable 142,366 custom convertibles. To put that in perspective, Chevy built 130,122 of its famed ’55 to ’57 Bel Air convertibles. Both the early Fords and the Shoebox Chevyswere groundbreaking designs that greatly influenced automotive styling into the next decade.

The 1958 Bel Air Impala was one of the most distinctive and beautiful American convertibles. The design lasted only one year, and 17,000 featured the drop top.

The 1960s saw an expansion of the convertible. As the decade rolled on, Ford, GM and Chrysler offered drop-tops in a wide variety of models. Just a few years earlier, each brand had offered a single convertible model, not including two-seat sports cars such as the Corvette and T-Bird.  By 1965, Ford offered four different convertibles, as did Chevrolet.  The two giants of the industry combined to sell more than 182,000 convertibles that year, 101,000 of which were Mustangs.  The makes were getting more plentiful, but the overall production was not as robust as it had been in the ’50s. That year also represented the final high point of American convertible production, as Ford and Chevy (continued on next page…)

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Updated: June 30, 2011 — 11:25 AM

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