Why the convertible is a car-lover’s dream

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1902 Mercedes Simplex
1902 Mercedes Simplex (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

In the beginning there were no hardtops.

The early cars were all open to the elements – it was a matter of simplicity and weight. Engines were small – a 1902 four cylinder Mercedes Simplex, in which I rode a few years back, generated 40 horsepower. It was a lot for the day, but every bit of added weight meant slower speeds.

Over time as automotive technology advanced, hardtops took over for all the obvious reasons. It was better to move at high speeds encased in a weather-resistant enclosure.

By 1925 hardtop car sales exceeded open cars, or convertibles, which had come in to being along with advancements in manufacturing processes and design. Convertibles haven’t ruled the sales charts since, though they still maintain a position of preeminence in the hearts and souls of sunshine-loving motorists worldwide.

Sunshine Special
Sunshine Special (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Today registration of convertibles in the United States hovers around the 1 percent mark, with annual sales in the neighborhood of 150,000 vehicles nationwide and declining. However, the romance remains, in large part due to the appearance of convertibles as characters in films and television series.

In “My Cousin Vinny” Joe Pesci drove a 1962 Cadillac. In “Pulp Fiction” John Travolta drove a 1964 Chevy Chevelle Malibu. In “Thelma and Louise” Susan Sarandon did most of the driving in a 1966 Ford Thunderbird. Dustin Hoffman drove a 1966 Alfa Romeo Spider 1600 Duetto in “The Graduate.” And of course Matthew Broderick drove the replica of the 1961 Ferrari 250 GT Spyder California in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”

The list goes on.

The television show “Route 66” featured a 1961 Corvette convertible in season one, and newer models each succeeding season. The Monkees drove around in a modified Pontiac GTO that was stretched and made in to a convertible. Jed Clampett’s truck was more like the original cars – no top at all – and was built for the show from an old Buick body and frame. On “Get Smart” secret agent Maxwell Smart played by Don Adams drove around in a 1964 Sunbeam. Don Johnson, on “Nash Bridges,” drove a customized 1971 Plymouth Barracuda. And the guys on “Entourage” tooled around in a 1965 Lincoln Continental.

All cool cars. But my favorite is probably the one that FDR drove: a 1939 four door Lincoln convertible called the Sunshine Special. I love the idea of him in a parade in that car with his long cigarette holder smiling at the crowds.

(Video: The author drives the newly-opened California Incline in a convertible)