Rectractable hardtop convertibles finally catch on

July 18, 2007

I’ve been spending more and more time helping folks select and buy cars. In fact, combined with the time I’ve spent at shows, races and working on my own cars, it has left little time to write content beyond my weekly “Sam Barer’s Sound Classics” newspaper column.

One of the most intriguing product classes to many new car buyers is retractable hardtop convertibles. It seems that I can’t go more than a week with someone asking me my opinion of retractable hardtops.

So what do I think of them? As Tony the Tiger says: “They’re great!”

To the non-enthusiast, it’s easy to think that retractable hardtops are a new phenomenon. Even hard-core collector car hobbyists usually don’t know the technology’s full history. In 1933, Georges Paulin designed a folding hardtop system for coachbuilder Pourtout. It appeared initially on a single1933 Hotchkiss, but by 1934, the feature was integrated on a number of Portout-built Lancia Belna éclipse, Peugeot 301 éclipse and Peugeot 601 éclipse examples. The idea was revisited in 1950 and 1952 by Citroen on two different one-off show cars.

The best known production retractable hardtop was the Ford Skyliner, which appeared for 1957. Over a three year production run, just shy of 50,000 Skyliners were built with the retractable hardtop option, which added $400 to the price. While a technical work of art, the complicated system of wires, solenoids and motors proved troublesome. Of course, the same could be said of similar 1960s Lincoln Continental soft tops.

In 1995 Mitsubishi revived the idea on its 3000GT Spyder. Despite drawing rave reviews, the model was axed after around three years of lackluster sales. In its defense, the performance coupe market in America was drying up amid high gas guzzler and luxury taxes.

So what makes the new entries into the segment different than these predecessors? Not much, really. Unlike these early examples, however, just having enough competitors gives credibility to the need for the feature in the marketplace.

The bottom line pros and cons are very simple. On the pro side, hardtops reduce noise and body flex, increase visibility and structural safety, improve styling, and last longer than cloth soft tops.

There are downsides, though. Hardtop convertibles weigh more, usually reduce trunk size and are more expensive to buy. In terms of reliability, they are now no more troublesome as standard soft top systems.

As I’ve always said, selecting a car is about prioritizing criteria and understanding tradeoffs. Retractable hardtops make convertibles more pleasurable as four-season vehicles at the expense of a little performance and a larger price tag.

VW and Pontiac are both offering products with retractable hardtops. While the Eos offers an interesting and cost-effective product, I’ve received poor feedback about the Pontiac’s level of quality and sophistication.

Mazda offers the best of both worlds. One can buy a Miata with soft or retractable hardtops. This enables consumers to drive both and see what a difference the technology makes.

Volvo’s C70 is the ticket for those desiring a retractable hardtop car that seats four comfortably. Out the door around $55,000, it isn’t cheap, but certainly less expensive than the $80K Cadillac XLR and the near six-figure two seat Mercedes SL550.

Undoubtedly the best retractable hardtop out now is the BMW 335i Convertible. Despite weighing 3900 pounds, the car accelerates and handles like a sports car. With the top up, it is like a luxury sedan. This twin-turbocharged sport-luxury convertible is so darn good that they have been sold out since deliveries started in late March. Last weekend I convinced my father to put a deposit down on one – he’ll get his sometime in October, just in time to enjoy the benefits of the hardtop during rainy Pacific Northwest fall.

Rectractable hardtop convertibles look to have finally kicked a 70-plus year gimmick image. For good reason, the feature will continue to shine and just get cheaper, lighter, faster, stronger, and more widely available in the future.