Those lazy

Those lazy, crazy, hazy days

Once upon a time, convertibles were cars designed only for balmy spring and summer days, and ideally meant to be mothballed for the rest of the year. Flimsy, draughty tops meant that a “soft-top” was not a car for the cold or the rain, so you needed to be either crazy or wealthy to own one.

I think of traditional British sports cars such as the MGs, Healeys and Triumphs of 50 years ago-beautiful to look at, superb to drive in fine weather. But, with fiddly tops that took ages to erect, “side-screens” instead of wind-up windows and crinkled, scratched sewn-in plastic rear “windows”, they required a good measure of stoicism to “enjoy” when the weather turned inclement.

Mercedes-Benz

As often happens, while mad dogs and Englishmen had their own ideas, the continentals had a different view. Germany, and later, France, arguably led the way in making the convertible more of an all-purpose car, one you could use all year round. From way back, big Mercedes-Benz convertibles had thick, insulated lining under the outer waterproof canvas covering.

And, looking at something more affordable (at the time, though you ll pay through the nose for one in good condition today), you only have to look at the double-layer folding top of the original VW Beetle convertible to see that its constructors had a different attitude to weather protection from the designers of, say an MG TC.

Of course, tops in those days were generally manually operated: in fact it was only in the late 1980s —apart from some big American ragtops —that electrically operated tops started to come onto the market. Initially, these still required “unclipping” from the windscreen, but today even that is part of the automated process. Taking protection even more seriously, Mercedes-Benz also pioneered the folding hardtop on the first SIX And Peugeot, working with coach-building company Heuliez, then developed a less pricey, but no less efficient, version, more suitable to lower-priced cars. The first to use the system was the 206CC, which was followed by models from other major manufacturers.

Arguments continue to rage about whether a folding hardtop (also known as a coupe-convertible or “CC”) or well-insulated soft-top is the better option. The styling of CCs is often compromised, a long “heavy” tail sometimes being necessary to house the mechanism and panels of the folding hardtop. Luggage space is also compromised in top-down configuration, the components taking up a large part of the “boot”. And a purist manufacturer such as Porsche will point out that the change in weight-distribution between top-up and top-down on a CC can actually change the car s road-holding characteristics. So, while BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and VW, for example, are happy with the CC option; Porsche and Audi prefer soft-tops.

The former will justify their choice by pointing out that the materials used for the tops are as light as possible, and that a slight compromise in weight distribution is acceptable in view of the greater security and insulation provided by the “solid” top. Porsche, on the other hand, will counter that the lightweight magnesium slats under the outer canvas layer of its latest 911 s soft-top provide as much security and insulation as the aluminium folding panels of its rivals.

Mercedes-Benz

Another point to know about convertibles is that, despite losing their tops, they are generally heavier than fixed-roof sedans or coupes due to the extra reinforcing required to provide the structure with the level of stiffness required to achieve good structural integrity and, as a corollary to this, good ride and handling. You ll often read about “scuttle shake”, the judder along the base of the windscreen that affects less structurally rigid convertibles.

Whether you prefer a CC or the more traditional “soft-top”, there are currently a large variety of convertible choices. And they start off at quite reasonable prices, beginning with “tiddlers” such as the Fiat 500C (at just under R180 000), Peugeot 207 CC (a little under R270 000), Mini-Cooper convertible (around R280 000) and Mini Cooper Roadster (around R300 000).

In the “mid-range”, folding-hardtop “coupe-convertibles” or CCs abound, with Peugeot offering its 307CC, Volvo its C70, BMW its 1 Series and 3 Series convertibles, and Renault its Megane CC. And, at the top end, just about everyone, from Mercedes-Benz to Porsche, Aston Martin to Lamborghini and Maserati to Bentley, offers a convertible variant.

If you re in the super-luxury league, just run your finger down the list and you ll find the topless option you need.