My Thoughts On Why There Are Fewer Convertibles On The Road Today

Last week I exchanged a couple of email messages with Rick Beattie.  Rick is a former chairman of the Sports Car Club of America’s (SCCA) Road Rally Board and writes a monthly column about rallying the SCCA monthly magazine.  The discussion included a mention of a family-owned Chevrolet convertible which reminded me of some thoughts that I had last summer about why there appears to be fewer convertibles on the road today.

I began to think about this last summer when I was driving from my home in Franklin, Massachusetts to a car show in central Massachusetts.  Rather than drive out to the show using the Mass Turnpike, I decided to take some secondary roads as I had lots of time to get to the show.  It was a lovely warm, sunny, summer day, so I put the top down on the car to enjoy the weather.

It was a great leisurely drive at speeds that were as fast as the law and the traffic would allow.  As I was driving, I was thinking to myself that I was very fortunate to have a convertible car and being such an enjoyable drive.  Then I began to wonder why more people didn’t drive convertibles.  As I pondered this issue while driving to the show, I eventually concluded that there were two reasons for the apparent demise of convertibles:

  • Interstate highways
  • Air conditioning in cars

The interstate highway system greatly increased the mobility of Americans.  Also the highway interstate system increased the speeds that cars traveled at.  For example, on the roads in Massachusetts that I was traveling on as I went to that car show, the actual speed rarely got above 50 mph and usually was around 40 to 45 mph and got slower as I passed through the numerous small towns.  On the interstate highways the current speeds are a minimum of 65 mph.  Many cars cruise at speeds around 75 mph on the interstate roads.  Speeds that high cause significant winds and buffeting in the interior of a convertible car.  Occupants in convertibles, and women in particular, would find these winds very uncomfortable and very disruptive, especially to their hair.  And if women don’t like the top down, then the top won’t be down on the car.  And if women don’t like riding or driving around in a convertible, then the demand for convertibles will be reduced.  Obviously, these wind-related issues are not as significant if the car’s speed is not as fast.  

Rambler 770 Convertible (1)

Up To The 1960s Everybody Built Convertibles

On hot days the breeze caused by having the top down is a great way to keep cool while in the car.  Up until the late 1960s air conditioning in cars was relatively rare or of questionable effectiveness and reliability.   However since then, the capability of car air conditioning has improved greatly.  It is no longer necessary to have the top down in a car to keep cool.  Side vent windows have disappeared.  In fact, now it is unusual in the summer to see a car that even has a window rolled down!  Thus air conditioning has also reduced the demand for convertibles in order to keep cool while driving.

These were the two conclusions that I came to that have caused fewer convertibles to be seen on the road these days as compared to the time up to the 1950s.  Note that the interstate highway system was established in the 1950s and that good air conditioning systems really came along in the 1960s.

I would be interested to see what others think about my conclusions.

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7 Responses to My Thoughts On Why There Are Fewer Convertibles On The Road Today

  1. Clarence Westberg says:

    Another reason might be the sunroof. Owning an MGA I know the difference between a sunroof and a roadster but perhaps most don’t. Those that don’t know the joys of back roads in a roadster are missing out.

    • Hi Clarence. Thanks for that thought. It also implies that by extension that perhaps the reduction in the demand for convertibles in general also had an impact on the demand for the 2-two open sports car.

      I got the following thought from Paul Henshall via email:

      “Other thoughts on convertibles:
      Security and vandalism through the roof has become a very big concern. I would be curious if insurance costs for convertibles is higher than for metal tops.
      Replacement cost of a roof must be very high also, especially if not an insurance claim.
      I had a ’72 Cutlass hardtop with a white vinyl roof to simulate a convertible. What a challenge to keep that clean, and even with modern materials, convertible roofs take a lot of maintenance.
      The re-introduction of hide-away metal roofs seems to be a growing market sector. However, I have not seen many roof profiles that look attractive in the closed position. I believe historically, the first retractable roof dates to the 1930’s…
      An amazing convertible is Harald’s CLK, at highway speed, top down, quieter than my sedan. Plus a real parking lot showoff putting up the roof! A true marvel of engineering. But as you noted, where’s the trunk when you needed it in Germany…
      Rollover protection is nil of course. I always imagine the windshield bending down becoming a entrapment to front seat users.
      I was in a early 60’s Impala on the QEW, top down, 6 passengers, one in the rear was struck in an eye by something which led to medical attention.
      Bonus of course is that convertibles should be exceptionally clean inside… Everything flying out as speed increases!
      Some recent attempts at building a convertible have to be classified as band-aid solutions. Note particularly a PT Cruiser with top up, new VW Bug and the Mini Convertible, need I say more.
      However, a cute one was the 90’s VW Cabriolet!
      Curious about other takes..

  2. Mike Mazoway says:

    In the 70’s and 80’s it became increasingly difficult for the manufacturers to build a convertible that would pass the safety standards in place at that time. Roll over standards essentially outlawed the convertible. Large amounts of exposed scalp do not help the issue either.

    You are right in that highway speeds helped the demise of the rag top. It is difficult to maintain a conversation with the top down and a radio is a useless piece of equipment. Cell phones, iPods and other entertainment devices are of no value in one. Having had a couple convertibles I can also attest to how much fun they are when you take them out for a sporting drive on the back roads, thus the noise and leaks become merely a part of the fun. The sun is shining and it is still over 70 degrees outside, time to take my 1966 MGB out for a short spin. My wife just reminded me to wear a hat as I have a lot more scalp showing than in previous years.

  3. Jaak says:

    When it gets too hot we keep the top down on our 2006 Miata and turn on the a/c…best of both worlds 🙂

  4. I’ve been wondering too about this question. It’s sad really.

    I drive top down to work nearly every day. If it’s hot, the AC is blasting. If it’s cold, the heater is on. If it’s really cold, or raining the top goes up, but that’s rare. Highway speeds don’t bother me in the least. I upgraded my stereo so that’s not an issue either. I do see a few convertibles on the road, but it’s way too few, and half the time, they have the top up. I really don’t get it.

    Getting ready to sell my current 2-seater and buy a 4-passenger convertible, as I need to be a little practical. My choices were way too limited when I started searching, as my number one criteria has been and always will be convertible!

    • Hi Glenn,
      I like your attitude! I proibably do not have my top down as much as you due to climatic reasons, but I do have the attitude of thinking why do need the top up rather than it’s nice so I’ll put the top down.
      With a four passenger convertible, the ride in the back seat (especially at Interstate highway speeds) with the top down is much different from sitting in the front seat.
      Steve McKelvie

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