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The American Convertible

Convertable 1Like any manual or automatic soft-top or hard-top that has ever been on the road, the American convertible has had its ups and downs. Some decades they’re popular, and some decades you can’t find them anywhere. Of course, it also depends on the place, because convertibles weren’t exactly known to be comfortable in northeast winters. In California, “where it never rains,” convertibles are a perfect fit!

Convertibles Go Up and Down

Still, it does one good to recall that the first cars weren’t even convertibles – maybe you could call them roadsters – because they weren’t made with any top at all. Eventually a soft top was added to keep out, well, not much, because there weren’t any doors to speak of. As automobile technology progressed, fully-enclosed cars became the norm, but convertibles were still produced to give people a choice.

Unfortunately, two world wars really put a bind on automotive innovation, and it wasn’t until the heady days of the 1950s that the convertible really took off. It was a new era after the war, the economy was booming, and automobiles were just one way that people were celebrating. Convertibles were fun, stylish, even famous. Songs were written about them – “Red Ragtop” by Tim McGraw and “Hey Little Cobra” by The Rip Chords come to mind.

Convertable 2Celebrities made convertibles even more desirable, because who didn’t have the urge to plunk down over $5,000 (>$45,000 today) to ride like Elvis Presley in his pink 1955 Cadillac Fleetwood Sixty Special? Eric Clapton’s “Riding with The King” features him driving around a black Cadillac convertible with B.B. King in the back seat with Lucille. This album really ought to be listened to in a convertible with the top down, preferably at Sunday-driver cruising speed and wearing dark sunglasses – B.B. King, Lucille, and Eric Clapton action figures optional.

Those heady days came to an end, however. The economy tanked in the mid-1970s when gas prices skyrocketed due to the OPEC Oil Embargo, the EPA started to enforce lower emissions and higher fuel economy, and the NHTSA started to enforce higher safety standards. Convertibles couldn’t compete, typically more expensive, heavier and thirstier at the pump, and not exactly crash-worthy, pretty much toys for the rich and reckless.

Today, it’s hard to find a convertible, and for these very reasons, but every once in a while, we see a new convertible hit the market. True, today there are barely thirty convertible models on the road, many of them in the deep end of the pool, but new technology has made them just as quiet, comfortable, clean, and safe as their sedan relatives. The technology does add a little to the price, but having a choice is a wonderful thing.

Is the convertible making a come-back? Maybe not, but a convertible just might be your ticket to open air and perfect for a top-down fall road trip!

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