CONVERTIBLES

The return of the ragtop

THREE CHEERS for the car that brought romance to our lives, wind to our hair and new meaning to summer in the city. The convertible is back. And not a moment too soon.

American convertibles died a slow death, beseiged by federal crash standards more rigid than those for the space shuttle and by skyrocketing insurance rates on cars whose passengers were spilling out in rollovers. Not since April 1976, when the final Cadillac Eldorado convertible rolled off the assembly line, have we experienced the exhilaration of riding in a new ragtop.

By now, most of us know that Lee Iacocca’s boys at Chrysler were the first to re-introduce the American convertible last year with the Chrysler LeBaron/Dodge 400 fraternal twins. Those cars rekindled a fervor for windblown hair that, because of pent-up and forgotten demand, soon became a riptide. Convertibles have always been car dealership drawing cards, with a premium price to enhance their exclusivity, and the Chryslers were no exception. Introduction sticker prices hovered near $14,000.

The Mustang convertible originally was scheduled to debut several months ago, but production delays pushed the Job One date back to this month. When the 1983 Mustang is unveiled, with its redesigned front and rear ends, five-speed transmission and 5.0-liter high-output engine under the hood, cruising on Saturday nights will never be the same.

Perhaps the most sensuous new convertible of the lot is the new Buick Riviera. The Riviera was given head surgery months ago and introduced as an ’83 at that time, selling for $23,994.25. Its gently undulating flanks accommodate the new folding top as if it had always been designed to do so. As the new ultimate flagship of Buick’s top status car, the open-air Riviera is one of the best-engineered of the new crop of convertibles.

Of course, when Detroit got out of the convertible business, there were plenty of folding-top cars still around. Triumphs and MGs abounded (now, sadly, their era has also passed). The Alfa Romeo Spider Veloce was and remains a perennial favorite with roadster buyers interested in a bit of performance; Fiat is still building its Spider 2000 and has also plugged in a turbocharger for thrilling driveability.

And as far as foreign makes go, the stout of heart (or the foolhardy) have always had the option of anteing up about $170,000 for the Rolls Royce Corniche convertible. And if that was too much for the ready cash flow, the slightly less expensive -nothing in this league is cheap -Aston Martin Volante roadster is available for about $117,000.

Those who have wanted an American convertible since 1976 have had to resort to expensive “chop shops.” Although several of the car doctor establishments performing automotive surgery are competent, reliable, professionally managed engineering outfits, the urge to fill the ragtop market vacuum saw some shops establishing clinics where your coupe was brought in and given a sex change, making it over into a drop-top. Necessary bracing provided by the rigid metal top was then missing, and in some cases was not restored with bracing to the frame and windshield pillars. Torsional flex in the body could, at the least, make getting the top up difficult. At the worst, it could make the car dangerous to drive.

That’s the difference in the fresh convertible faces coming out of Detroit and other motor capitals. The engineering homework has been done, but nowhere with more finesse than at Porsche. The convertible will be at its very best when the 1983 Porsche 911 Cabrio is introduced. Its designers must have received bonuses -they saved an aging design, made a wildly popular car even more desirable and made a car that not only works, but works well.

Porsche hopes to supply all its dealers with at least one demonstrator car by February 1983. This is a car that is targeted to sell at a rate only 5 percent higher than the coupe from whence it springs, meaning about $32,000 to $35,000 in the United States.

Clearly, it’s time to stock up on hairspray.

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