Convertibles are making comeback and proving popular with all ages

RIDING TOPLESS WITH YOUR FACE TO THE WIND

May 26, 1991|By Henry Scarupa

Bright and sunny days are a perfect invitation for a growing number of Americans to lower the top on their convertible and savor the sheer joy of driving alfresco.

Since Chrysler reintroduced the mass-market convertible witthe LeBaron in the 1983 model year, the ragtop has been making a steady comeback. The topless car had been dropped in the '70s by all three U.S. automakers for a variety of reasons, including an increased preference for air conditioning and the public's perception the auto was unsafe.

So what's the appeal now?

"It's fun," says Gail Weiner, 30, director of recreation for outpatient psychiatry at Sinai Hospital, who has been driving a red Volkswagen Cabriolet for the past year. "I keep the top down constantly and I enjoy it [the convertible] every time I get into it. I don't think I'll ever have a car with a roof again."

An aficionado of sports cars, Frederick A. Bianco, aadministrator at Towson State University, has also been sold on the convertible. He is now on his fourth, an Alfa-Romeo.

"It's hard for me to get away from the convertible," says the 42-year-old car buff, who has previously owned several hardtops. "It's the freedom I enjoy. You go out on a clear, sunny day and the wind hits you in the face. That's what open-air motoring is all about -- an expression of freedom."

In driving between home and work, he takes the long way over winding country roads and back streets to get a better feel of the car's performance and to enjoy the sensation of moving through the landscape. Even though the route adds time to his commute, he doesn't regard that as an inconvenience.

"The longer I drive the more fun I have with the car," explains MrBianco.

Karl Wittig Jr., a new car salesman for Larry's Mazda in Randallstown, sees a lot of starry-eyed buyers wander into the showroom to inquire about Mazda's RX-7 and Miata convertibles. Most are seeking the special thrill that comes with driving an open-top automobile.

DTC "People are looking for that freewheeling on the road," he says, "the sense of openness, the sound of the exhaust. It's like driving a motorcycle with four wheels, only it's much safer with the air bag."

Following its reintroduction eight years ago, the convertible became a sure-fire hit. Chrysler doubled its output of the LeBaron almost at once, turning out more than 300,000 in the intervening years, making it the best-seller of any four-seat convertible. Other manufacturers, here and abroad, followed with their own versions. One of the latest to get into the act is

Yugo, which is introducing a topless model this summer.

In 1989 the big three automakers manufactured 151,401 ragtops, according to the industry publication, Automotive News. Although convertibles made up just more than 2 percent of the 6.83 million cars produced in America that year, they often have the effect of a stunningly beautiful woman in a crowd of ordinary lookers. Heads invariably turn.

Today carmakers are bringing out new models appealing to a wide range of buyers, from the college kid to the country club crowd, from the young woman executive to her elderly, retired dad. There are more than a dozen different models, with prices ranging from just under $10,000 for the Geo Metro, manufactured in Canada by Suzuki for General Motors, to almost $93,000 for the German-engineered Mercedes-Benz 500 SL.

Ted Orme, spokesman for the National Automobile Dealers Association, wonders whether the market, specialized and limited at best, is not being "maxed" by the proliferation of convertible types.

"I don't think a salesman can talk anyone into buying a convertible if he doesn't have it in his head in the first place," he observes.

Car salesmen, an ever hopeful breed, point to a growing public yearning to tool around in a convertible. Mr. Wittig describes today's buyers as between 16 and 70 years of age, including more single women. Lou Carper, assistant sales manager for Chrysler-Plymouth West in Catonsville, finds many retired people are realizing their long-held dream to own a ragtop. And Steve Scarborough, salesman for Fox Chevrolet in Woodlawn, sees college students making a beeline for the affordable Metro, just as young people of a previous generation sought out the VW Bug canvas-top.

Unlike the early convertible, which often leaked in the rain, wadrafty in winter, handled clumsily on the road and was unsafe at any speed, today's ragtop stresses comfort and safety.

Mr. Scarborough explains that the modern convertible body has been reinforced to compensate for the loss of support ordinarily provided by a rigid top. An improved heater blasts warm air in the winter and air conditioning blasts cool air in the summer during hot, rainy spells when the top is up. Most convertibles now feature air bags, providing an extra margin of safety, while the new Mercedes sports an automatic roll bar, which pops up the instant two wheels leave the ground.

Still, many people feel more secure with a steel roof overhead rather than open sky while hurtling along an expressway at 55 mph.

Chuck Hurley, vice president for communications for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, says, "Obviously a convertible doesn't have the structural protection of other cars, increasing the risk somewhat, but we've not found a significant pattern of risk."

As with most love affairs, practicality and safety are not the chief attractions here.

Michael Marsden, professor of popular culture at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, regards the convertible as one of America's "strongest icons."

"It's impractical in most parts of the country," he says, "but it's still very desirable to many people because of its iconic value."

In other words, it's the image that counts.

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