27 July 2016

Embrace The Sky

Remember when we thought the droptops were doomed?

The evolution of the convertible in America had a Jurassic Park moment. During the 1970s, dinosaurs with retracted tops roamed the streets. There were Buick, Olds and Chevy thunder lizards; velociraptor MGs and Triumphs; Corvette and Mustang apex predators.

Suddenly, with the demise of the 1976 Cadillac Eldorado convertible Titanosaur, they all went extinct.

Then, in the early 1980s, automobile company bioengineers experimenting with fossil rag-top DNA brought convertibles back to life. And so much for the Jurassic Park comparison, because when the American convertible was resurrected in 1982, it was nobody’s idea of a Tyrannosaurus rex. The awe-inspiring monster convertibles were gone forever; the ’76 Eldorado had been fully the size and nearly the weight of a 2016 GMC Yukon XL with its roof chopped off.

When we hold a parade and a suitable perch is needed for a waving celebrity, dignitary or person wearing a sash, we’ll be depending upon ancient vinyl snap-on convertible boot covers from now until the end of time.

WHERE’D THEY GO?
What made the convertible leave us? How could we let a beauty like the Cadillac Eldorado go? It was the only example of haute 1970s American car styling to fully produce the intended magnificent luxury effect.

Looking at a ’76 Eldorado convertible brings a jumble of the finer things to mind — Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird wings, the architecture of Le Corbusier, a three-star Michelin chef’s best cutlery, the hip of The Nude Maja in Francisco Goya’s painting and Duke Kahanamoku’s surfboard.

The Eldorado was also an engineering marvel, directly descended from the front-drive 1967 Oldsmobile Toronado. The Caddy-exclusive 500-cid V-8 was mounted side-by-side with a wrong-way-around automatic transmission; the two were linked by chain drive. The real marvel was the throttle steer: There was none. The radical new drivetrain produced handling identical to the conventional old one.

But no amount of marvels could save 1970s convertibles. Sales had been declining for decades. Chevy sold 41,292 convertibles in 1955. Just 18 years later, the number was 8,350. In 1973, Road & Track tried to explain the convertible’s declining popularity. Among the magazine’s theories were greater travel distances, more high-speed roads, fabric-covered tops stealing convertible styling cues and long hair on men.

R&T may have been right about long hair. But hair was just one of the things that was loose and flapping around in the ’70s. Congress was showing an interest in consumer product safety. (A little late, I’d say, considering how dangerous the Vietnam War had been to consumers of that product.) Rumors were flying that convertibles would be banned entirely for fear that Americans would be flipped out of their vehicles. Carmakers were alarmed. But Americans had flipped out already. The real problem was the decade itself.

Speeding along in an open car in the 1970s, you could get beaten to death by your foot-long polyester collar points and yard-wide jacket lapels. Boogie Oogie Oogie booming from your 8-track might get you pelted with Pet Rocks and Rubik’s Cubes. A certain powdered substance then in vogue would scatter in the breeze. And there was no place to hang the disco ball. It was an indoor era.

Convertibles had already begun to disappear from dealership showrooms in the late 1960s as manufacturers turned more to sporty coupes and replaced convertibles with T-tops or sunroofs for open-air motoring. Each model seemed to go out — appropriately — in one final unobstructed-view-of-the-sunset blaze of glory.

The 1968 Rebel SST was the concluding fold-down from American Motors. AMC was known for styling that was bland or odd or both at once. Yet the SST was handsomely understated, with a 340-horsepower 390-cid V-8 that made a statement.

Ford’s exit from full-size soft tops was the 1972 LTD, with hop-up rear fenders, random sheet metal rib creases, that “Revenge of the Edsel” grille and the lumpiest front bumper seen until the 5-mph mandate. But rip the lid off the car, and the look begins to work. If there’s a 429 under the hood, forget about looks. The LTD will be going too fast to see.

Mustang convertibles continued for another year. By ’73, the Pony had gotten fat and was beginning to resemble something that could give birth to a 1974 AMC Matador coupe. But, take away the top and insert the Mach 1 351 Cleveland V-8, and a terrible beauty — instead of a Matador — is born. (Though, personally, I could do without the racing stripe on the hood.)

From 1975 to 1986, there was no Corvette convertible, either, but the marque bore the lapse better. The Mako Shark II-inspired C3 was, like the Porsche 356, a sports car with a drophead model that looked more like it had its pants down than its top off.

Aesthetically, the worst loss was the 1970 Chrysler 300 convertible. Chrysler’s “fuselage” styling, introduced in 1968, was perfected in the tumblehome clean sweep of the 300’s fenders and doors. And the manta ray scoop of integrated chrome bumper and grille bezel would have done Zagato proud — if Zagato had built cars with bumpers or chrome.

FROM ACROSS THE POND
Simple pleasures disappeared with the British roadsters. The Triumph TR6 went missing after 1976 and the Spitfire followed in 1980, while the TR7 (available as a convertible in 1979) and TR8 lasted into 1981. Meanwhile, the MG Midget limped into 1979 with a Triumph engine. The aged MGB lasted until 1980.

With the exception of the TR8, these were not fast cars. Rather, they were desirable for their nimble handling and their open-air motoring. While UK TR6s used a 150-horsepower version of Triumph’s 2.5-liter straight-six, Americans made do with only 105 horses.

The MGB’s venerable four started out as a powerplant for the 1954 Morris (and the 1953–61 Nash Metropolitan). At its 1.8-liter best, the engine produced 98 horsepower. At its worst, output was down to a meager 62, through a single carburetor.

The roadsters weren’t beautiful. The TR6 was a TR250 restyled by Karmann, without Ghia flair. What MG did to the front of the B to meet NHTSA bumper standards is a crime molded in black rubber. And British roadster convertible top mechanisms can be explained in two words: “all wet.” But no cars ever produced as much fun per mile per hour. With skinny tires and a fat heel-and-toe, you could thrill your date in a power slide while still obeying the double-nickel speed limit.

And it was impossible not to be cool in a British sports car. Jimmy Carter could have driven a TR6 with Bella Abzug in the passenger seat, and people would have thought they were Sean Connery and Jill St. John.

BACK IN DETROIT…
The GM B-platform rear-wheel-drive convertibles were cool-evoking, too, but with an opposite driving experience. I liked it, maybe because I learned to drive in a 1962 Buick Invicta convertible. Supposedly, these cars were a handling curse. I considered it a magic spell.

The ’62 Invicta was the B-platform in its splendor — 325 horsepower and 445 pound-feet of torque from the 401 Nailhead V-8, plus a body-on-frame low center of gravity, with 4,217 pounds of gravitas. Steering was as effortless as watching a hamster in a wheel (and had about as many turns lock-to-lock). Cornering was a matter of immensely predictable understeer that could be cajoled into a four-wheel drift, if you had the nerve. The brakes didn’t deserve their naughty reputation. They’d stop you at first base — once, if the drums were cool and dry.

“Land yacht,” however, was not a figure of speech. The GM B-platform was the keel laid down for almost all full-size GM cars from 1959 to 1996. That meant 37 years of rolling, pitching, over-the-bounding-wave ride. This is why you wanted the convertible. What’s the point of yachting if you’re not out in the sun and fresh air? Cooped up inside, it’s not yachting, it’s “land tug-boating.”

The 1975 final B-platform convertible could be had in a variety of forms — Buick LeSabre and Centurion, Oldsmobile Delta 88 Royale, Pontiac Grand Ville, Chevrolet Impala and Caprice Classic. But mid-’70s smog and safety considerations had jettisoned the power ballast from them all. The big Buick convertible’s horsepower had been halved since the days of my dad’s Invicta. In short, GM’s full-size styling aged gracelessly. Being honest, the ’75s look like rolling gated communities.

From the front, the Buick and Chevy resemble chromed air-conditioning window units, the Olds is walleyed, and the Pontiac needs a nose job. From the back, we see evidence of surplus production in GM’s Red Taillight Lens Division.

Nonetheless, we love these cars. They’re long, wide, fundamentally decent and built by people who didn’t over-think the thing. They’re patriotic. America is long, wide, fundamentally decent and built by people who didn’t over-think the thing.

CUE THE LAWSUITS
Maybe General Motors did over-think the promotional campaign for the 1976 Cadillac Eldorado. “It is the only convertible now built in America,” read the literature. “And it will be our last. The very last.”

The sticker price was $11,049 — more than twice what a ’75 Caprice Classic convertible had cost. Adjusted for inflation that’s $45,800. People wanted to pay more, and they did. A Baltimore attorney, supposing his daily driver to be an investment, paid a dealer $16,250 for a ’76 Eldorado convertible with all the options. Cadillac sold 14,000 and would have kept selling them if GM hadn’t run out of convertible top frame parts.

Not long afterward, GM announced the 1976 Eldorado was not, after all, “the very last.” Eldorado convertibles would be for sale again in 1984. The Baltimore attorney sued. He lost. His car is now worth about what he paid for it, not adjusted for inflation. (If he’d wanted the rarest 1970s convertible, he should have bought a 1971 Pontiac Grand Ville. Only 1,789 were manufactured.)

What made the convertible come back?

Well, it never really went away, and they were never really outlawed. The Porsche 911 Targa was sort of a convertible, if you were rich. So was the Ferrari 308 GTS, if you were richer. Or, if you were so cute you might pop, Beetle Cabriolets continued to be sold through 1979.

Additionally, custom convertible conversions began before production convertibles ended. California’s Milan Coach Builders crafted a Cadillac Seville Roadster in 1976. By 1979, Ohio-based Hess & Eisenhardt was taking the coupe out of Coupe DeVille and selling the result in Cadillac dealerships. In 1982, the Christian Science Monitor reported that custom coachbuilders were turning various American hardtops into convertibles at the rate of 1,000 cars a year.

Buick hired the American Sunroof Company to create a 1982 Riviera convertible. It was a modern version of 1953–54 Buick Skylark voluptuousness dressed in a sharply tailored power suit. By the standards of the day, it was powerful. Just not very. The 1982 Riviera’s 180-horsepower V-6 was eight ponies weaker than the 1954 Skylark’s ancient V-8.

Chrysler, with the help of specialty company Cars & Concepts, was first to move convertible production back to the factory. The 1982 LeBaron Town & Country convertible was as winsome, in its way, as the Riviera. Imitation wood trim was applied with sophisticated irony. The fake becoming the faux. However, the T&C was still a K car. It’s just one letter, but it says so much about unexciting driving.

Pontiac Sunbird and Chevy Cavalier convertibles followed in 1983, their blandness diluted with the boring. Throttle body-injected, two-liter, four-cylinder engines made opening the hood a dispiriting moment.

The 1983 Ford Mustang was no beauty, either. It was built on the Ford “Fox” platform. Think Mercury Zephyr. Now try to get that thought out of your head. But the Mustang had rear-wheel drive and an available 175-horsepower 5.0-liter V-8.

VW’s Rabbit convertible had already been around for three years by then. It was more of a kick to drive than any other FWD since the original Mini; or, it would have been had a GTI version been available.

No matter. A couple years into the 1980s, we had the sun shining on our faces again, the operatic aria of wind in place of opera windows and the moon instead of a moon roof. Fun had been revived.

What brought the convertible back was what destroyed it: The automobile industry suffered an oil shortage; economic downturn; ecological consciousness; government regulation; 1970s bad taste; asteroid impact. Drastic climate change caused convertible die-off.

But new, nimble, cute breeds of playfully gamboling top-downs emerged from their burrows when the 1970s were over.

Although, I wouldn’t try making a blockbuster big-screen thriller with theme park visitors threatened by a ravenous Pontiac Sunbird.

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