There are days when it is a shame to call myself a native Californian.
The most typical scene in classic California iconography has been the convertible. Always with the top down to bring in the sun and the air (air quality varies on location here), the convertible is a sign of a true tear-round vehicle in a state where the climate encourages such top-down motoring.
However, this California native never experienced driving a convertible in his home state. Los Angeles is a convertible town – the San Fernando Valley is no exception to this rule. Why did it take bouncing across the country into the northern tier to finally experience a convertible?
It took me 31 years since getting my driver’s license to drive one. Since then, I have welcomed these temporary roofed machines in quite the hedonistic way. To answer the “why,” I just was not all that comfortable in them.
There is a deeper reason, which continues today. My caveat for convertibles is this: As long as I can fit behind the wheel and see though the top of the windshield without having my vision cut off. That is it. Nothing more. I just want to feel competent enough to get behind the wheel of one.
Because I did not feel comfortable having little or no protection from rollovers above me, it does not mean that I hated them. On the contrary, I admire plenty of them over the years to want to try to experience them sometime.
To compile this list of Five Favorite convertibles, I have to look way back at the ones that met my criteria – driven or otherwise. Oh, this should be easy…
Or, was it? You decide…after all, it is still summer.
1964 CHEVROLET IMPALA: By the time I was born, automotive design dove into the squared-off look. The absence of fins and the integration of older design elements into a smoother look dictated American automotive design for another decade or so. In many cases, some of these car designs were clean and neat. Convertibles were no exception – they were simply the most elegant cars around at the time. Quite popular, too! This is why the Chevrolet toned down their full-sized models to a squared off interpretation of the body first conceived in 1961. By toning down the design, they sold a convertible that would have resonance – that is, if you follow Low Rider and Hip-Hop culture. Instead of snickering, the conclusion is for every Ice Cube, Snoop Dog and Dr. Dre video featuring a customized Six-Four adds even more value to this elusive convertible. Elusive? Try finding one that is in great condition for “normal” prices? When they hit the auction stand, expect to mortgage the house on one – customized or not. That is the legacy of the ’64 Impala convertible.
1966-82 FIAT 124 SPIDER/1983-85 PININFARINA AZZURA: You may argue that it is more of a roadster than a convertible. Fiat did not intention the 124 Sport Spider to be similar to their true two-seat 850 Spider, but realistically only two can get on this ride. Pininfarina came up with an alluring body to put upon a shortened 124 rear-drive chassis with a canvas top to finish out the look. To me, it was stunning, but even more stunning than the Brits and Alfa Romeo? The dealmaker was the installation of a General Motors 3-speed automatic gearbox to the 2.0litre engine starting in 1979. It would end up being the only convertible of its kind that I would be able to drive (except Alfa installed autoboxes a few years later and the Mazda Miata came with one in its second year). More importantly – they are still lovely to look at years later.
1970 DODGE CHALLENGER/PLYMOUTH BARRACUDA: Chrysler knew they had one of their most revered products ever made in their hands when the Barracuda moved onto its own platform in the fall of 1969. By adding a Dodge version – a legend was born. Until now, all I concentrated was the coupe, similar to what our family owned. Moparians would point out that both models came with one of the most beautiful convertibles (in my humble opinion, of course) of the era. To cut the roof off of the coupe was a simple feat back then. This was accomplished without robbing the essence of the design was the hallmark of the Barracuda/Challenger ‘verts. The classic shape and silhouette of these pony car twins is one sight you would never forget.
1987 CHRYSLER LeBARON CONVERTIBLE: Lee Iacocca gambled on the K-Car – a lot. When he introduced the upmarket LeBaron for 1982, he introduced it with a classic convertible. Granted, there was only one window on the side, it marked a serious reboot for the droptop in America. Chrysler’s next act was to create a convertible from the ground up. Enter the next LeBaron. On the J-Body, development with the coupe was done with more emphasis on the structural integrity of the convertible. Therefore, the convertible was purpose-built, thus enjoying a very long life in the marketplace. It remains a true American classic, even with the turbocharged engine under the hood. If there was one vehicle that symbolized open air driving in my first decade of driving, there is no question it would be the LeBaron.
2011 LEXUS IS 250C: You never forget your first convertible. Since I have no real recollection o the 1955 Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight Starfire convertible my mom took me home from the hospital in, this one will do. The first ever retractable-roofed vehicle commanded by yours truly was not just any old drop top. It was a luxury conveyance borne from a compact premium sedan. The IS was quite special for various reason – some of which you may have to go back in the archives to find out. For a brief moment, I was able to do the inevitable – drive with the roof down. Granted, it was just 50F. Yet, to finally feel the thrill of top down motoring for one shining moment was well worth it.