Happy Sunday! Welcome to Holy Shift, where we highlight big innovations in the auto and racing industries each week—whether they be necessary or simply for comfort.
As with all great ideas, we often wonder what sparked the thought in the first place (and in many cases, why we didn’t think of it ourselves). But when the open-top vehicle first came out, it wasn’t just an idea—it was the only idea. Thus, the basis for the convertible came about in the earliest of cars.
The style of every early vehicle out on the road was open to the great outdoors, whether they be without windows or without a roof. That didn’t change until 1906, when Popular Mechanics cites Cadillac as becoming the first manufacturer to introduce a closed-body vehicle. Just a few years later in 1910, Cadillac made closed bodies standard on its cars.
That move began what seemed to be the demise of the open-top vehicle. The number of cars on the road continued to climb, but the amount of convertibles dropped sharply—according to CBS News, open-top cars had gone from the only vehicles available prior to 1906 to less than one percent of automobile sales just three decades later.
As closed-top vehicles became more prevalent and economical to produce, their open counterparts fell out of the mix. Convertibles throughout the early decades of the 20th century weren’t as protective from the elements, either—according to Popular Mechanics, many were “leaky, drafty, noisy and insecure.”
In attempts to find a firmer solution to the problem yet still keep the convertible around, French automaker Peugeot introduced a retractable hardtop to its 601 model in 1934. (Take the bad jokes. Take them and enjoy them.) The design set a standard for others, and American manufacturers began to adopt it in the 1950s. But according to Autoweek, only a few dozen of the original Peugeot 601 hardtop actually sold.
Evidently, the hardtop wasn’t a permanent fix—there are plenty of (now more reliable) soft-top convertibles still on the road today. The surprising thing about Peugeot’s concept was how long in lasted. Per the Houston Chronicle, cutbacks in the wake of World War II resulted in that option ending after just five years.
As the sales numbers on the 601 show, general interest in putting the top down wasn’t high at the time. By 1936, convertible cars were a method of transport for the wealthy. Even then, Popular Mechanics adds that rattling and problems with window sealing plagued most cars—hardtop and soft—into the 1940s.
But, as if to put the universe back in order and the car tops back down, World War II later contributed to a resurgence in convertible popularity. As Americans went overseas during the war, they saw drivers in countries such as England and France taking soft-top roadsters out.
According to CBS News, that caused a resurgence in popularity heading into the 1950s. By that year, American car manufacturers all had at least one convertible in the lineup. The percentage of convertibles sold in the U.S. rose to six percent between 1962 and 1966, but the era of good fortune soon ended. From CBS News:
But by the 1970s, convertibles hit the skids in popularity because of three reasons, says [curator of transportation at the Henry Ford Museum, Matt] Anderson: safety, security, and the faster pace of life.
“People aren’t cruising down the road at 35, 40 miles anymore; they’re going 55, 60, 70 miles an hour,” said Anderson. “And that gentle breeze in your hair becomes something like a hurricane when you’re moving at that speed.”
In 1981, The New York Times even referred to the convertible as a “relic of the wind-in-the-hair era of driving” that “seemed consigned to the scrap heap of automotive history.” A majority of convertibles in the U.S. at that time were by virtue of imports and the last American convertible to roll off the line was the Cadillac Eldorado in 1976, but a change was on the way. From the Times:
But Detroit is moving to revive the production of convertibles, at least in a limited fashion. Although Government safety rules were often blamed for the convertible’s demise, auto makers say the real culprits were air conditioning, sun roofs and high-speed freeways.
According to the Times, an increasing amount of smaller companies offered convertible-top customization during the years of the convertible drought in U.S. factories. The Times added that rumored plans were in the works among both Chrysler and Ford to bring the convertible back, and not much was known about General Motors’ ideas toward the matter at the time.
The whispers heard by the Times proved true, and convertibles came back on the scene in 1982. The Chrysler LeBaron and Dodge 400 of that model year were the first U.S. vehicles to come in a convertible option since the 1976 Eldorado, and Ford and General Motors hopped back on the convertible bus soon after.
Despite all of its struggles—and predictions of its demise—the convertible top managed to weather the storms (the jokes are just too good today) in order stick around in today’s market. Thank goodness for that, because the “wind-in-the-hair era of driving” should never really have to come to an end.
If you have suggestions for future innovations to be featured on Holy Shift—in street cars, the racing industry or whatever you’d like—feel free to send an email to the address below or leave them in the comments section. The topic range is broad, so don’t hesitate with your ideas.