Convertible cars evoke sensations such as feeling the wind in your hair and the sun on your face while you cruise in style down a highway. This feeling is attractive to many motorists, which has led to many types of convertibles being designed by car manufacturers.
The convertible is the iconic symbol of motoring freedom. Convertible technology has changed over the years of automobile history to produce innovative, more effective, and safer versions of these cars. Car manufacturers create improvements resulting in new types and styles.
Different types of convertibles have emerged in the automobile industry due to the different designs of folding roof mechanisms and the materials used in the roof, combined with the need to conform to the car’s style.
What is a Convertible Car?
A convertible, or cabriolet, is a type of passenger car that has a roof designed to be retracted or removed to enable open-air driving. The mechanisms and methods of retracting and storing the folding roof differ depending on the style of the time and the designs preferred by the manufacturer.
One of the main attractions of a convertible is the ability to drive in the open air but with the convenience of deploying the roof when it is needed.
The design of a convertible car allows for open-air driving while also providing the option of a roof when needed.
Creating a convertible car requires major modifications to the structural engineering of the car to compensate for the loss of roof rigidity.
In the early history of the automobile, all cars were open to the elements and had no roof. As cars became more common, faster, and more powerful, the need for a roof became a priority in automobile design.
A folding roof on cars is not a new concept, with an example of this being the Daimler Grafton Phaeton, produced in 1897, which had a folding soft top roof.
When solid roof cars became the norm, the convertible took on a different connotation in the motoring world.
The convertible took on an air of class and sportiness when the open-top cars were no longer the norm. Car manufacturers began producing convertible versions of their sportscar models, which quickly drew the attention of the motoring public and increased demand.
1. Soft Top Convertible
The soft top convertible is one of the earliest convertible designs, and the first versions were made from cotton canvas which was woven tightly enough to make it waterproof.
The soft top roof is flexible, easy to manipulate, and secure to a folding framework to retract and fold the roof smoothly and easily.
The scarcity of cotton canvas after World War II and the improvements in plastic and nylon led car manufacturers to explore other materials for soft top convertibles.
Other materials used for soft tops include vinyl, PVC, latex, butyl rubber, nylon, and acrylic fibers. The soft top roof was usually constructed in layers. The outer layer is the most waterproof material, while the inner layer is more cosmetic to fit the interior colors and design of the car.
Sandwiched between the inner and outer layers of the soft top, manufacturers include soundproofing materials to reduce the noise experienced inside the car when the roof is in the deployed position.
The roof on soft top convertibles can be compressed to a compact size, making it easier for car manufacturers to completely hide the folded roof in a compartment behind the seats.
This makes for a neater profile for the car when the roof is down and protects the rooftop fabric from damage while it is folded down.
The textile roof or soft-top convertible design is typically seen in sportier model cars because of the limited space to stow the folded roof.
Cars that have included soft top convertibles in their range include the Porsche 911 Carrera S Cabriolet, the Mazda MX-5, the BMW Z-8, and the Ferrari 360 and 430 Spider.
2. Detachable Hardtop Convertible
Hard top convertibles differ from soft tops in that the roof is constructed of a rigid material, which can be a plastic material or metal.
The rigidity of the hard top presents challenges for removing the roof to enjoy open-air driving on a warm summer’s day.
The hard top has some advantages over the soft top, including better noise suppression and weatherproofing when the roof is in position and better security. The roof material is also more durable and hardwearing, but it also has some disadvantages.
There are two types of detachable roof designs in this convertible class. The first is where the roof is divided into several panels, which can be manually removed and stowed in a compartment in the car’s trunk.
The second style is where the roof is in a single piece that must be removed and stored separately from the car. The roof would typically be removed and left in your garage when you want to drive with the car in an open-top configuration.
The downside of both of these detachable hardtop convertibles is that the roof removal process is entirely manual. The roof is also not easily deployed if there is a sudden change in the weather. You would need to seek shelter to replace the roof panels or wait until the bad weather passes.
The detachable hard top design was particularly popular in the 1950s and 1960s and was featured on cars such as the Ford Thunderbird and Chevrolet Corvette.
Detachable convertible roofs have been included in car models since the 1950s. However, they lost popularity due to their inconvenience, the improvement in soft top materials and storage mechanisms, and the introduction of retractable hard top convertibles.
However, some car manufacturers still offer a detachable hardtop convertible option for certain models.
3. Retractable Hardtop Convertible
The introduction of the retractable hard top mechanism provided the best of both worlds, with a robust solid roof that can automatically be folded and stowed in a compartment in the rear of the car.
Retractable hard tops have been around as a concept since 1919 but only saw production in 1934 when it was featured on the Peugeot 401D Coupe Eclipse.
Improved retraction and storage mechanisms have made the retractable hard top a popular option across a broad spectrum of car models, including convertible versions of sedans.
The retractable hardtop roof is usually made from metal and has several advantages over soft-top convertibles. The retractable hard top is more secure, has better noise reduction, and allows for effective climate control in the car when the rooftop is deployed. The weatherproofing of this type of convertible is superior to that of the soft top, and it is a more durable construction.
There are some downsides to the retractable hardtop, which has posed challenges to car designers. The roof and the mechanism to retract the roof are considerably heavier than other types, adding substantial weight to the car.
The retraction mechanism is required to be more robust and complicated, adding complexity to the car and more components that can go wrong.
Stowing the rigid roof is typically achieved in the car’s trunk, which takes away a significant amount of trunk space for packing luggage.
The added complications of the mechanism and engineering that goes into these cars generally make the cost of a retractable hardtop convertible substantially more expensive than other types of convertibles.
The 1957 Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner is an example of a classic car with this convertible configuration.
Modern examples of the retractable hard top include the McLaren 570S Spider, Ferrari Portofino, Ferrari 488 Spider, Mercedes-Benz SL Roadster, and the Mazda MX-5 Miata RF.
4. Roadster Convertible
The term “roadster” was typically used to describe an open-top car with no option to enclose the driver or passenger compartment.
The term also implied that the car is a two-seater performance sports model rather than a four-door model.
The definition of a roadster has shifted to include cars that meet the other criteria of a roadster but have a retractable roof.
Examples of these types of convertibles include the BMW Z4, Jaguar F-Type, Audi TT, and the Porsche Boxter.
5. Fixed Profile Convertible
A fixed profile convertible is constructed so that certain structural components of the sides of the vehicle and the roof remain in place when the roof is retracted.
Only the central panel of the roof folds back, with the side pillars and door frames remaining to give the car a fixed profile, which is where the name of this convertible is derived.
The doors, side pillars, side bodywork, and side sections of the roof that remain in place provide better structural integrity, resulting in fewer engineering modifications to the car chassis.
The central part of the roof is usually a fabric material that folds down to the rear of the car behind the seats when the roof is opened.
One of the early examples of this type of convertible is the Citroen 2CV, produced in 1948. A more modern version is the new generation Fiat 500 Cabriolet made in 2007, which features this rooftop design.
6. Cabrio Coach Convertible
The cabrio coach is very similar to the fixed profile convertible but has less of the frame structure of the car in place than the fixed profile.
The cabrio coach is also called a semi-convertible since it is not considered to be fully convertible due to the remaining side structures on the car that reduce the convertible effect.
The German-made Ford Eiffel was produced by Ford Germany between 1935 and 1940 and showcased this style of a convertible rooftop.
7. Four-Door Convertible
Convertibles are typically associated with sports car models and two-door cars rather than 4-door sedans.
The retractable hardtop convertible technology makes it feasible for car manufacturers to bring out limited edition convertible models of their mass-produced 4-door sedans.
Even though 4-door convertibles are available, they have limited popularity, likely due to the mindset of motorists that a convertible should have a sporty look and feel.
As a result, 4-door convertibles are relatively rare in modern cars. A notable 4-door convertible was the 1961 Lincoln Continental 4-door convertible. This car features unusual reverse-opening rear doors, where the doors swing out towards the rear of the car rather than the front.
8. Offroad Convertible
While convertible rooftops are typically thought of as the domain of sporty cars, some offroad car manufacturers have included this feature in some of their models, which have proved to be a popular addition to their offerings.
Most offroad convertibles feature soft top or fabric roof materials. In some models, the roof can be detached completely, while in other models, the roof folds away towards the rear of the car.
Examples of offroad convertibles include the Ford Bronco, Jeep Wrangler Unlimited, Landrover Defender, and the Hummer H1 Open Top. Most of these vehicles are also examples of 4-door convertibles.
9. Landaulet Convertible
The landaulet convertible is not a common sight and is an unusual version of a convertible. This style is based on limousine designs and features the rear part of the roof above the passengers with the ability to retract, but the roof over the driver is solid and immovable.
These convertibles typically have a partition separating the driver from the passengers in typical limousine style.
Convertibles with this type of design are typically seen as limousine-type cars, used by statesmen, royalty, and VIPs. The 1966 Rolls Royce Phantom V is a prime example of a “state car” landaulet.
Mercedes make an offroad version of this type of convertible in the form of the Mercedes-Maybach G 650 Landaulet.
10. Targa Top Convertible
The Targa top convertible is a term that was coined after the production of the 1966 Porsche 911 Targa, which featured this roof design.
The Targa tops typically have a retractable fabric top and a roll bar fitted behind the seats for additional protection and safety. In some Targa models, the back windscreen is made of glass and remains in place when the roof is retracted.
In other models, the rear windscreen is a plastic window that can be folded away to give a true convertible experience.
Examples of other cars with this type of convertible roof design are the Triumph TR4 manufactured in 1961, and the more modern Bugatti Veyron Grand Sport, Dodge Viper, Lotus Elise, and the Lamborghini Diablo VT Roadster.
Although the traditional convertible is a sporty car, typically a two-seater, other versions of convertibles bring the freedom of open-air driving to other forms of motoring.
The technology and engineering in convertible cars have improved the waterproofing, soundproofing, and overall safety of these cars, but you should be prepared to pay extra for the privilege of experiencing top-down driving.