GOING TOPLESS | August 6th 2008


Convertibles are a roaring trade. Paul Markillie, innovation editor of The Economist, reports from a soft-top Rolls ...

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, Summer 2008

The roar of the motorway has been left behind along with the curious looks. On a deserted country lane, the time has come to abandon the balm of climate control. Flip open a centre console, hold back a small lever and a whirring begins as five layers of canvas lined with cashmere rise high into the air, fold up and quickly disappear behind the rear seats. Then a smart teak-planked tonneau cover plops into place. A little bell, of the kind that might be used to summon a butler, announces that all is complete. It is time to point the flying-lady perched on the front of the super-long bonnet between the hedgerows, to press the accelerator and go.

The warmth of sunshine feels good, the breeze refreshing and the birdsong unusually loud. Normally the burble and rasp of the exhaust sets the note for driving a convertible high-performance car along a back road--the best place to do so. With a 6.7-litre V12 engine there is plenty of performance, but the car is almost silent. Much nicer to amble along majestically, and to chime in with the many touches from an earlier era of motoring: the thin steering wheel, the clock in the centre of the dashboard, the abundance of wood and leather. Even the car's name is an echo of the past. The Rolls-Royce Phantom Drophead Coupé, all £307,000 ($614,000) of it, glides effortlessly to the top of topless motoring.

This is a rarefied field. Last year about 900,000 convertibles were sold worldwide--a fraction of the 70m cars that rattled off production lines. But the number is steadily growing. Some places are more in love with convertibles than others. Britain and Germany are Europe's hottest soft-top markets: the share of convertibles in Britain has more than doubled in the past decade, with just over 100,000 sold last year, representing 4.4% of the market. In America, more than 250,000 convertibles were sold, but that was just 1.6% of sales.

In hot and very sunny places, roof-down motoring can be uncomfortable, so convertibles often don't sell as well as they do in temperate climes. But even if it is a bit chilly, northern Europeans quickly drop the hood at a glint of sunshine--especially if they are new owners. With the windows up and the heater on, it can be surprisingly cosy. Some convertibles also have a pop-up wind deflector behind the seats, which can reduce the blast from the rear. When the roof is down, hair tends to be blown forwards. The air flowing up across the windscreen lowers the pressure inside the car, which causes air to rush in from the rear.

Technology has made living with convertibles much easier. Roofs fit better, leak less and are often electrically powered. Some models now have folding metal roofs. Growling along in a Healey 3000 or a Triumph Spitfire with the roof down can mean turning up with wild wind-blown hair and a waft of exhaust fumes. With a modern convertible and its aerodynamic tricks, you arrive feeling less battered.

That so many old convertibles remain on the road--even a few 1920s Phantom 1 Dropheads with their big pram-like hoods--is testament to their ability to avoid the scrapyard. This is because, from super-luxury to the mass market, convertibles share a sort of specialness that seems to endure. Being cherished by a succession of owners also means they tend to depreciate in value more slowly than many other cars.

But most of all, convertibles look good. Nearly all manufacturers now have one or more in their range, and they often use them to front their advertising, even though they sell in relatively small numbers. Nor is building a convertible as simple as removing the roof from an existing model. Rolls-Royce, which has been owned by BMW for the past ten years, took a classic approach to completely redesigning its Phantom saloon to make the new Drophead. It has coach-style rear-hinged doors (to help with the extra rigidity that a convertible needs) and a sit-on picnic-style boot. A quarter of the cars leaving Rolls-Royce's new factory at Goodwood are now Phantom Drop-heads. And as most of them will be driven by their owners rather than chauffeured, this shows what is perhaps the key characteristic of topless motoring: these are cars for people who enjoy driving.


Not all soft-tops cost £300,000. Here are five more affordable options--you could buy the lot for less than the Rolls and still have a hundred grand left over. Prices are British, checked in late April.

FASTEST (OF THIS BUNCH) Mercedes-Benz SL 350 Epitome of a German roadster, from £65,000

SEXIEST Alfa Romeo Spider As good-looking as in "The Graduate", from £25,500

CHEAPEST Mini Cooper Convertible More fun without the roof, from £14,970

BEEFIEST Land Rover Defender SVX Convertible Yes, even they make one (price tba)

GREENEST BMW 1 Series Convertible Starts at 134g/km CO2, from £22,330


(Paul Markillie is innovation editor of The Economist. For the spring issue of Intelligent Life, he wrote about the world's sexiest brakes.)