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History’s most coveted convertibles

From the 1927 LaSalle to the 2011 Jaguar XKR, these models show why it’s cool to let the sun shine in.

Published June 15, 2012

The earliest cars were all “open” models, since they were basically motorized versions of horse-drawn buggies. The introduction of the “closed car,” with roof and windows, provided welcome relief from bad weather, but wasn’t as much fun on nice days. The solution was the convertible, which offered the best of both.

Today it’s usually the model most coveted by collectors. Here are some lovely and significant examples:

1927 LaSalle — LaSalle was a smaller, less-expensive Cadillac brand that debuted in 1927. It was the first mass-produced American car designed by an actual auto designer — Harley Earl — rather than an engineer. Earl, who had initially been hired as a Cadillac consultant, used design cues from luxury French marque Hispano-Suiza to create the new model. LaSalle gradually cut into Cadillac sales and was discontinued in 1940.

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1937 Peugeot Eclipse — Many people think the 1957 Ford Skyliner had the first power-retractable hardtop roof, but Peugeot let the sun shine in nearly 20 years earlier. Georges Paulin, a dentist turned car designer, came up with a retractable system after watching a neighbour trying to close his car’s soft roof in a sudden rainstorm. His “Eclipse” roof, patented in 1932, was used on a small number of Peugeot and Lancia models.

1942 Lincoln Continental Cabriolet — Edsel Ford, Henry Ford’s son, often had his designers produce special models for him. In 1939, he requested one for an upcoming Florida vacation and got a custom-built car based on the Lincoln Zephyr. People who saw it asked to buy one, and the Continental went into production for 1940. When it was discontinued in 1948, it marked the end of V12-powered American cars.

1953 Nash-Healey— In 1949, two men met on an ocean crossing. British sports carmaker Donald Healey was heading to the U.S. to source more powerful engines, while George Mason, president of U.S.-based Nash, was going home after trying to find design inspiration for his stodgy cars. Their resulting two-seater used a Healey chassis with Nash six-cylinder engine. It did well at the races, but its transatlantic construction made it costly and only 506 were built over four years.

1964 Valiant— Many drivers were tiring of huge, thirsty cars, and the Detroit automakers came out with compact models for 1960: Ford’s Falcon, Chevrolet’s Corvair and Chrysler’s Valiant, originally intended to be its own marque, but rebranded a Plymouth the following year when Dodge debuted its compact Lancer. These smaller, well-proportioned cars made handsome convertibles, but the decade would be the ragtop’s last hurrah.

1976 Cadillac Eldorado — Several factors affected ragtop sales: affordable air conditioning, higher-speed highways, vandalism, and rumoured (but never delivered) roof safety regulations. The domestic automakers gradually ceased production and in 1976, Cadillac announced that its Eldorado was the “last convertible.” The company sold 14,000 of them, with the last 200 badged as special “Bicentennial” editions. GM took the final one to Windsor, Ont. and photographed it with Detroit in the background, before parking it in its Heritage Collection.

1984 Chrysler LeBaron It turned out the “last convertible” wasn’t. In 1982, Chrysler brought back the droptop with the Chrysler LeBaron and Dodge 400, followed by the Town & Country in 1986. The LeBaron and 400 were actually two-door coupes that received a factory-authorized conversion at a Michigan company. Despite a hefty tag of around $12,000, a total of 18,366 were sold that year. Buick was back with one in 1983 and in 1984, Cadillac introduced the Eldorado Biarritz convertible, infuriating speculators who’d bought the “last” 1976 models.

1996 BMW Z3 — It wasn’t as good as its Z4 successor, but the Z3 marked a historical moment for BMW production. Believing it made sense to build locally in strong markets, BMW broke ground in 1992 on a plant in Spartanburg, S.C. It initially built the 3 Series for U.S. sales, but when the Z3 was added, it was the only plant in the world producing it. The initial four-cylinder Z3 1.8 was anemic, but eventually, it was also offered as the 321-horsepower M Roadster.

2002 Thunderbird— Ford went into the vault for the Thunderbird, which took its styling cues from the two-seater Birds of 1955-57. It was based on the Lincoln LS/Jaguar S-Type platform and used a Ford 3.9 L V8. The company planned to keep it exclusive by limiting production, but its $51,000 price tag was the deciding factor. After an initial flurry of 24,000 cars in 2002, sales dropped dramatically each year until 2005, when it was discontinued.

2011 Jaguar XKR— There are some wonderful convertibles on the market today, and so I’ll show my bias by choosing the XKR simply because I think it’s a gorgeous car. A supercharged, 510-horsepower V8 engine, a herd’s worth of butter-smooth leather, and style and sound that had everyone staring wherever I went: that’s really what a convertible’s all about, after all.

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