Notes on...

The cult of the convertible

12 March 2022

9:00 AM

12 March 2022

9:00 AM

The earliest cars were technically convertibles because the technology to fit a roof did not exist. Now the dedicated retractable hardtop roof convertible is a century old – invented in 1922 and transported to America after the war because GIs loved them. These are cars of pleasure, and we know it: less than 2 per cent of cars sold are convertibles, which seems to me insane. The early ones – the MG Midget, the Triumph Roadster, the Jaguar XK150 – are the most beautiful, but they are not as safe as a Volvo. What is?

I borrowed a pink Morgan LMV6 Roadster once, and my father drove me down the A4 from South Kensington to Richmond Park, muttering about death all the way. I borrowed it again and, on the way back to London, the man who delivered it crashed. ‘Driving conditions,’ he moped when I texted him in hospital to check he was not dead. It was such a beautiful car – more bath than car with pink leather frills and a raging engine capable of 170mph – the photograph of its salvage was widely shared on Twitter. It was no less beautiful crashed.

If I could live my life again, I would make owning a convertible an ambition, like owning a baby. It might be the Aston Martin DB11, in which you are toasted on the road by honks. Men plead to be overtaken by the DB11 because they want to listen to the roar. They give way to watch you pass and, if you are minded to, you get the wrong kind – the right kind? – of attention outside a builders’ merchant. It’s the patron car of Brexit, and of sex. (Men who drive monied convertibles are irritating but they are not always wrong.) It might be the Bentley GT, which seems to transform its surroundings, wherever they are, into the South of France, but we have had car marketing for a century, and it seeps into the unconscious. The GT is a perfect car that makes Penge look like Saint-Tropez, though, since most people own a Fiesta or a Golf, car marketing is only a taunt. (You could go anywhere, is the fantasy. But you won’t.)

It might be the Toyota Supra, a bright red bubble with a fiery engine. It might be a Rolls-Royce Dawn – the only convertible, I think, with a television and matching £50,000 picnic hamper, for which you could get the Toyota Supra – but only if I could trash it in the Cornish lanes. Or it might be a Ferrari Portofino, in which I once spent a morning demonstrating its retractable roof in the Bridgwater services to children because the Ferrari comes with the accompanying fantasy of a private income.

The convertible is the best kind of car because it doesn’t detach you from the world. But people rarely buy them, preferring instead the petit bourgeois instrument of war and isolation: the SUV. The reason for this is probably air pollution, and in that is a wild – and funny – kind of justice.

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