Thursday, November 19, 2015

Why YOU don't want a convertible.

Convertibles can be a lot of fun - with the top down.  If you never plan on putting the top down, why bother? (note car in reflection, click to enlarge).

I have enjoyed owning convertibles in my life, but probably won't own any from this point onward.   It was fun, but I am done.  It's OK to do something at one point in your life and then move on.   Folks who fall for the "I'll own my Harley forever!" or "I'll never sell my [boat, airplane, camaro, whatever]" are just being foolish, if they no longer use the item in question.

I've had five convertibles (three at one time!) in my life, if you don't count the Samurai and the Jeep.   I had a 1965 Mustang, an old Fiat, which was a nice car (no rust, and oddly reliable), two BMW 328iC (E36) cabriolets, and the M Roadster.   For me, the default mode of operation of these vehicles was "top down" and I rarely drove them on rainy days.   Sometimes, though, I would drive them in the rain with the top down (over 30 mph, the water largely blows away).

However, as I learned in Florida, it isn't always possible to have the top down, even on sunny days.   In the "sunshine state" the heat and sun can bake you to a crisp if you don't have the top up from about 11 AM to 2PM.   A convertible, in Florida, oddly enough, can be an impractical vehicle.  The tops are destroyed by the sun pretty quickly.  A car with strong air conditioning (which does not include BMWs!) is often a better choice.

But for a lot of people, a convertible is a horrifically poor vehicle choice - a choice made on the basis of perceived status or image, not practicality.   And by practicality, I mean these are the sort of people who never put the top down other than for parades and thus fail to really utilize a convertible for its intended purpose.

And usually, these are women.  I had a tenant once, who had, in succession, a nice Z3 and then a Z4 convertible, and she never, ever, ever, put the top down.   She wanted something "sporty" that made her look "sexy" but of course in that particular car, no one can see you anyway with the top up, so I am not sure what the image thing is all about.   With the Z3 in particular, driving around with the top up is like driving with your head in a canvas sack.   The road and wind noise is pretty loud, so you can barely hear yourself think.   If you are never going to put the top down, why bother sacrificing ride comfort?

Compounding this is the increased purchase and maintenance cost of a convertible.   Convertibles can be far more expensive than their sedan counterparts.   And part of this is due to the structure of the vehicle.   The roof of a car is one of the largest load-bearing members, other than the floor pan and rocker panels.    Without a roof, the floor pan needs to be strengthened with additional box beams and other structural members.   Even with such stiffening, a convertible will be more flexible than a coupe or sedan, and will flex going down the road.  You will notice "cowl shake" as the front end of the car twists relative to the body.

For example, my 1965 Mustang was a mountain of rust.  And one of the things that rusted through was the box beams that Ford added to the convertible models to keep them from falling in half.   Without this beam, the car doors would barely close, and often I had to jack up the center of the car to get them to close!   We ended up entering the car Dukes of Hazzard style, which was OK as I only paid $100 for that wreck.

In the E36 cabrios, if you sat in the back seat and put your arm out the window, you could place your finger on the door seam where it closed.   As the car went down the road, you could feel the seam get wider and narrower as the car went over bumps - the body flexing.   In fact, I used to worry about putting my finger in there, as it could have easily been chopped off if the car hit a bit bump.   The car flexes that much.

So even with reinforcement, convertibles tend to flex.  And sometimes this reinforcement, in addition to making the cars heavier, makes them harder to get in and out of.  Door sills may be raised and made quite thick, so as to provide the necessary structure to keep the car intact.

Then there is the top.   At one time all cars were convertibles - with makeshift canvas tops that could be raised in a rainstorm.   Old British "sports cars" carried this tradition on well into the 1950's.  They were truly fair weather friends.  Today, we have full power tops with tonneau covers that raise hydraulically, or even full metal tops that segment and store in the trunk - which raises another factor - convertibles usually have less trunk space than their sedan counterparts.

But these tops have a number of motors or hydraulic units (usually electric motors today) and a series of micro-switches which indicate to a controller what part of the delicate ballet should be performed next.   When new, these are really, really cool.   Some new convertibles allow you to open or close the top using your remote key fob, which freaks people out.

All that is very well and fine when the car is brand-new and under warranty.   But once out of warranty and once these delicate parts start to wear, odd things can happen.  In the E36, it was the "tensioning straps" which were like a pair of elastic suspenders under the top, which helped keep it in tension.   When they lost their elasticity, after about five years, the top would hit the tonneau during the ballet, and you'd have to "help it along".  New straps were only about $150, but you had to find a specialist who could install them.   Even the local BMW dealer was clueless about working on their own convertible tops, and farmed this task out to a local independent mechanic!   Finding people to work on convertible tops can be difficult.  Finding someone who knows what they are doing, even harder.

Then there is the top itself.  Modern segmented metal tops should last forever (but not the gaskets between the segments!), however canvas tops do wear out over time and are staggeringly expensive to repair.   If the rear window is plastic, it will fog and fade over time, although I found this boat isenglass cleaner to work well.  But eventually the rear window will crack or break and you have to replace it, which often is tricky.   Hard top cars usually don't have these problems.  The worst you have to worry about is a headliner falling down.

So you pay a lot more for a convertible, and you will pay a lot more to maintain it.  And along the way, you will have to learn to live with more wind noise, road noise, and of course, leaks.

Leaks?  Oh, yea, I forgot that.   All convertibles leak which is a good reason to garage them.   Sure, they might not leak when brand-new, but over time, they will.   You see, they depend on a lot of rubber seals to keep out water, and usually along the top edge of the window, where it meets the rubber seal on the top, water will get in.   Not a lot, just enough to be annoying.   And if you park the car outside, water will accumulate over time and the car will grow mushrooms on the floor and get a funky smell.   What's not to like?

Of course, all of this is worth it, if you enjoy top down driving and drive around all the time with the top down - putting it up only in those few cases where it is pouring rain.   Sadly, most convertibles I see on the road, even on beautiful temperate days where there is no chance of rain and the sun it not too intense, are being driven with the top up - even in areas were the speed limit is low, such as on our island (35 mph).

Yes, I guess I forgot to mention that.  High speed driving (70-75 mph on the highway) with the top down can be fun - for a while.   But the noise is tremendous and eventually you get wind-burned and sun-burned and dehydrated (the intense windstorm evaporates sweat off you rather rapidly).   So if you are taking long trips on Interstate highways, a convertible often a poor choice.

But getting back to convertible users - most of them never put the top down.   And by never, I mean never, ever, ever!  The excuses given are usually pretty lame.  "It's too hot" or "It's too cold!" or "It's too Sunny!" or "It's too cloudy!" or worst of all, "I'm just going on a short trip and its such a hassle to put the top up or down!"   Two catches and a button to press - how hard is that?  With some cars, it is just a button!

Ahhh, but the real reason most women don't put the top down is hair.   Most women I talk to with convertibles tell me they rarely put their tops down because it messes up their hair.  It must suck to be female and have all this high-maintenance shit in your life, seriously.  Look at my haircut in the picture above.  I cut it myself with a $20 pair of clippers we bought five years ago.   Most women have to go to a salon and spend hundreds, if not thousands of dollars a year to "look good".   And given this investment in hair, you can understand why they never put the top down.  So why buy a convertible?  Well, they get sold on the fantasy of sexiness and sportiness, but most convertibles are rarely, if ever, used for their intended purpose.  And that is just sad.

In short, these are folks who really have no business buying a convertible.   Why they buy them, is beyond me.  Well, it really isn't, actually.   They buy a convertible for status not for top-down driving fun (hard to do the latter with the top up!).   They perceive a convertible to be a status machine by dint of its higher retail price (often the most expensive model in a lineup).   They also perceive a status of sportiness or youth or glamour that is often associated with a convertible.

Speaking of sportiness, convertibles are really unsports cars.   What do I mean by this?   Well, while the picture above was taken when we did some "parade laps" at Watkins Glen, most sports cars today have hard tops.   Yea, back in the 1960's, NASCAR actually ran convertibles on the high speed ovals.   But that was a long time ago.  Most Sports car clubs won't let you race a rag-top on the track at their meets, unless you have a serious rollbar - and even then, perhaps not.   It is just too easy to get injured in a convertible if it rolls over.  And since convertibles are heavier than their coupe counterparts, they just don't make very good race cars.   And the aerodynamics are horrific as well.   The M Roadster is a "sporty" car, but few people actually race them.   A better and more popular choice would be the M3 coupe.   So despite their reputation for sportiness, convertibles today are really not the first choice for real sports cars.

Sportiness is, of course, what sells the "Sport Utility Vehicles" we have today - many of which are just reworked sedan platforms.   A young family can pretend they are "sporty" off-road adventurers (with an SUV) and not just middle-class schmucks living in the suburb (with a mini-van).   But of course, it is just image used to sell a product.  And from a practical standpoint, a mini-van is a lot cheaper and has more "utility" than a "sport utility" vehicle.  If you live on a dirt road or want to go down the Rubicon trail, then yes, maybe a Jeep is a necessary vehicle.  If you live in a subdivision and commute to work, you are just fooling yourself.

The same is true for convertibles.   If you like the wind in your hair - and aren't afraid to muss it up - then get a convertible and drive it with the top down - all the time.   Otherwise, consider a similar coupe or sedan, maybe with a sunroof.   Maybe it isn't as sexy, but it will save you a boatload of money, be a lot more comfortable to drive, and have a lot less maintenance issues over time.

Owning a convertible and never putting the top down is, in my opinion, idiotic!

The M Roadster off to its new home.   Probably the last convertible I will own!