It’s not often that I express a dislike towards cars, especially if I haven’t had the chance to experience them properly. Regardless, I’m going to put this out there: I generally don’t understand the desire for convertibles.
It’s shameful really – I’ve spent my life abiding by the age-old rule that the enjoyment factor of cars always trumps the numbers. Always. Except, for some reason, with convertibles. The numbers bother me.
Before you convertible owners grab the pitchforks and torches and form an orderly mob, hear me out.
Firstly, there are some open-top machines that I completely accept. Sports cars that were built from the ground-up as roadsters are great (Boxsters, S2000s, MX-5s and the like).
The same goes for many classic open-tops.
When it comes to modern cars, I have not seen the sense in taking a lightweight, pointy supercar and making it heavier, less rigid and more expensive. Even worse, a perfectly good GT car is often compromised by adding boring road noise, less practicality and (subjectively) a fair amount of ugliness.
Almost all open-top cruisers are hampered in one way or another compared to their coupe counterparts.
The first issue is weight. Convertibles have either a folding metal roof or a soft roof. Nowadays, most drivers prefer not to spend 20 minutes in the pouring rain clambering over clips and latches as they struggle to cover their car before it turns into a mobile fish tank. So, car manufacturers cunningly designed magnificent mechanically folding roofs that can be lowered or raised in seconds at the push of a button. The downside of this effort? Added weight (and a higher centre of gravity too).
Doesn’t sound very sporty, does it?
The second issue is stiffness. The car design textbook will tell you that a decent-handling sportscar needs a light and inflexible chassis, with the roof often used to provide torsional rigidity and extra strength and stiffness. The lack of a roof is therefore a problem, which is often “solved” by adding more material to the floor structure.
The result is a car that weighs 30-100kg more than a hard top, with the structural rigidity of an earthworm.
On paper, it all seems ridiculous. Despite this, many of my petrolhead friends own convertibles, which suggests I’m missing something. I still have a full head of hair because my midlife crisis is many years away, so I felt it was time to feel the wind in it.
Importantly, I set out to discover whether the textbook downsides are actually noticeable to the average driver. In the name of science, I borrowed a 2011 BMW Z4 and got on with it.
Could I prove myself wrong?
Things got off to a poor start. After the first 20 minutes on the N1 highway with the roof down, my face was raw from windburn and my layers of clothing were hopelessly inadequate. I couldn’t hear my passenger or the stereo over the endless wind and road noise.
As one does in the Western Cape, we eventually found ourselves on a twisty mountain road. Suddenly, the world made a little more sense.
Away from the constant 120km/h drone of the highway, the wind and road noise was replaced by a sweet straight six-exhaust note which seemed to echo from every direction. The hurricane had transformed into a comforting breeze, with the cabin filled with the smells of nature instead of truck fumes.
I’m sure “scuttle shake” is a major issue, particularly when your name is Chris Harris and you get to thrash manufacturer-owned vehicles on racetracks for a living. For the rest of us mortals with normal lives, it’s barely noticeable in the context of a mountain pass (at least in a proper car like a Z4).
The biggest surprise was yet to come. As rewarding as the car was to drive along the Cape’s coastal paradise, it was even more rewarding to call my friends to show the car off. People respond…differently to a convertible.
The Beemer isn’t particularly expensive, fast or loud. Despite being dynamically “hampered” I got more stares and compliments than I could ever have expected in a tin-top. This is especially true when motoring muggles (non-car people) saw the Z4.
I realised that for some reason, a convertible is a sign of success. As the road noise and the truck fumes consume you, the average person thinks you’ve finally hit the big time. You’ve made it. You and your high mileage basic convertible.
Purists may boast of the weight-saving properties of stickers instead of metal badges, but literally nobody else cares. Nobody sees your convertible and thinks “well, it’s not bad, but it’s a pity that it’s 3 seconds slower round the ‘Ring.”
Convertibles are simply more appealing to a broader audience. An open-topped Ferrari is always more exciting than a coupe.
I now understand the appeal of a convertible. Taking off the roof adds a new level of enjoyment to the motoring experience. The average driver cannot possibly feel a difference in performance on the road.
But, what about me? The mental block is still there. I would struggle to buy a car that is not quite as good as it could be. For that reason only, I would still take the hardtop. If I had space for a second or third car though…well, I may well be more open-minded.
Of course, if you have a convertible, you’re welcome to let me drive it and prove me wrong!
Editor’s note: A Z4 may not have scuttle shake, but drive one of those awful cabriolets that started life as a hatchback or large car and you’ll experience it quickly enough. Of course, the best roadster on the planet is my S2000, because 9,000rpm is always more fun with a sunburnt face. Perhaps I should let Reece drive it…