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Back to the ragtop. New-model roadsters bring back the thrill of open-air cruising

By Charles E. DoleSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / June 9, 1986

WHEN the green flag fell at the rain-plagued 70th running of the Indianapolis 500, leading the 33-car pack was a lightning-swift Chevrolet Corvette convertible with famed test pilot Chuck Yeager, the first man to exceed the speed of sound, at the wheel. Not only is it the pace car for one of the world's great auto races, but it's also the first factory-built Corvette ragtop since 1975. The pace-car 'Vette points up the sharp rebound in soft-top automobiles since the much-ballyhooed ``demise'' of the convertible a decade ago.

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A ragtop automobile is an adventure, no matter where it's built. For the adult, it can be a retreat in time -- perhaps to those earlier days when the world of responsibilities still lay ahead. And for youth, it fulfills a wish to ``spread one's wings,'' cruising the highways and back roads with a freedom and zest that can never be found in an enclosed car.

Indeed, despite the remembered idiosyncrasies of open-air motoring, with its squeaks and groans and the likelihood of a sudden rain shower finding its way inside the car even with the roof up, there was an exhilaration that is hard to describe.

So when General Motors decided to ``dump the ragtop'' in 1976, the open-top automobile refused to go away. Dozens of small conversion companies drove into the void, slicing the tops off coupes and sedans, stiffening the structure, and putting on fabric. One company, Coach Builders Ltd. of High Springs, Fla., has sold at least 30 different soft-top models over the years, including the Continental Mark VII, Cadillac Seville, and Jaguar XJ-S.

Sensing a new sales opportunity after its retreat from the brink of bankruptcy, Chrysler Corporation in 1982 led the charge back to the ragtop. Now, all the domestic carmakers are back at the wheel, even though the demand is said to be far less than it was a generation ago. And today's convertibles are far better than they've ever been before, with fewer squeaks and full-strength air conditioners that help to compensate for the blazing overhead sun.

In the 1960s about 10 percent of all new-car output was convertibles. Today the demand is running at 1 percent of industry sales, according to David H. Hall, marketing plans manager of the Ford division. ``It could go up to 1.4 or 1.5 percent,'' he predicts, ``but we do not see the volume approaching the level where you'd want to have an entry in each and every market segment.'' Ford, for example, now sells about 16,000 Mustang ragtops a year.

Thus, while the market may never return to the heyday of the '60s, when up to a half-million convertibles a year hit the road, the open-to-the-sky automobile may still be the choice for upward of 100,000 car buyers this year, according to some estimates.

Thomas R. Mason, passenger-car marketing manager of Chevrolet, is a little less bullish. ``A hundred thousand convertibles this year sounds high to me,'' he asserts. ``I think the potential is there for 100,000, but I believe that would be the top end of the demand.'' Last year the ragtop figure hit 75,000.

Mr. Mason sees it as ``a specialty market, a niche. There has always been a demand for the roadster and we're trying to take advantage of the demand.'' Each year, Chevrolet expects to sell about 5,000 Corvette soft-tops, which it will produce in its Bowling Green, Ky., assembly plant, plus 6,000 to 8,000 Cavaliers, which American Sunroof will ``convert'' in a new plant in Lordstown, Ohio. Backing off from the trend, however, GM's Buick division dropped the ragtop from its all-new Riviera in 1986.

A decade after it dumped the ragtop, the General Motors Cadillac division has made a deal with Italy's Pininfarina, a highly acclaimed car designer and low-volume manufacturer, to produce an open-top car called the Allante. The bodies of the 1987 Cadillac Allante coupe and convertible will be built by Pininfarina and then shipped via 747 to GM's newest auto plant in Detroit, where the engines and transmissions will be added. The car, aimed at the Mercedes 560SL buyer, is expected to sell for less than $50,000.