The return of the RAGTOP

Once upon a time you could consider yourself a car enthusiast if you washed and waxed your automobile weekly and took it out on warm, sunny days just for the fun of it. Top down, wind in the hair, sun of the face. Romance.

But in 1976, when the last convertible rolled off the Cadillac Eldorado assembly line, romance and the automobiel parted company forever. At least that is what some people thought.

But what Detroit discarded has been welcomed in southern California and elsewhere. With the attitude that in every hardtop (cars without a post between front and rear windows) there is a convertible just waiting to unfold, a group of entrepreneurs is demonstrating that where there is a will for romance, there is a way to put the top down . . . for a price.

Toyotas, Datsuns, Mustangs, Buicks, Fiats, Mazdas, Hondas -- under normal circumstances, these are cars with roofs hard enough to play basketball on. When the likes of Herb Friedlander and Anthony Baumgartner get hold of them, though, the tops soften up and the convertible is suddenly alive and well again. Messrs. Friedlander and Baumgartner represent two of the better-established companies -- though by no means the only ones -- specializing in convertible car conversions.

To be sure, original product convertibles are easy to find -- that is, if you can scrape together $140,000 for a Rolls-Royce Corniche or $80,000 for an Aston Martin Volante. Volkswagen Rabbit convertibles are a bit cheaper at $10,000, but from there your only other factory-made option for letting the sunshine pour in is a convertible sports car, something with enough luggage room for an extra pair of sunglasses.

Otherwise, just over a dozen companies (located across the US, but mostly in southern California) will gladly take your money and cut your car down to size. Specific companies work on specific cars, but they take in a range from Cadillac Eldorados, Sevilles, and de Villes to the Oldmobile Cutlass to the Mazda RX7. Prices for the car plus conversion run from about $10,000 right up to $140,000 for a convertibleized Ferrari Berlinetta Boxer.

Mr. Friedlander is the West Coast sales manager for the Florida-based Griffith company. For around a mere $10,000 for the car plus conversion (the price varies depending on what other options you want), he will turn a Toyota Celica into a Sunchaser, replacing the roof with a Targa setup: a removable hard top over the front seats and a collapsible soft top over the rear seats.

Mr. Baumgartner runs Intermeccania, a southern California company famous for its Porsche Speedster replicas. He has now turned his attention to the Ford Mustang, endowing it with a convertible top much like that of a Mercedes 450SL. He calls the conversion a Cabrio, and it costs a bundle -- about $16,000. The car, however, looks classier than any mere Mustang could ever hope to, and the conversion seems to be a quality job.

There are other companies. Petty Engineering, near Los Angeles, has turned the hardtop Mazda RX7 into one of the most stunning convertible sports cars on the road, and Varrato Associates does wonderful things to a Datsun 200 SX, adding an American top to a car that already has a rakish Italian body and an incredibly stingy Japanese engine.

The last convertibles made by Detroit in 1976 were 200 Cadillac Eldorados that brought upwards of $30,000 each from collectors. Sales for ragtops had held strong through most of the '60s, but by the time the '70s picked up steam, the market had dwindled to 1 percent and less of total auto sales. The advent of air conditioning took the biggest chunk out of the convertible market, and safety concerns whittled it further. The federal government actually passed a regulation prohibiting convertibles, but it was ruled unconstitutional in 1971. Sun roofs fulfilled most people's desire for a speedway suntan.

As the saying goes, however, one man's ceiling is another man's floor, and Detroit's pittance is the convertible-makers' fortune. Mr. Varrato aims at a production schedule of three to four cars a month, at first, then three or four per week, and then 25 a month, if his wildest expectations materialize. "If the 200 SX does well, then we have plans on the drawing board for other conversions, " he says.

Intermeccania has factories in southern California, Michigan, Sacramento, and Mexico, and plans to convert about eight cards per month in each factory.

The Griffith Toyota is already well-established, particularly in Florida, and Mr. Friendlander says that the factory there plus those in Orange County and Michigan will eventually be decapitting 400 cars a month.

"We don't really known how the big market is, so once -- and if -- we reach that point we'll have to see how strong our sales are," he says.

The Toyota Celica is probably the strongest contender in the race for mass sales. It is the cheapest conversion and offers the added protection of a roll bar in case the car does flip over. The Toyota Celica also possesses a superb record for reliability.

In addition to the Celica coupe, the Griffith company has put the Celica liftback on the market and will soon introduce a Celica Supra conversion, offering the latter with a turbocharged engine. With its feet firmly planted in two states saturated in both sunshine and money -- Florida and California -- the future looks rosy for Friedlander and company. The recession has not yet dimmed sales for any of the companies.

Buyer beware, though. The transformation from hardtop to convertible requires more than handing a cutting torch to the local fender man. Structurally, the car has to be almost completely rebuilt. Anyone over 30 years old can intone with justice, "They don't build cars like they usded to," Unlike cars made when extra weight did not matter, today's small car bodies are not bolted to a heavy frame of steel. Small-car frames are gone.With the unit body construction prevalent in the industry today, cars are essentially hung from the roof rather than supported from beneath.

Take away the roof, and the car eventually sags and folds in the middle -- which would sort of take the fun out of driving. Unit body construction is a very good way to build small cars: It makes them lighter and improves handling. But it is not a good way to build convertibles.

To counter this problem, a good conversion manufacturer will slap a gaggle of braces onto a car's undercarriage before even chalking the cut marks on the roof. The folks at Intermeccania run tubular steel into the Mustang's hollow rocker panels (beneath the doors). Mr. Friedlander of Griffith gets garage dirt on his suit pants' knees, and insists that a reporter do the same, to point out the steel beams running the length of each side of a Toyota.

The engineers at Varrato Associates weld in all manner of steel plating, rods , adn trestles on the floor of their Datsun 200SXs to reinforce it both end to end and side to side. All three cars come out of the shop heavier, stronger, and stiffer than they went in. One result is better handling. Another is a car that won't fold up like its own top.

There are at least a dozen converter companies on the market and a half dozen more will probably open and close before the year is up.

Anyone with aspirations for auto decapitation should set aside thoughts of wind and sun and find out how the conversion is done. If the conversion is done though a dealer, his reputation is on the line, so chances are good that the conversion company is reputable. however, one California Ford dealer tells of having so many problems with one Mustang conversion that he brought the cars back from his customers. The dealer now happily sends his Mustangs to Intermeccania.

Some companies, such as Varrato Associates, will convert an individual's car, eliminating the added price markup that would have gone to the dealer. Mr. Varrato has good quality control, but others might not. Take a healty dose of skepticism to such a deal and inquire about the details of the conversion process. Ask for the names of other customers and call them up. Ask about a warrantly. There should be one. If the conversion is done to a new car, the conversion warranty period should at least match the manufacturer's. Make sure the conversion doesn't void the factory guarantee.

If at all possible, have a newly converted car put on a garage hoist and lifted high enough to get the wheels off the ground. If the doors do not open or do wo with difficulty, mumble something about having left your checkbook in the glove compartment, and head out of there.

And make sure the new top will not leak. It is easy to check. Ask to run one of the cars through a car wash. A few drops on the dash are acceptable, but a wading pool on the floor is not.

Constructing a top is no easy matter. The up and down operation must be simple enough for one person to handle in a minute or two. It has to fit tight enough, all the time, in order not to squeak and to keep out wind and water. The top has to be designed from scratch, and the process costs a lot. Mr. Baumgartner estimates he has about $185,000 tied up in development and tooling costs for his ragtop. More to the point, he also has five Buick Regals sitting in his shop, the remains of another man's attempted entry into the conversion business.

To Joseph Molino, public relations man and acknowledged car nut, a happy selling point for the cars converted by his clients is that they all cost "under half that, and the price gets you two of the better conversions on the market, the Griffith Sunchaser and the Varrato 200SX.

however, it's still a lot of money, if acquiring a freeway suntan is your idea of a really good time. The demand for these cars exceeds the supply, and most dealers seem to be tacking a healthy profit margin onto their cost. The Sunchaser conversion, for example, leaves the Griffith factory for $2,695 to the dealer, whose suggested retail price for the option is $3,695. It is not uncommon for dealers to charge their customers anywhere from $4,000 to $5,000 for the convertible option. The Datsun 200SX costs about $6,500 from the dealer , and George Varrato charges $4,700 to convert it. But one snappy red convertible he recently finished went to the customer for $13,000, with the $1, 800 markup going to the dealer.

For confirmed convertible addicts such as Carol Afkay of Los Angeles, though, the cars are worth the price. For the last month or so, Miss Afkay has been motoring around L.A. in an International Cabrio, and says she "would not trade it for any other car around. I love it."

She is, apparently, not alone. At Intermeccania's and Griffith's southern California factories, the back parking lots are full of hardtops waiting to face the steel cutters. Mr. Friedlander says that several California Toyota dealers regularly send him truckloads of Toyota Celicas, and he is turning down order from others until production gears up to full bore -- about 15 per month.

Topless cars are as old as cars themselves, but back in the early 1900s, drivers had no choice. Autos had no tops, and when it rained they got wet. Actual covnertibles came along in the '20s, quickly becoming synonymous with glamour and the good life. The likes of Clark Gable and Cary Grant tooled around among Hollywood palm trees in sleek and flashy convertibles -- boat-tailed Duesenbergs, Packards, and Cords -- especially in the newsreels and on feature pages.

And they're fun. I took lengthy test drives in the Sunchaser (Toyota), Cabrio (Mustang), and 200SX (Datsun) and wanted to sequester all of them away in my own garage. with all three cars, the lines were improved with the tops down, and the Mustang was virtually unrecognizable as a Mustang. People stopped to ask what kind of car it was, where they could get one, and how much it costs -- usually without blinking an eye at a price of $15,000.

My wife complained bitterly about her ruined hairstyle when the Mustang's top went down, although the topless 200SX and Sunchaser were far less devastating. There are definite drawbacks to convertibles, though -- drawbacks that at one time drove them out of the marketplace. The noise level is greater whether the tops are up or down. The tops invariably squeak a little. Th stiffer body makes the ride rougher. They are not as safe as a hardtop, and all them have very bad blind spots with top up, on the right rear side, because of the smaller rear window. The back seat windows are taken out, with the exception of 200SX, and replaced by a great expanse of dark canvas.

To take care of the blind spot, customers can order outside mirrors for the passenger side, But the lack of visibility is so bad that the mirrors should be part of the conversion package.

As far as the Intermeccania product goes, I also had a hard time imagining plunking down $15,000. Soft top or not, a Mustang is a Mustang. The car cost $ 8,500 to star with, about $2,000 more than the Datsun or Toyota, and for me has nothing to recommend the extra money. The Mustang also loses six inches of rear seat legroom to the conversion.

Cramped knees or not, convertible-ized Mustangs, Datsuns, Toyotas, etc., are going out the shop door faster than a wife can say, "That thing will ruin my hairdo!" and southern California is on its way to the dubious distinction of convertible car capital of the countyr. What if it is all just a fad? What if it rains 40 days and 40 nights?

The folks at Executive coachwork near here think they have themselves covered. After they take the tops off the $75,000 Ferrari Daytona Spyders, they save them. That way, when hardtop Daytonas are, again, all the rage, they'll be prepared.

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