There are not many of them on the secondary market, and even fewer remained in production, but there were times when convertible SUVs were incredibly popular. In the height of summer, the Indy Auto Man used car experts offer to remember the history of this strange trend that arose several decades ago.
SUV at its peak
The SUV form factor is the current trend, with crossovers of all stripes taking the first lines in the sales charts. But there were times when they didn’t have a top, or, rather, it was folding. These four-wheel drive vehicles were almost always equipped with a roof made of a two-layer soft material and were able not only to overcome mud and snow barriers but also to give their passengers an unforgettable experience from the oncoming wind while driving along mountain serpentines or the sea coast. Today, a convertible SUV can be a great addition to the first family vehicle and an investment in a car that is unique in its way, bought at an attractive price.
Convertible body history
The convertible is considered the very first type of vehicle body. A wagon without a roof is what most horse-drawn carriages looked like, and only the elite could afford a carriage with a cab.
With the invention of the internal combustion engine, the first self-propelled vehicles received a resemblance to open carriages. The ancestor in the family of vehicles equipped with internal combustion engines was the Benz Patent-Motorwagen. It was built by Karl Benz in 1885 and received a patent in 1886. It looked like a three-wheeled carriage.
In the second half of the 1920s, automakers concluded that closed cars were more practical and safer. Given this, models with a fixed roof were increasingly appearing.
Although convertibles continued to occupy the main niche of production lines, by the 30s, motorists often opted for all-metal structures. At that time, models such as the Peugeot 402 Eclipse appeared. These were cars with hard folding roofs. However, its mechanisms left much to be desired, as they often failed.
With the outbreak of World War II, most elegant cars practically came to oblivion. As soon as peace was restored, the need for reliable and practical vehicles arose, so there was no time to develop high-quality folding mechanisms.
The main reason for the decline in the popularity of convertibles was the more rigid design of closed counterparts. On large potholes and after minor accidents, the body remained unscathed, which could not be said about modifications without pillars and a hard top.
The first American hardtop convertible was the Ford Fairline 500 Skyliner, produced from 1957 to 1959. The six-seat car was equipped with a complex automatic mechanism that independently folded the roof into a huge trunk.
Due to many shortcomings, such a car did not replace all-metal counterparts. The roof had to be fixed in many places, but it still only created the appearance of a closed car. The seven electric motors were so slow that raising/lowering the roof lasted nearly two minutes.
Due to additional parts and an elongated body, convertibles cost more than similar sedans. Plus, a car with a folding top weighed 440 lbs more than its one-piece counterpart, which was gaining popularity.
By the mid-60s, interest in convertibles declined sharply. It was the convertible top of the Lincoln Continental that made it easier for the sniper to assassinate John F. Kennedy in 1963.
This type of body began to gain popularity only in 1996.
Off-road convertibles did not appear out of thin air. The idea originated in Japan in the 1980s, when manufacturers like Suzuki and Toyota decided to offer their all-new SUVs and crossovers in a convertible version. This is how the soft-top Suzuki Vitara was born, and a few years later – the first open-back Toyota RAV4. A rarity still to be found in used car dealerships today. These cars were inspired by canvas-topped SUVs, various military Willys, and later, the Mercedes-Benz G-Class. They started a trend that would stretch until the mid-2000s.
In 2007, Nissan released a version of the Murano with an elongated soft top, and nine years later, the Range Rover Evoque convertible, which didn’t gain much popularity. Finally, it is worth mentioning the still current Volkswagen T-Roc Cabrio, with a two-door body and a folding roof, available in numerous versions and with almost all the engines of its five-door counterpart.
However, over the years, despite climate change and rising temperatures, crossovers and open-top SUVs have not gained popularity among the masses (as many brands hoped). Therefore, automakers began to withdraw them from their lineups, and today only the Jeep Wrangler and Ford Bronco have retained the convertible top.