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Just Can't Top This: Spotlight on Convertibles

The Rare Retractable: Staring Crowds at the Flick of a Switch

June 25, 1998|JOHN O'DELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was love at first sight.

John Borden, a 22-year-old engineering student at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, was walking along La Cienega Boulevard's Restaurant Row in the summer of 1957 when he saw her.

"She" was a Ford Fairlane Skyliner--the nation's first mass-produced retractable hardtop, a convertible with a folding steel lid. A Ford dealer was displaying it, parked atop a swatch of red carpet, at Lawry's the Prime Rib restaurant.

"I saw that car and swore one day I'd have one," Borden recalled.

For a mechanical engineer, it was the ultimate gadget--a sort of Swiss army car.

Its 250-pound steel top smoothly rose up, folded down in front and tucked itself into the cavernous trunk. It was carried on steel hinges, powered by tightly wound screw jacks and dependent on more electronics than anyone had ever put on a car before. The inventory: seven electric motors (six in the 1958 and '59 models), 10 limit switches, 10 electrical relays and 610 feet of wiring to connect it all.

Car makers have been trying to perfect the retractable hardtop for more than 60 years. But only three models have ever made it into mass production for the American market.

The retractable hardtop represents what Mercedes-Benz product manager Todd Grieco calls the pinnacle of the auto builder's art, uniting "the security and solidity of a hardtop coupe with the freedom that comes from the wind racing through your hair."

Ford built the last Skyliner in 1959--its demise was due in large part to the arrival of a similarly priced (and more prestigious) Thunderbird convertible. It took 36 years for the next production model to hit the showrooms: the 1995 Mitsubishi 3000GT VR-4 Spyder, a car with a name longer than its two-year life span.

Hampered by a $68,000 price tag and a delayed launch that put it out of sync with Mitsubishi's marketing campaign, the retractable couldn't hit the annual sales minimum needed to keep it alive. Mitsubishi lowered the curtain at the end of 1996 after selling just 1,500 of the cars.

The void lasted until Mercedes-Benz introduced its two-seat retractable roadster last year.

Designated the SLK230 (K for Kompressor, the Teutonic term for supercharger), the little Benz was designed to be a retractable from the start. Although Ford and Mitsubishi had to cram all of the mechanical works and the top itself into cars not originally intended to hold all that stuff, the Mercedes stows everything nicely with room for a bit of luggage.

(Lack of storage space helped kill the Skyliner, which had only its passenger compartment and a tiny storage chest in the center of the flip-top trunk when the top was down. The Mitsubishi surrendered its entire trunk to the top, leaving buyers with an expensive 2+2 sports car unable to hold much more than a carry-on suitcase in the tiny rear seats.)

Grieco, who heads the SLK program for Mercedes-Benz of North America, said the company has sold more than 12,000 of the $40,000 cars in the U.S. so far--the bulk of them in Southern California, "because it is convertible country"--and is preparing to double production to keep up with demand.

"They are as red-hot as red-hot can get," he said. Worldwide, Mercedes has sold more than 66,000 of the retractables.

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Car makers have long pursued the dream of a convertible hardtop, which avoids the problems that come with canvas. Conventional wisdom has Ford inventing the retractable, but auto historian Leslie Mark Kendall, curator of the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, says the first production model was introduced more than two decades before the boys in Dearborn cranked out the Skyliner.

It was 1934 when French car maker Peugeot caused a buzz at the Paris auto show with its Eclipse, an "electric transformable" two-seater with a folding hardtop powered by a set of electric motors. Fewer than 1,000 Eclipses were made in five years--Peugeot sold them through a catalog--but the car was a production model that beat Ford's effort by 23 years.

A small shop in Buffalo, N.Y., also hit the market with a retractable before Ford. The tiny two-seater, smaller than a Nash Metropolitan, was called the Playboy and was marketed from 1947 to 1951, Kendall said. About 100 were sold.

Other efforts included Ford's own development of a prototype Mustang retractable hardtop in 1966 and Michigan-based ASC Inc.'s in-house prototypes for retractable hardtops for the Cadillac Allante and the Nissan 300ZX in the early 1990s.

Soft tops are sleek and, to car fanciers at least, have more eye appeal than golden retriever puppies, Tiffany jewelry or the supermodel du jour.

But they tend to let in cold air at night and leak during heavy rain, and they do little to block out road noise or thwart knife-wielding thieves.

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