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Just Can't Top This: Spotlight on Convertibles

The Men Who Kept the Convertible Going

After Detroit halted production in '76, two entrepreneurs took the tops off thousands of regular cars and rebuilt interest in the ragtop.

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

America's automotive moguls are reaping the benefits of the convertible's resurgence these days, but the comeback of the soft top owes far less to the denizens of Detroit than to the no-guts, no-glory gambles of a couple of independent entrepreneurs.

It was Detroit, in fact, that killed the ragtop, citing waning sales as air conditioning, safety concerns and federal fuel-economy rules conspired to dim convertibles' appeal.

When Cadillac dropped the Eldorado in 1976, an era ended.

And it wasn't until six years later, after a Newport Beach Ferrari restorer and a Michigan sunroof maker who started his business in Los Angeles showed the way, that a domestic car company rolled out a new convertible.

The unspoken reason soft tops died out, industry watchers say, is that car makers had been losing money on every one they built. Despite the great degree of expensive hand-finishing a convertible requires, the companies were afraid to charge a premium and priced them on par with the coupes on which they were based.

But Ferrari restorer Richard Straman, whose custom-built Camaro ragtops were selling in Orange and Los Angeles counties for almost 50% more than the coupe in the early 1980s, showed car makers that people would indeed pay more for a convertible.

"They are sporty and unique, and people want that," said David Cole, director of the University of Michigan's Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation.

Car makers didn't believe that in 1976, but within a few years they were shocked by the big bucks being raked in by automotive aftermarket firms that were installing sunroofs and T-tops to open cars up to the sun and wind.

"You continually monitor the marketplace," said Jack Witucki, Mustang and Thunderbird brand manager at Ford Motor Co. "When you see people going into the aftermarket to buy custom-made convertibles, and watch the sales of sunroofs, moon roofs and T-tops soar, then you know that people want convertibles and that you'd better start making them again."

Detroit's reentry vehicle was the 1982 Chrylser LeBaron. It was followed in 1983 by the Buick Riviera and the reintroduced Ford Mustang soft top.

Now there are 24 different convertibles available to new-car buyers in California, with at least two more due to hit dealer showrooms in the next six months--the Audi TT and the Mercedes-Benz CLK.

But before the flood of new product, there was barely a trickle: The only soft tops available in the U.S. between 1976 and 1982 came from European car makers. Sales of convertibles in this country dropped from more than 220,000 a year in the late 1960s to a pitiful 43,173 in 1982.

*

Straman and sunroof magnate Heinz Prechter at ASC Inc., working independently, turned the tap back on.

It was in 1981 that Straman, a master restorer and metalworker, ripped the top off one of Chevrolet's hot-selling Camaro sports coupes and, with parts engineered and fabricated in his shop in Newport Beach, turned it into a convertible. Straman, an auto designer by training, had done a few Ferrari conversions for enthusiasts since opening his shop in 1969. He started working on a domestic conversion soon after Cadillac dropped the Eldorado.

"When Detroit got out of the business," he said, "I knew it was time for me to get in."

Because a coupe's frame and body can get awfully flexible when the stiffening effect of an integral steel roof is lost, Straman first had to figure out how to reinforce the cars he was converting.

"People think it's just a matter of cutting off the top and putting on a canvas one," he said. "But it's not that simple. Half the work is in re-engineering the structure"--so that the resulting convertible is a safe, drivable car.

Straman developed his own tools and gauges for measuring the "flexiness" of a factory-built coupe, then compared those measurements with the readings he got when he took the roof off, and designed special reinforcing systems for each of the cars he worked on.

"It amazes me how different each model is," he said. Hoping to do an Acura convertible in the late 1980s, Straman found the coupe to be "very strong all the way around."

"But as soon as we took the top off," he said, "it just collapsed. We couldn't even open the doors. It literally caved in on itself."

So there was no Acura convertible. But Straman did do others--he estimates that about 10,000 of them rolled out of his shop between 1981 and 1996.

He sold the first few to individuals, then caught the eye of local Chevy dealers and soon was cranking out nearly 50 Camaro and Pontiac Firebird conversions a month. They sold for about $15,000 at a time when the coupe version was retailing for $10,000.

Straman also decapitated quite a few Honda CRX coupes and Nissan 300 ZX fastbacks for local dealers. He stopped doing high-volume work a few years ago and says he's winding down his conversion business, although he does a few Ferraris and high-end Mercedes-Benzes--jobs for which he gets $45,000 to $60,000 a pop from private clients.

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