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Just Can't Top This

Cool and Sexy, the Convertible Is the American Dream in Motion

June 25, 1998|PAUL DEAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Frank Sinatra went into his night as an American original, a man commemorated and held dear alongside similar designs and signs of our enduring times.

Like the fifth of Jack Daniels, the pack of Camels and the Zippo lighter placed in his casket. So American. So typical of totems that happen only in America.

Like the free and breezy convertible, older than the American cowboy, certainly an easier ride than his horse, and one symbol that has been connecting the dots of Americana for more than a century.

In fact, in memoriam to a faithful customer, Cadillac published a full-page newspaper epitaph to Sinatra in New York and Los Angeles, his kind of towns. Crowning the ad was a view of the over-chromed, mammary front end of a '54 Cadillac convertible. With blue headlights for Ol' Blue Eyes.

"It had to be a convertible, because this was one icon to another, tipping their hats," says Jeff Eaker, a second-generation Frankophile, who had the idea and wrote the copy for the New York agency that has been advertising Cadillac for almost 90 years. "A convertible is a metaphor for the American dream. It's sexy, no doubt about it. It hints at life without limits. It's for people who find a certain pleasure in life's risks and in the ride. And that's the way Sinatra lived."

Today, after death did us part from convertibles in 1976, America is back living, dreaming and buying drop tops. About 222,000 left American showrooms last year--sales not seen since the convertible-crazy '60s--with more delivered to sun-schmoozing Southern California than to any other region.

Manufacturers without a convertible in their lineups, insiders believe, are risking a collision with customer criticism.

Face it, if it hadn't been for convertibles, the Keystone Kops would have had nothing to fall from. We wouldn't have seen the triumphant smiles of history--of Lindbergh, Eisenhower, MacArthur and Glenn if they had ridden ticker-tape parades in closed sedans. John F. Kennedy might have lived to retire to Hyannis Port, Mass., had his Lincoln convertible been a hardtop.

Owning, driving and wanting a convertible represent a complex yearning. Visibility tinged with vulnerability, sensuality. Exhilaration without real danger. Reverse voyeurism with a view.

"It's the feel of breezes coming through the vehicle," explains Chevrolet's Dick Almond, former brand manager for Corvette and Camaro, a brace of consummate American convertibles. "It's sounds coming through and your closeness to nature."

No kidding.

He tries again: "You are no longer cloistered in this little capsule. You have ripped off the roof, and suddenly it's like moving from the city to the country."

Ah, that's better.

You become younger, Almond says. Certainly better-looking. And if your convertible sounds naughtier and drives faster than the family station wagon, the spiritual lift becomes a leap.

"That higher performance gives you a new freedom, a fresh sense of being in control," he goes on. "And that release becomes an arithmetic multiplier, a wonderful invitation to be in control of your destiny, to move into a new phase of life. You are young again. Also very cool."

Exactly.

*

Convertibles are as old as the American automobile. Our first cars--the gasoline-powered Duryea that rolled from a Massachusetts barn in 1893, the steam-engined Breer hammered together in a Los Angeles blacksmith's shop in 1901--came without tops. Fighting elements simply wasn't an issue when car trips didn't last long enough to encounter weather changes. Besides, for chugging at 10 mph, a curly brimmed bowler and an umbrella worked just fine.

Rudimentary weatherproofing came only in 1904 when Henry Ford offered a collapsible leather top with glass portholes as a $50 option (a rubber roof cost $30) on his Model A. Side windows were years away. Hardtops were for Buick limousines and Packard coupes, mostly to keep owners and their social positions safe from the stares of the unwashed.

It wasn't until the '20s and '30s that the pure, elemental convertible--something cozy with top and glass windows up, yet carefree and stylish with roof tucked into the trunk--entered our ways and became the mistress of American motoring.

From Maine to Malibu, wage earners' savings were seduced by the 1927 McFarlan Boattail Roadster (good enough to return as a kit car replica in the '60s), the 1928 Ford Model A listing for $460 and the 1931 Rockne two-seater, named after Knute.

Wealthier classes had the 1936 Cord Sportsman with a hood like a casket. Or the 1933 Packard Super Eight Coupe Roadster (phew!), the Stutzes, Pierce-Arrows, Auburns and Duesenbergs with custom coach work, often by Walter Murphy of Pasadena--with Clark Gable, Errol Flynn, Sonja Henie, Gary Cooper, Tyrone Power, Jimmy Cagney and the Hollywood aristocracy forming his convertible clientele.

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