Note: I’ve used the title “Avoidable Contact” for years now to denote my editorials in which I’m discussing general automotive issues. With the publication of the new issue of R&T, that title is now in use there. For the foreseeable future, I will be writing two types of editorials here at TTAC. The good-cars-and-bad-women content that has traditionally gone under “Trackday Diaries” will continue to do so, while the stuff that used to be “Avoidable Contact” will now be under “No Fixed Abode”, with a nod of the head to the departed Iain M Banks — JB
The year was 1986 and I, a six-foot-three fourteen-year-old rendered insubstantial by vertical growth and sleepless nights, was chasing my eight-year-old brother through the moonlit woods behind the house of my father’s friends. He, in turn, was pursuing a child somewhere between our ages, who was running after a firefly, or a frog, or perhaps nothing. The noise of a party was fading behind us as we sprinted, hot and sweating in the summer evening, screaming wordlessly ahead, until we burst from the trees into a clearing and fell silent as a group. There was a woman seated in a chromed Everest&Jennings wheelchair, thin, sad-eyed, facing a detached garage and the long, battleship-grey Pontiac parked in front of it.
“Sorry, ma’am,” we chorused, when the woman turned her expressionless face our way. We’d heard about her. She was the wife of my father’s friend, dying from multiple sclerosis at the ripe old age of perhaps thirty-eight, a shy woman who had become almost nonexistent in the social life of our neighborhood as the disease progressed. Back at the big brick house, her husband was drinking and laughing and arguing, but she had been nowhere to be seen. Now we had interrupted her private moment and we all started to back to the woods.
“You,” she said, pointing to me. “Kevin’s boy. Come here. It’s okay,” she reinforced, seeing that I was hesitant. “Do you know what this is?” She pointed to the car. Surely, it was a trick question.
“Ma’am,” I answered, choosing my words carefully, “I believe that’s a nineteen seventy five Pontiac Grand Ville convertible.” There was a trace of a smile on her skeletal face.
“You could say that,” she replied. “It’s my nineteen seventy five Pontiac Grand Ville convertible. But what good could it be to me? You can see me. You can see how it is no good to me. Not anymore. So go tell your father,” and there was a hint of anger in her voice that I wouldn’t understand until I heard it again in the voices of women as they said my name twenty-five years later, “that it can be yours, if he would only ask me.”
Then I was off, sprinting back to the house, the other children confused and scattered in my wake, tripping over roots and tumbling to the dark earth before finally arriving in the circle of men who were standing under a pole-mounted bug light, listening to Dad talk about something sports-related. I waited in the near-darkness for him to notice me. Finally he motioned me forward. I could already imagine myself behind the wheel of that big Pontiac, cruising up and down High Street in front of the university, filling the wide back seat with laughing girls and BMX bicycles, being a genuinely cool guy. There were Porsches and Benzes aplenty in my high school parking lot, but no Grand Ville droptops. “You know Jack,” I imagined Cara, the hottest girl in my class at the time, saying. “The cool guy with the big old convertible.” I was so busy dreaming about my future life I could barely spare the processing power to speak.
“Dad! Mrs. [redacted],” I sputtered, “has a seventy-five Grand Ville convertible, I think it’s the four hundred but, Dad, it could be the four-fifty-five, I don’t know, I didn’t ask, but she said to ask you if I could have it.” There was silence among the men that lasted longer than it should have, longer than I wanted it to, before my father responded.
“You,” he laughed, “don’t want a piece of shit like that. Don’t you want a Datsun 200SX?”
“A Nissan 200SX, yes Dad, but…”
“No,” he clarified, the smile gone from his face and his voice, “you don’t want that car. Some old convertible. Worthless. It’s not even safe, Jack.” When he said I “didn’t want” something, that really meant “can’t have”, so I turned away and trudged back to the other children, who had found a toad and were busy trying to find a container in which to imprison it. As I watched the poor creature jump towards an open spot only to find a set of hands waiting for it every time, I moaned in sympathy. The middle class wasn’t going to let go of me any more readily.
Because make no mistake, in the Eighties the idea of a convertible had a distinct whiff of trash to it. Of course, there was the Mercedes SL, the unimpeachable transportation of bankers and trophy wives. During Upper Arlington’s Fourth of July parade of those years, it wasn’t unusual for every single car in the parade to be an SL. Every single one. More than fifty prom queens, local celebrities, and honorary chairpersons, every one seated on the hardshell tonneau of a 380SL or, where said modern variant was unavailable due to poverty or stubbornness, a 450SL.
But the SL, along with the 911SC Cabriolet, was the exception that proved the rule. Decent people shunned convertibles. With their risk of rollover injuries and their fading canvas tops, they were simply NOKD. Fear of federal regulation had killed two entire generations of American family convertibles; the Cutlass Supreme became America’s best-selling car despite dropping the droptop when it went Colonnade, and the 1978 A-body that replaced it offered an Aeroback in its place. The “final convertible” in the minds of many people was that ’76 Eldorado, the monstrous Las Vegas abomination that verged on self-parody to a middle class that was already changing en masse to the diesel Mercedes and Saab hatchback. Cadillac very smartly changed the El-Dog to a trim, formal-looking coupe in 1979, earning my grandfather’s business back as a consequence.
As a result, most of the convertibles you saw were old cars, and in 1986 a decade-old car wasn’t the sensible proposition it is now. It was a junkyard dog. An old Pontiac convertible? Five strikes: American. Old. Pontiac. Convertible. Gas Guzzler. The fact that I imagined myself as the star of my own movie in the thing mattered not to my father, who had been ahead of the curve in the whole despising-the-convertible thing when he’d traded his Camaro RS 327 in on a Volvo sedan in 1974. (Irony time; he’d eventually buy a Volvo C70 convertible, which to my knowledge had the top dropped perhaps three times in the two years he owned it.)
The impermanent top eventually returned to production with the domestics; the Mustang, in particular, has made a career of being a convertible once again. But it was strictly a specialty-car thing, both for the home team and the imports, whose idea of a convertible was either a Karmann-built Rabbit (often referred to, most recently by Jalopnik, as the “bitch basket” for its spoiled-girl clientele and its sensible rollover bar) or some improbably expensive Saab 900/BMW Three/Mercedes E-Klasse variant. There were third-party aftermarket convertibles, which in their execution and customer base precisely paralleled the higher-end waterbeds, but we all pretended they didn’t exist.
The lone exception to all this was Chrysler. Lee Iacocca, always a man with an eye for a way to extract a publicity-friendly new car from an existing platform, saw that an American convertible capable of seating five would have some sort of market. He had the sense to make sure it hit the market as a LeBaron, not a Reliant, too.
Thus began one of the more curious production runs in American automotive history. For a full thirty-one model years, almost without interruption, Chrysler sold an affordably-priced, mid-sized, non-specialty, family-car-based convertible. Other manufacturers would dip a toe in the waters then run, but Chrysler maintained it from LeBaron to Sebring to 200. For the last thirty years, the Chrysler convertible has been a mainstay of rental fleets, a choice of older women looking for a bit of post-divorce thrill, the used car most often chosen by public-university girls whose parents couldn’t spring for a bitch basket.
I never knew anybody who actually wanted a Chrysler droptop. The desirability of those cars in most quarters was precisely zilch. Yet when it was time to fly to Hawaii or enjoy a Florida work-cation, those same people who would wrinkle their noses when they saw a Sebring convertible parked next to them at the grocery store would fight tooth and nail to get one as a rental. It was America’s temporary pleasure car, the four-wheeled equivalent of a Nevada prostitute. You loved it for a Vegas weekend but if you had one at home your neighbors would magically forget your existence.
Chrysler knew who was buying the things, and so did Polk. In the DaimlerChrysler era, the Sebring convertible was ruthlessly optimized for its disparate and specialized customer bases, with no fewer than three different tops, the most expensive of which was a Car Top Systems hardtop just like what you could get in the majestic but long-out-of-fashion Mercedes SL. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen one so equipped, but I’m sure they are out there.
And now they are gone. The Chrysler 200, the less-than-silky purse created from the sow’s-ear Sebring, offered a convincing convertible that combined the interior revisions of the 200 with the superior silhouette of the folding-hardtop Sebring. You could do a lot worse than to buy one, if you wanted that sort of thing.
Yet we’re no longer the sort of country, or even the sort of world, that wants that sort of thing. The family-car buyers of the Fifties and Sixties often found themselves strangely split between the two most expensive variants of the Ford or Chevy they preferred, those variants being station wagon and convertible. A lot of people put their unbelted children in a convertible every day of the week and, as they say, twice on Sundays, once for church and once for ice cream. No longer. Today we will pay any price or bear any burden for safety and security, whether from the terrorists du jour or the rollover accident. And when we say “we”, I mean “we, including Jack Baruth”; I used to drive my son around in my 560SL but I’m no longer so sure about doing that. It would be better to retreat to our fortresses of solitude, our caves of steel, lest the demon return and air-burst our wind-blown faces with the blood of our children.
You could argue that Chrysler had a national responsibility of sorts to continue providing the 200 Convertible, that if they were unwilling to undertake the job themselves then the government should have stepped in. Why not? The G mandated the construction of the B-29, they can sure as hell make the production of domestic droptops a condition of the bailout. Face it: you don’t really want a cramped Mustang or claustrophobic Camaro the next time you step off the plane in Miami or San Diego. You want a flat floor, a big trunk, front-wheel-drive dynamics and no trouble. You want the 200 in that line of rental cars. You need the 200 in that line of rental cars. You’ll miss it when it’s gone, no matter how you disrespected it in the past.
As will we all. The convertible era truly died the minute General Motors and Ford gave up on providing the option in the midsizers, but the death throes lasted a good long time and, frankly speaking, I’m glad they did. The Chrysler convertible was, truly, the working girl of the car biz. But every working girl eventually gets tired of the parade of faces. Eventually it’s time to lay down alone. And so it will be with the Chrysler convertibles. They, like the 380SLs of Upper Arlington on the morning of July fourth, have a long parade ahead, but it’s one that ends, not in the laughter of the final assembly, but in the arms of the crusher, dead and gone, like that woman in the wheelchair from long ago, taking a final night to remember the glories that can never come again.