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COMING DOWN HARD: HARD-TOP CONVERTIBLES

COMING DOWN HARD: HARD-TOP CONVERTIBLES

Posted by Matt Bell on 10th May 2019

When is a convertible not a convertible? When it’s also a coupe… We look at a selection of hard ‘soft’ tops to check out how you can enjoy the best of both worlds.

Summer’s nearly here and with it comes a desire for drop-top motoring – after all, there’s nothing nicer than a drive out into the country with the wind blasting through your hair. But with the British weather being hugely unpredictable, sometimes a soft-top is too much of a compromise. Here are some of the best choices for year-round motoring.

MERCEDES-BENZ SLK

Launched in 1996, the SLK was Mercedes-Benz’s mini-SL. A car that scaled down the proportions of the company’s sporting flagship, but also offered something else. That something was a three-stage retractable folding hardtop that turned it from a coupe into a convertible in less than 30 seconds Called the ‘Vario-roof’, it set a precedent for a whole host of coupe-cabrios in the 1990s and 2000s.

The SLK was both rigid and well-engineered, meaning it handled well and the roof rarely gave problems. The same can’t be said, sadly, of the bodywork, which suffered the same rampant levels of corrosion as other 1990s Mercs… It’s hard to find a good SLK today, but the good news is that you can still get one for under £3000.

PEUGEOT 206CC

Hot on the heels of the SLK came the Peugeot 206CC. Introduced in 2000, the baby coupe-cabrio was the first supermini CC and was rapturously received. Not only was it technologically very clever, but it also looked cool, while it was reasonable value for money, too.

The car was manufactured for Peugeot by short-series production specialists, Heuliez though, as the car aged, problems with leaks and malfunctioning roof mechanisms became all-too-common bugbears.

Find one that’s all working, though, and the 206 CC is a cute and enjoyable little car, and yours for less than £1000.

DAIHATSU COPEN

The smallest coupe-cabriolet ever made was the Daihatsu Copen, which was sold in the UK from 2002 to 2007. Built to Japanese Kei-Car regulations, the Copen had a 659cc turbocharged engine and a fully electric retractable hardtop.

It’s a car with a cult following and is rare in the UK, not least due to the fact that rust can attack the sills and floorpans quite aggressively. You can get a road legal example for less than £1000, but Copens in excellent condition are unusual and tend to command at least double that – it’s worth it for one that you won’t need to spend thousands on resurrecting.

LEXUS SC430

Lexus introduced its SC430 at the 2000 New York Auto Show, positioned largely for the American market and built on the platform of the LS430 executive saloon. It was a big car – similar in dimensions to the Mercedes-Benz SL.

Its party piece was a fully electric hardtop roof, which stowed itself away at the touch of a button in less than 25 seconds.

It was never a huge success in the UK, partly down to its oddball looks but also as a result of not being particularly dynamic – it drove like a large saloon rather than a sports car, which was at odds with the performance of its V8 engine.

Irrespective, the SC430 has a strong following among enthusiasts, meaning that you still need about £4000 to get behind the wheel of a good example.

VAUXHALL TIGRA

Built by the same company that made the Peugeot 206CC – Heuliez – the 2003-on Tigra was a car very much in the same mould. Small, based on the platform of the Corsa C supermini and surprisingly agile to drive, it was, however, bugged by the same problems that affected the 206CC.

Water leaks and roof mechanism failures are rife, and the roof is expensive to repair – indeed, many second-hand Tigras are pretty much coupes these days. It’s a car that’s at the stage where it sits between being a classic and a banger, and a good one is worth seeking out as there’s bound to be strong interest in the future – especially as £1000 will get you a decent one.

JAGUAR XJS-C

Before Jaguar lopped the top off the XJS completely, it made the XJS-C. All were hand-finished by Jaguar Special Vehicle Operations and had the rear seats removed to create stowage space for the roof panels.

It was neither coupe nor cabrio, but has a fixed profile, retaining the original XJS door frames with a cant rail to which the removable roof panels were attached. The roof was of the ‘Targa’ variety, where the centre section of the roof could be removed without compromising the car’s structural rigidity.

Good examples are quite collectable these days, so you’ll need at least £10k if you want something half decent.

PORSCHE 911 TARGA

Porsche owns the trademark to the name ‘Targa’, having introduced it on the 1972 Porsche 911. It retains much of the bodywork of the coupe, but with a clamshell rear window and a removable panel in the middle of the roof.

The concept proved popular and appeared on all subsequent variations of the 911. However, in the minds of many enthusiasts, the Targa lacks both the styling purity and rigidity of the 911 Coupe and that means that values are approximately 20 per cent lower. Early ones are starting to get quite collectable though, with values of over £30,000.

TOYOTA MR2

The MR2 was one of the first cars offered in the UK with a T-top – a concept pioneered by the 1967 Chevrolet Corvette C3.

It looked largely the same as the coupe model, but with two removable glass panels that could be popped off and stowed behind the front seats to allow wind-in-the-hair thrills.

Thanks to the T-bar running through the middle of the car, the MR2 T-top retains the structural rigidity of the coupe and is equally as dynamic to drive.

The first and second generations of MR2 were offered in both coupe and T-top configurations before the model went to being fully open top for its third generation.

ROVER 200 ‘TOMCAT’

The coupe version of Rover’s R8 model appeared in 1992 and took the brand to a new market, with both a fixed-head coupe and a T-top option available.

Like the MR2, the roof panels could be removed to leave a central stabilising bar to maintain structural rigidity, while Rover also provided two soft stowage bags that slid into the boot to protect the glass area.

T-Tops are generally less valuable than coupe Tomcats, which are preferred by enthusiasts, especially in 200bhp turbocharged form.

The most accessible versions are the Honda-engine 1.6-litre auto and later Rover K-Series  1.6 manuals, both of which can be picked up for less than £1k.

CHEVROLET SSR

Although never officially imported to the UK, private importers have brought quite a few Chevrolet SSRs to the market. The car created a nice that nobody asked for. Unashamedly retro, it took styling cues from the 1950s Chevroelt Stepside pick-up and was a genuine commercial vehicle.

It was also the first and only pick-up truck to feature a fully retractable electric hardtop, which would disappear at the touch of a button to create a vehicle that was definitely an acquired taste, but also truly unique.

DATSUN 280ZX

Introduced in 1980, the Datsun 280ZX was the first of the Japanese firm’s famous line of Z-Cars to feature a pop-out Targa roof.

It was extremely popular in the USA, where the Z-Range first made a name for itself. It was more of a boulevard cruiser than it was a genuine sports car, and was far less dynamic than the previous 240 and 260Z models, but was nevertheless a big hit.

Sadly, it was slightly spoiled by Federal regulations that dictated it had big rubber bumpers not dissimilar to those on the MGB, while it was also hideously rot prone, meaning that survival numbers are rare in the UK.

According to Howmanyleft.co.uk there were a total of 40 280ZXs still taxed and registered last summer, of which 24 were targa-topped variants.

SUZUKI X-90

Nobody asked the world for a 4×4 SUV coupe, but Suzuki created one anyway, with the Vitara-based X-90 making its debut in 1995.

It was a wonderfully weird and quirky car, albeit not an especially good one – certainly in terms of its road behaviour and ride comfort.

But it was fun, and on a sunny day, the ability to remove its two glass roof panels to create a T-top convertible certainly gave it some kind of charm.

Suzuki somehow managed to sell over 3000 X-90s in the UK, and if you find yourself itching after one, then as little as £500 will get you something roadworthy.

FORD GALAXIE SKYLINER 500

Finally, the car that started it all (though some would argue that it was the Peugeot 402 Eclipse Decapotable in 1935, which did use a powered retractable hardtop but was also a hugely expensive niche model).

The Ford Skyliner Galaxie was the first truly mass produced car with an electric folding hardtop, built between 1957 and 1959. Almost 50,000 were sold. The roof operated on a pantograph-style series of hydraulic rams, which would lift the roof up and automatically stow it in the car’s boot.

Unsurprisingly, Skyliners are very collectable these days and tend to fetch over £70,000 on the rare occasions they pop up on the global auction scene – but it’s a car that was a true pioneer, without which none of the others in this line-up would probably have existed.