Lee Iacocca recaptured the spirit of his youth in the winter of 1981 by driving a prototype of a new convertible around Boca Raton, Fla. The car was an instant hit, the chairman of Chrysler Corp. recalled: young women climbed into the open vehicle uninvited, and crowds gathered whenever he parked the car. Those spontaneous reactions convinced Iacocca that it was time to revive the so-called ragtop. His marketing hunch paid off: Chrysler sold 24,000 Dodge 400 and LeBaron model convertibles in 1982. Top-down driving was back in style after all major North American car manufacturers stopped mass-producing convertibles during the 1970s because of tougher crash-test standards and declining sales.
Many drivers had always responded to the lure of open-air driving. In 1965 alone North American motorists bought 500,000 convertibles—seven per cent of the cars produced on the continent that year. But convertible sales gradually declined from that peak. For one thing, the new hardtops that appeared during the early 1970s had improved air-conditioning systems and also offered such eye-catching features as vinyl roofs.
Those cars offered the sportiness of convertibles at a lower cost—and they were less vulnerable to vandals and car thieves.
The car that symbolized youthful freedom, adventure and rebellion appeared to be on a fast trip to nowhere. As the last Cadillac convertible rolled off a Detroit assembly line on April 21, 1976, Edward Kennard, Cadillac’s general manager at the time, declared that “like the running board and the rumble seat, the convertible is an item that history has passed by.” But Iacocca has proved him wrong. Now, Chrysler produces up to 30,000 convertibles yearly in a market that accounts for 1.5 per cent of the 12.5 million cars sold annually in North America. The company’s LeBaron costs about $19,000 and competes with Ford’s Mustang in an array of topless models, which stretch from Volkswagen’s Cabriolet Golf model (about $18,500) to the $250,000 Rolls-Royce Corniche II. Clearly, many drivers still like the feeling of moving down the highway with the wind in their hair.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.