Just Can't Top This

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.

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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.

For World War II, the nation's best-selling convertible was a Willys-Overland Jeep. In olive drab. With canvas-covered bucket seats, shovel brackets and a spare can of gasoline strapped to the back. Among GIs overseas--next to Betty Grable and a cold Stroh's--the things really worth fighting for were a ticket home, a no-down-payment-VA-loan house in Burbank and cruising Van Nuys Boulevard in the Lincoln Zephyr and Buick Century convertibles Willie and Joe put on wood blocks in 1941.

Long before the European war fell silent, Buick was advertising the car that would be "so nice to come home to." It was a yellow convertible. By war's end, ragtops were an American mania.

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Warren Weith described the addiction in "The Last American Convertibles," published in 1979: "Why else would any kid in Hamtramck or Red Hook sign himself up for a lifetime of work that he hated, or take his chances on X-number of years in the slammer, if there wasn't a Cadillac convertible at the end of the tunnel?"

Through the '40s into the '50s, life was freer, the car market was strong, and a dozen American convertibles were on their way to becoming classics. The 1947 Chrysler Town and Country, 2 tons of steel and varnished wood panels. A Buick Super for the last half of the '40s with a gun-sight hood ornament for those who spent the first half of the '40s peering through a real gun sight.

Sports cars rumbled into the picture: Corvettes and Thunderbirds, then cheeky British competition from Jaguar and MG, Triumph and Sunbeam--with Mercedes-Benz and BMW and Alfa Romeo not far behind and Ford's Mustang convertible still to come.

"The watershed years were the '50s and '60s," says Tony Leopardo of San Mateo, Calif., convertible collector, convertible restorer, convertible trader and last publisher of the recently defunct Convertible magazine. "That's when we started making convertibles sexy; that's when we started building cars as fast, racy, high-performance convertibles. Prior to that, we were just taking four-door sedans and whacking the tops off."

Annette Funicello drove to the Mickey Mouse Club in a Thunderbird. Richard Burton owned a 1957 Cadillac Eldorado. Lucy and Ricky made a movie about towing a long, long trailer behind a '59 Mercury convertible.

"Movies were telling us, 'Sexy, fun, famous, successful people buy convertibles,' " Leopardo says. In 1965, Americans bought 507,000 such status symbols, with convertibles representing 7% of the car market. Stripped and modified, they were to die for--sometimes literally--as part of the Southern California-fed street sport of drag racing. They certainly were a significant contributor to the growth of drive-up coffee shops, drive-in movies, drive-through liquor stores and, inevitably, drive-and-park pregnancies.

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Nothing, it seemed, could stem the success--except full and furious development of the 20th century.

In the infant '70s, high-speed interstates meant that drivers and passengers in convertibles faced head-on gales instead of soft breezes. In Los Angeles, we sucked bad air. Or were forced to put tops up in summer and breathe refrigerated air.

Insurance companies charged premiums for topless cars, although statistics from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety now show that convertibles are no more dangerous than sedans. The government dropped hints about roll-over requirements for soft tops--although none came into being.

The 1973-74 Arab oil embargo brought all things automotive to a screeching halt. It was considered unpatriotic to enjoy automobiles--especially sporty, topless, spirited, unusually muscular automobiles.

Chrysler dumped the convertible in 1971. Ford followed two years later. On April 21, 1976, in Detroit, a bicentennial Cadillac Eldorado convertible, the last of the gargantuans, rolled through its final assembly station. With white paint and white leather, red carpeting and blue body striping, this 5,000-pound convertible with its 500-cubic-inch V-8 was a defiant gesture. Also a final flourish that sent the convertible the way of running boards and rumble seats.

Columnists mourned, with one remembering the sound of rain on the canvas roof of his 1936 Ford and a car radio tuned to Gene Noble playing the blues over WLAC in Nashville. Will beauty queens be forced to walk? asked one editorial. Or will they be herded like prisoners of war into the backs of stake-bed trucks?

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What nobody really considered was that love affairs can be indestructible things, often prone to return for a final fling. One for the road, as it were. Further, the American public has a perverse habit of demanding precisely what big business says it cannot have.

Hence the birth within in a few years of a cottage industry headquartered in Southern California--where else?--in a cluster of firms that decapitated Toyotas and Mazdas, Camaros and Fiats and turned them into nifty convertibles. They called themselves convertible converters.

It took awhile--about three years--for Detroit to catch on. But stir it did, with charismatic, custom-shirted, crafty Lee Iacocca deciding that a LeBaron convertible just might prevent the final chapter of his Chrysler Corp. becoming a Chapter 11.

He ordered a prototype and in his huge-selling 1984 biography wrote of local response to the car: "I felt like the Pied Piper. People in Mercedes and Cadillacs started running me off the road and pulling me over like a cop. 'What are you driving?' they all wanted to know. 'Who built it? Where can I get one?' "

Iacocca built his lifeboat, the 1982 Chrysler LeBaron/Dodge 400 convertible, and "we sold 23,000 the first year instead of the 3,000 we planned."

Today's variety of convertibles is broader than what was around in the salad days. More than two dozen are out there, with prices ranging from $20,000 or so for a relatively naked Chrysler Sebring to $350,000 for a Bentley Azure marketed, deadpan, as an executive's alternative to buying a personal plane.

Soft tops mine history. The thunderous Dodge Viper plays off the Shelby Cobra topless two-seater bred in Santa Fe Springs in the '60s, while the Plymouth Prowler is a modern make-over of the chopped and channeled hot rods that ravaged Los Angeles suburbs in the '40s. Roadsters are a rash, with the Porsche Boxster, BMW Z3 and Mercedes-Benz SLK selling at a rate of 4,000 a month. It seems that the Volkswagen Cabrio, the mainstream Mustang convertible, the Corvette with its Route 66 legacy and those velvet artillery shells called the Mercedes-Benz SLs never really went away.

And if you're interested in where American convertibles go when restored and put out to pasture, visit the Deer Park Winery and Auto Museum in Escondido. It is populated by 112 soft tops--including one of those 1976 bicentennial Cadillac Eldorados.

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Despite the attraction and visibility of the form, convertibles still represent only 2.7% of today's auto sales. Analysts believe 300,000 units a year to be the saturation point. Because a cloth roof typically adds $5,000 to the cost of the same car with a steel roof, convertibles remain a fantasy of the young, bought by 45-year-old, college-educated professionals earning more than $60,000 a year.

"It's their way of saying, 'Now it's my turn,' " says Chevrolet's Almond. " 'Now I can escape from the sport-utility and minivan phase of my life and get into something offering pleasures I can't get from an old tin box with four doors.' "

So little time, of course, so many convertibles. Do you invest in a '90s sports car that looks like it was made in the '60s? Two seats or four?

Tom Matano of Irvine says it must be a two-seater that can be worn like a favorite jacket.

He should know. As head of research for Mazda, Matano was co-father of the saucy, British-flavored Miata. Total sales in 10 years: 450,000 worldwide and ascending.

"Less is more," he says of the Miata he drives as a personal car. "To enjoy a convertible to the fullest is to be a human being at one with nature . . . to put the top down on the one sunny afternoon during midwinter in Detroit, to park on the top of a cliff and enjoy a 360-degree view of the scenery.

"You can only do that in a two-seater. In a LeBaron or anything else with four seats, you're just sitting in a big car without a roof."

But what of sunroofs and targa tops where just a portion of the roof is removed? Matano doesn't like the emotional hesitation they represent.

Juliet MacCannell takes that psychology a little deeper.

"The convertible plays with the notion of unveiling, of being exposed to the view of others," says MacCannell, author, semiotician and professor emerita of comparative literature at UC Irvine.

She draws a parallel with the striptease, in which a G-string remains a cultural intervention between the dancer and all there is:

"Roland Barth [semiotic theorist] called the barrier 'the rhinestone triangle,' and the convertible falls under this interpretation. Because even though it gives you the feeling of being in the open air, you're still sitting in a machine."

A convertible, MacCannell says, can be quite feminine: "The woman driving is on display--it says she is attractive and open to possibilities."

It's also a boy thing: "The shape, the streamlining of any car is an elementary phallus. But the shape of a convertible is not fully complete. It's a phallus with an opening, which is nothing more than an invitation."

Well and good. But if stopped for speeding on PCH in your Camaro convertible, best not to plead sexual tension.

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TOP Down, Sales Up

After a long slump, U.S. sales of convertibles have been climbing in recent years, rising to 2.7% of care sales in 1997 from 0.8% in 1985. Convertible sales, in thousands:

1997: 221.8

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IN CALIFORNIA

Convertibles made up 4.3% of car sales in California for he first four months of the year. The top five convertibles in the state and their share of the convertible market:

Ford Mustang: 14.9%

BMW Z3: 11.9%

Chrysler Sebring: 8.1%

Mercedes-Benz SLK230: 7.0%

Porsche Boxster: 6.7%

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Sources: ASC Inc., Ford Motor Co., Automotive News, Chrysler Corp.

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