For decades, driving with the top down has been seen as the ultimate luxury in driving. And for many with that luxury, it’s become somewhat of a summer tradition. But as it turns out, convertibles weren’t always seen as the pinnacle of automotive luxury. In today’s Headlight’s blog, we’ll take a quick look at the history behind the convertible car, and where the convertible might be headed in the future. 

The history of the convertible starts with this: Every car used to be one

The history of the convertible and the early history of the car is actually one and the same. The earliest cars – like the Ford Model T – were essentially modernized versions of the horse-drawn buggy. That meant that these early vehicles were lightweight, minimalist, and open. 

model t ford history of the convertible

And while that design certainly was revolutionary, it wasn’t the most practical for drivers. Early cars were cold and vulnerable to things like rain, dust, and…certain odors from others on the road who were still using horse-drawn vehicles. Not very luxurious. 

However, car manufacturers quickly realized there was more to be desired from their first designs, and set to work creating vehicles with fabric roofs and folding tops. 

The cloth-top revolution

In 1939 the first power-operated convertible top was launched, making for a much more convenient and driver-friendly experience. However, the hard top convertible wasn’t what captured the American imagination in the 40s. 

convertible

Many Americans went to Europe to serve in WWII, and while they were there, they were captivated by the little soft-top roadster cars they saw cruising around England and France. While these cars weren’t the most practical, that didn’t matter – they were fun. And in the cruising culture of the 50s and 60s, that fun factor was enough to convince most people. 

Popularity dies down

As all trends eventually do, the love for the convertible found a lull in the 70s as more people craved practicality, safety, and security. Americans needed a car that could take them down the highway at high speeds, and that’s just simply not what convertibles were made for. 

history of the convertible

But that doesn’t mean the ideas behind the convertible were lost forever. Things like sunroofs and glass moonroofs gave consumers just enough open-air access to keep them satisfied for the time being. 

Modern convertibles get a makeover

While convertibles never fully regained their mid-century popularity, they were still quite the iconic fixture in American culture, especially in the 2000s, when modern convertibles got a more sporty, glamorous makeover.

And who could forget that literally every “cool” person in the early 2000s drove a Lexus SC 430?

The future of the top-down car

In today’s fast-paced world, the convertibles of the 40s and 50s simply don’t have much of a competitive edge, aside from being collectors’ items. However, for plenty of (mostly older) Americans with a love of cars and little extra cash to spare, a convertible is the car of choice.

But what does the future hold for this nostalgic genre? For some, the future of the convertible may be in SUVs, if the popularity of the Jeep Wrangler and Ford Bronco is taken as a sign. One thing’s for certain though, as long as there are men going through midlife crises, there will be a market for convertibles. 

history of the convertible futuristic car

Want to learn more about car history beyond the history of the convertible? Discover the history of the VW Beetle, the surprising story of headlights and more on the Headlights blog.

Claire Biggerstaff
Claire Biggerstaff is a freelance writer and photographer from Charlotte, NC. Her curiosity leads her to write about a wide variety of topics. On her off days, she enjoys reading Polygon articles, and curling up to a good YouTube playlist.

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    1 Comment

    1. I love the convertible! I only like the hard tops though. The choice of having either a convertible or being completely covered.

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