Theme : Bodies – Open Cars

DTW faces the elements.

Roadgoing Formula Ford – image : autocarhire-com

Open cars are not really the same as convertibles. By which I mean that convertibles may be open sometimes, but a true ‘open’ car is almost always open. Sometimes this may be because they don’t even have the option of a weather-resistant roof, sometimes because what is on offer is so ineffective and rudimentary, that it is hardly ever used.

Needless to say, the United Kingdom is not seen as a primary market for such vehicles. Our weather is too variable to make possession of such vehicles a practical proposition. It’s no coincidence that hot-rods and dune buggies hail from the sunnier parts of the USA and not Essex.

Nowhere to hide - Mercer Raceabout - image : blog.hemmings.com
Nowhere to hide – Mercer Raceabout – image : blog.hemmings.com

Yet, until the 1960s, ‘proper’ sports cars were generally open-topped ones. Cost affected this to a degree, but there was also the implication that it was rather more dashing (to use a period, though less gender-specific adjective than manly) to drive exposed to the elements. There was nothing effete about an AC Cobra but, possibly due to improved technology, possibly just because of the vagaries of motoring journalism, at some point the open-topped car became more closely associated with hairdressers than racing drivers. I’ve countered this rather crass pigeonholing before, but there are still cars that do ensure that your motoring experience is suitably visceral.

Originally, a Roadster was an open car with no weather protection at all, not even a windscreen – imagine driving something like that down a dirt road at the start of the 20th Century. Slowly the cars calling themselves such became more civilised, offering at least basic protection from the rain until Roadster became just a synonym for Convertible. But some manufacturers have stayed true to the original ideal.

No-one really wants to drive a Caterham 7 with the roof in place. I did think of replacing my motorcycle with one once but, because I intended using it all year round, I had the foresight to try getting into it with the roof up. By the time I was settled into the seat, my dignity had disappeared, and so had 80% of the surrounding view. Combined with my size 11 shoes that I really didn’t trust to distinguish between brake and throttle, for once common sense got the better of me. A pity. A few years later I was sniffing around a Morgan but, although easier to get into, the visibility was also dire.

Of course, compared to an Ariel Atom, a Morgan’s or Caterham’s weather protection is positively decadent. And the Atom is joined by the KTM X-Bow and Gordon Murray’s Rocket as cars that you drive for no other reason than pleasure, albeit potentially a very masochistic sort of pleasure. But don’t get the idea that I can’t hack it with the elements. My need for weather protection was for the sake of my various potential passengers who, I conceded, might not share my willingness to get wet. As a motorcyclist, I’d actually be happy running an open topped vehicle all year round, but as someone who spends a lot of time in a city, I’m not sure what it would be.

Smart Crossblade - image : carinsurav.com
Smart Crossblade – image : carinsurav.com

Am I the only person who really liked the idea of the Smart Crossblade? Of course not, I shared that with Robbie Williams who, when he took delivery of the first one in 2002, was said by the President of Smart MMC “….to embody our target group’s joyous attitude to life and the image of our brand”. Mr Williams had no driving licence at the time and, as far as I know, still doesn’t.

But the problem with the Crossblade for me is not Robbie, but that the interior, with its two tone seats, just doesn’t look as though it wants to sit on a London street, exposed to the elements and drunks who think it would make an interesting alternative to a hedge.

And that’s the problem with an open car; some people just do want to chuck things into it and the flashier it looks, the more likely you are to return to it and find something interesting on the driver’s seat. Yet the problem with weather protection is that the effort to put it in place must be commensurate with the image of the car.

It’s no good turning up in the coolest, sleekest open sportster, noticing a drop of rain, then spending 15 minutes struggling with spindly struts and flappy bits of canvas in a half-hearted attempt to protect the interior. Either walk coolly away and let it get messy or buy something else.

The other point is that, as a long-term city dweller, I do have that self-preservative inclination not to be too visible as a recognisable individual. I balance that with the need to maintain facial contact with fellow road users, which I find pretty essential for a good relationship – find a car with deep tinted windows or a bike rider with a black tinted visor, and 90% of the time they conduct themselves like arses – out of sight, out of mind.

I used to wear an open faced helmet on a bike, both to be able to present myself as a human being to other road users and also because I actually liked the intimacy with the elements. But the occasional, too intimate, graze from bits of gravel or similar finally persuaded me to adopt full-face. In a clear visored, full-faced helmet, you are semi-anonymous, and so too behind an untinted car windscreen and, in a city, this might be a reasonable compromise.

But sitting out in the open, you really do stand out, so you’d better feel comfortable with what you’re sitting in. As such, a high-end sports car wouldn’t work for me, so there goes the Pagani Roadster although, I might manage a D-Type Jaguar if you insisted on giving me one.

I drove an ex forces lightweight Land Rover for a week once. I liked it a lot and you could strip it of all weatherproofing and revel in the noisy progress and your very direct connection to its rude mechanicals. And, of course, there is its inspiration, the Jeep, and some of its descendants. But I do find the para-military connotation of army surplus kit a bit odd, playing at being a soldier without the risk, so maybe the original Citroen Mehari or Mini Moke would fit the bill.

Fitted with hose down seats and an immobiliser, either of these minimalist vehicles could be rewarding to drive around in. Or, of course, the above mentioned dune buggy is a possibility though, for me, having read about the Myers Manx in its ultimate Corvair powered version in my teens, the dream was forever flattened by the first buggy I actually saw first hand, a tub of tacky GRP powered by an out of tune, farting, Beetle engine.

Then, of course, there is the “me-and-me-mates-got-pissed-at-the-barbeque-and-it-seemed-a-good-idea-at-the-time” conversion, which is basically taking a cutting torch to the pillars of a knackered hardtop, running it all Summer, then scrapping it as soon as Autumn sets in. Actually the more I think about that, the better it seems. Yes, you will doubtless get people tutting at you a fair deal, and you probably need to hold the doors in place on roundabouts, but it offers a lot of cheap cars open to ‘modification’ that could only be improved – W210 Mercedes anyone?

4 thoughts on “Theme : Bodies – Open Cars”

  1. Mehari, all the way. They are plastic and vinyl and if you don’t mind riding a bike then you won’t mind a Mehari: no doors either. It’s the perfect sandal of a car.

    1. +1. I’m holidaying in the south of France right now and saw a brand new ‘eMehari’ yesterday – the cabin is far too enclosed and cosseting to pay a genuine tribute to the original. Even if the doors could be removed (I doubt that’s an option) it doesn’t look that much fun.

    2. Yes, still a dream of mine. But absurdly expensive in decent state (i.e. with an unpainted, unfaded body).

  2. I have always fancied a dune buggy. I agree that there are some very nasty examples about, and I would inevitably lavish far too much expense on having the engine chromed and tuned. As for Aerial Atoms and their ilk, I can definitely see their appeal, right up to the point where I realise that I would have to dress up like a fat Power Ranger to drive one. A wide body Caterham seems like a reasonable compromise, until you see the sums commanded for them. Then you start wading into the mark 1 Elise quagmire, and by the time you’re there you might as well buy an MX5 because, hey, at least the Mazda won’t destroy its own drive shafts / gearbox / cylinder head / any one of the other 450 mabillion things that Lotuses do with alarming regularity and expense.

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