To the Guillotine!

The coupé-cabriolet, otherwise known as the hardtop convertible, is an endangered species. DTW will not be shedding many tears at its passing.

mercedes
1996 Mercedes R170 SLK. (c) mercedesfans.de

The 1996 Mercedes-Benz SLK roadster was a great concept, executed woefully. Despite having a multitude of dynamic, quality, reliability and durability-related shortcomings, the SLK was an enormously successful model that rewarded its maker’s cynicism handsomely.

These issues were not, of course, apparent to the many early customers who endured a nine-month waiting list to collect their handsome new roadster, or to less patient buyers who paid over list price for nearly-new examples. The SLK had one stand-out feature that made it hugely attractive to city dwellers in particular; a retractable steel hardtop, christened ‘Vario Roof’ by Mercedes-Benz.

There had, of course, been hardtop-convertibles before, notably the 1930’s Peugeot 601 and 402 Eclipse Decapotable coupés and the enormous 1957 Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner, but such cars were expensive and compromised by the need to store their large one-piece roofs in the boot, seriously limiting both space and accessibility.

The SLK, however, had the advantage of being a strict two-seater with a short roof, not much longer than the depth of the rear window. This provided a convenient articulation point for the roof to fold and drop into the boot.

1937 Peugeot 402 Eclipse Decapotable (c) artebellum.com

Notwithstanding its small size, the roof was still bulky when folded, and effectively reduced the boot capacity by about half. Before the roof could be lowered, a horizontal ‘roller blind’ had to be manually unfurled within the boot to ensure that there was nothing in there to obstruct the folding roof. Most owners, unless they needed to use the boot, left the blind unfurled permanently so the roof could be lowered electrically without leaving the driver’s seat. This operation delighted small boys who watched the roof disappear like magic under the steel tonneau cover. Even adults were stopped in their tracks by the Transformers trick, for a while anyway.

The success of the SLK brought the folding hardtop back into fashion and a raft of what became known as Coupé-Cabriolet models, mainly derivatives of mainstream hatchbacks and saloons, soon followed. Peugeot launched the 206CC in 2001 followed by the 307CC in 2003. Renault launched the Megane CC in the same year. Opel/Vauxhall launched the Tigra TwinTop in 2004, then Nissan launched the Micra C+C in 2005. A year later, things really heated up: Ford launched the Focus CC, Mitsubishi the Colt CZC, Opel/Vauxhall the Astra TwinTop and VW the Eos. 2006 really was the peak year for the coupé-cabriolet and their aficionados.

2006 Nissan Micra C+C (c) garaz.cz

Owners and their friends were impressed by the party trick their new car could perform and appreciated the additional security they offered, especially owners without a garage or, at least, off-street parking. There were, however, drawbacks too.

Unlike the SLK, a strict two-seater, all of these mainstream models were nominally four-seaters, so the roof was considerably longer. The larger models needed a further articulation line at the B-pillar across the middle of the roof and, even with this, they needed a large and tall boot to accommodate it. This did the styling no favours and most looked like they were carrying rather too much fat in their derrières.

2010 Renault Megane CC (c) carscoops.com

Some manufacturers, for example Ford and Renault, tried to disguise this bulk with large and unusually shaped tail lights, but with little success. Shut-line management was also problematic: in order to have a sufficiently wide boot opening to accommodate the roof, the shut-lines often ended up awkwardly placed on the sides of the rear wings.

Moreover, in order to minimise the length of the roof, most had exceptionally deep windscreens with heavily inclined A-pillars. This placed the driver and front passenger’s heads uncomfortably close to the windscreen top rail, making the sun visors less than effective and creating a bump hazard for taller people’s heads as they got in and out of the car.

The solidity of these metal roofs certainly assisted body rigidity when they were locked in the raised position, but the associated mechanisms placed a lot of weight at an undesirably high level, raising the cars’ centre of gravity. With the roof lowered, the cars were often lacking in torsional rigidity. Neither of these traits did the cars’ handling any favours either.

2010 Ford Focus CC (c) convertiblecarmagazine.com

There were problems with water leaks too, notably on the Focus CC, where the seal between the roof and windscreen rail was deficient. Many cars were subjected to repeated adjustment to try and fix the problem, but to little effect and it was only when the facelifted model was released in 2008 that the problem was finally cured*.

Mercedes-Benz introduced a new SL in 2001, the R230, and fitted it with the Vario Roof. In order to improve the packaging when the roof was folded, the rear screen was made narrower and two rather awkward looking gloss black triangular fillets were inserted between the screen and C-pillars. When the SLK was replaced with a new model, the 2004 R171, the same thing was done, again to the detriment of its appearance. Subsequent replacement models for both the SLK and SL retained this awkward detail.

Of the premium marques, Audi was never drawn into the coupé-cabriolet market and stuck with fabric tops for its TT, A3 and A5 convertibles. BMW was initially a bit sniffy, citing the negative dynamic impact of such roofs, but eventually succumbed with the 2006 E93 generation 3-Series convertible. Subsequent 4 Series convertibles have both featured folding hardtops. The larger 6 and 8-Series convertibles retained their fabric roofs throughout, while the Z4 featured a folding hardtop for one generation only, the 2009 E89, before reverting to a soft-top on the 2018 G29.

Volvo switched to a folding hardtop with its 2006 second-generation C70 convertible, but that model was discontinued in 2013 and Volvo no longer offers any convertibles. The 2003 Cadillac XLR was discontinued in 2009 and not replaced. Likewise, the 2001 to 2010 Lexus SC430.

2001 Lexus SC430 (c) media.lexus.co.uk

The mainstream coupé-cabriolets were never big sellers, and all gradually faded away without being replaced. Most lived for just one generation, although Peugeot and Renault followed up with second generation models, perhaps failing to recognise that this particular ship was already holed below the water line.

Coupés and convertibles typically offer less utility for more money, so need to offer greater dynamism, style or luxury to make sense. The coupé-cabriolets were neither dynamically superior (and were often inferior) to their saloon or hatchback siblings, nor were they especially attractive, so it is little surprise that their popularity was fleeting.

Once the novelty wore off, those who did not really love open-air motoring decided that the practical compromises of the coupé-cabriolet format were unpalatable, while those who did, their numbers much diminished, bought a proper convertible instead.

The SLK** that inspired the whole generation of coupé-cabriolets was discontinued earlier this year and no replacement is planned. The few hardtop convertibles that remain are all from premium and supercar manufacturers. There will probably remain a niche market for such cars, but their ephemeral appeal and the inexorable rise of the SUV has now all but killed off the coupé-cabriolet.

* Or maybe not: some post-facelift cars still seemed to suffer leaks.

** Renamed SLC  in 2016.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

34 thoughts on “To the Guillotine!”

  1. The R230’s and subsequent Benz’ party trick that necessitated the weird rear screen was that the rear screen rotated by 180 degrees when the roof was folding down. This got the screen’s curvature out of the way in the boot, liberating some space there.

  2. There was a huge amount of money invested in this bandwagon because the SLK struck such a loud chord. And the money was spent on visible machinery which made it quite satisfying. The acrobatics of the folding mechanism makes them worth the other costs. You don´t buy a car like this for practicality. It´s very much about emotional satisfaction. I know if I had either the Focus or the Lexus I´d enjoy the top-down transformation every time. At the other pole, the CUV is a one-sits fits all black woolly hat of a thing. It´s a really large shift that the car of the moment is not a variation on a theme but the average of all of them. Due to the blobular silhouette there´s not much one can do with the CUV architecture. Fiat got a Barchetta out of the Punto, after all. The Lexus is conceptually a chopped down saloon. The CUV is a monospace that can´t be much else, a lager and lemonade car versus the idiosyncracy of these vehicles.

  3. I never liked the ugly bootlines and off-balance roof shapes of the four-door ‘also rans’, but the original SLK was indeed a wonder to a small boy of 23 when I first saw one doing its party trick on a booth at Brands Hatch in launch year.
    Notable mention of the Honda Civic C-RX Del Sol which did its own unique roof trick, dubbed the ‘Transtop’ and pipped the Merc by 3-4 years. Technically a targa rather than full convertible but hey…
    The boot lid lifted up vertically on actuators in parallel with the road, and then the roof gets ‘filed’ into a slot, before descending back in to the boot.

    1. That’s spectacular – I think I’d call it ‘elegantly complex’.

      I looked up the Peugeot 402 – its mechanism works pretty well. Must have been mind-blowing, in its day.

    2. I had no idea they worked like that. It´s astonishing. And incredibly awkward. And also very charming. Only the Japanese would put this kind of effort into such a solution. Brilliant.

    3. I think what I love about the Honda’s roof ballet is that it’s sequential. That allows you to fully appreciate the purpose of each stage and the cleverness of its execution. It’s wonderful and I can’t stop watching it – so satisfying.

  4. Good morning all. I was one of those impatient people who paid over list for a 1997 dealer demonstrator SLK. With the roof up, the car was as quiet and civilised at speed as a fixed-roof vehicle. The roof was wonderful to watch in action and was faultlessly reliable. It’s just a shame that the rest of the car was such rubbish! Here’s the boot with the roof folded:

    Here’s a great video of the Ford Skyliner roof in action:

    Note the small box in the centre of the boot space. I believe that was it as far as luggage space goes. Imagine trying to lift heavy luggage into and out of that!

    1. Imagine having to put the roof back up to get the small amount of groceries you put in the boot out of the little box!

  5. Thank you for mentioning the CRX Del Sol, which was unique, bizarre, and painfully slow to open or close. Dynamically, this CRX was also much compromised, compared to its glorious predecessors.

    I get that the SLK made quite a splash in the market and inspired a number of imitators, but why are car companies such slavish followers of trends? The technical compromises of this kind of roof didn’t go away just because the SLK was fashionable, and stretching the solution to try and cover a four seat layout was always an unhappy compromise.

    Today, it’s all about full width rear light bars and model names spelled out A C R O S S the width of the tailgate. This isn’t even a new technical development but purely fashion. Why?

  6. Interesting comments on a relatively short lived fashion fad.
    I always felt the Opel Astra was optically the best balanced of the 4-seater versions, but the best one you have failed to mention … the 2006 Mazda MX-5 NC. Its plastic roof folded into virtually the same space as the fabric convertible top, with only a small weight penalty. The rear boot line was slightly altered and that was it on the compromise front. Due to its increased winter robustness I was very keen on one until a later normal MX-5 ND came along at a very good price.
    Mazda repeated the trick with a hardtop version of the ND, but left the sail panels in place leading to excessive wind noise when the top was down. My normal ND is very pleasant to drive at 140km/h with the top down.
    Keep up the good work!
    Andrew
    Switzerland

  7. No mention here of the previous generation MX-5 hard-top convertable, which, from memory, would regularly out-sell the soft-top version (its replacement, the current car, seems less successful in every way, and seems quite closely akin to the CRX Del Sol so pleasingly recollected here).

    I actually quite liked the styling of the Megane II which you picture above in white with the black, gloss roof and I would say it was the most pleasant of those compact-hatch based examples (the worst, imo, being the 308 CC). The Focus you show want’s bad either, especially when viewed from behind (I seem to recall Richard rather likes it too).

  8. … the Volvo C70 of 2006 was a pretty good effort too, especially with the roof down.

    1. Agreed -I am sorry I forgot that one. All that effort made by Volvo was not appreciated. And yes, the Astra looked very good indeed. I would say that.

  9. Hi Andrew and SV. Yes, I should have mentioned the MX-5. The NC version was quite well resolved, but with the buttresses (and an additional fold in the roof) the ND version is not the prettiest:

    I think you made the right choice, Andrew.

    Regarding the 308CC, it really did have a big backside:

    The 307CC was similarly afflicted:

    On both models, the arc of the C-pillars looks wrong to my eyes, exacerbating the awkwardness of the tail.

  10. The complexity of those folding roof mechanisms must be enormous. Some of the models mentioned were really just re-skinned updates of their predecessors (Peugeot 307/308, Renault Mégane II/III), whereas the first-generation BMW 4 series convertible had to incorporate its predecessor’s roof, lock, stock & barrel, despite the rest of the car being all-new.

    1. I ran a 2008 Volvo C70, which has one of the more complicated retractable hard tops as it comes into three pieces (avoiding the need for such a massive tail and weird A pillars). The kinematics of the links between the roof segments are quite complex but the actual mechanism driving it is very straightforward, considerably simpler and less prone to failure than the many cables and motors of most soft tops. It had a single hydraulic pump, a valve block, and six hydraulic rams to do everything.

      I never had a leak and the roof mechanism was a joy to watch, but the car was overweight and compromised because of it.

  11. The not often seen Treser T1 of 1988 had an interesting solution also; it meant sacrificing the rear seat of course:

    The car itself:

  12. Dave,
    what I find most outstanding about this Renault model, is that the utter lack
    of finesse to name it simply – Wind (Ventus generalis?), corresponds perfectly
    to the ultra-simple (almost shockingly so) technical solution for ‘swallowing’
    of the roof.

    1. Having owned a Renault Wind I have to say I admired the design. I always thought the solution to be rather clever because of its simplicity. The roof section folded under a storage compartment that was on top of the boot lid. The upshot of this was that even with the roof opened the boot space was enormous. One of the largest boot spaces I’ve ever had on a car and it was the same size roof up or roof down. It opened quickly too, Renault claimed twelve seconds from closed to open. The boomerang rear light clusters were beautiful, especially when lit. Whilst not fast, or luxurious, it was a great little car and I thought it deserved to sell more than it did. Renault seemed to actively avoid promoting it which explains some of the lack of sales, but me? I won’t have a word said against the Wind!

    2. Good for you, MkStevo! We like independent thinkers here. DTW is a safe space for automotive eccentrics, of whom there are many amongst our esteemed commentariat!

  13. In 1976 Bertone’s awsome Ferrari Rainbow also had a retractable roof, but in a rather simpler Targa style. This was hinged at the back and once raised into a vertical position could then slide down behind the seats. No motors though, you had to do it all by hand!

    Andrew

  14. I was investigating early versions of the retractable hardtop and see Lancia produced one, the Belna Eclipse, in 1934 – around the time of the Peugeot. Looks to be nicely done.

    1. I liked the music that goes with that.
      Does anyone here know of Gavin Bryars work “Farewell to philosophy”? It reminded me of that. Is it Michael Nyman?

    2. The only Bryars work I know is “The Sinking of the Titanic” and “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me”. The hits, really…

    3. A lovely car, but I’m a bit disappointed. When I saw it was a video I was expecting to see the roof in action.

  15. Whilst I agree that the concept didn’t work well with 4-seater cars it worked very well with two-seaters. I’ve owned SLK’s ever since the original one, and now have a 350. I’ve owned and driven many other cars over that period and I have to say it suits me to perfection. It’s not an out and out sports car like a Boxster, but it’s pretty quick, and in any case I’m not interested in driving flat out any more. I prefer a car that’s comfortable for fast, long distance driving to one that’s going to wipe the competition on the track.

    I love open air driving, and would never be happy with a saloon as my only car. But fabric tops are always susceptible to vandalism – I know several owners who have suffered from idiots sticking a knife in the hood. That never happens with a steel roof. And yes, the boot space is diminished with the roof down, but how often does anyone really need a large boot anyway? It’s perfectly adequate for everyday use.

    So I’m really disappointed that there’s no replacement for the SLK. I don’t like the SL, so I’m now seriously thinking about making the huge leap to a used Ferrari California, which certainly ticks all my boxes – except the one marked ‘cost’!

  16. Of course, dropping a V8 into the SLK didn’t hurt its niche market appeal. I’m on my 4th SLK, ( written off, traded up, traded up ). This one a 4.2 second, 420 hp AMG will sadly be my last simply because they have discontinued them. I’ll leave the sad square box sheep to their transport. I still love mine.

  17. I would’ve loved to have been in the initial Monday morning meeting (and subsequent follow-ups) to see the faces of the engineers being told to design and build a folding roof. “Make it elegant.” I can imagine the atmosphere being that of excitement followed by utter satisfaction of a job well done. The Honda’s, whilst eminently watchable, is by far the most agricultural. The McLaren and Merc’s are poetry in motion. The old stuff gets top prize from me. Shame the Lancia video doesn’t show the roof in operation but I agree with the pleasing music.

    1. The Honda´s is so overly elaborate, it´s a form of poetry. Apart from the clipping done by the user, it´s a plausible solution to the problem.
      I heard “Jesus´ blood never failed me yet”. It´s rather poignant, I think.

  18. Many thanks all for your comments, and especially to Charles for sourcing such good videos. I should make clear that, for all its infuriating reliability issues, I did love our SLK. For my money, the original R170 version was the prettiest and it drove very well, exactly as Pro Bono described it above. The additional security afforded by the roof was welcome as we were living in central London back then, with off-street parking but no garage.

    Here’s a nice image of the original SLK,which was a lovely clean and unfussy design:

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