James May

Illustration of a convertible on blocks

Chop and change

Funny that everyone should be talking about convertible cars this month, because I’ve decided in the last few days that it’s about time I had one again. The old Bentley remains peerless for civic duties, the 911 is perfect for slaying the hideously headed sporting monster, and the old Range Rover is ideal for driving the six miles to the garage where they both live. But a chap should have a convertible.

It’s now six years since I last owned one; I have become pale and listless through staying indoors too much. So I’ve taken my available budget – £10,000 at the very most – and started scouring all the usual sources for a suitable open motor.

Before we get to that, though, it might be a good time to deal with some of the objections raised by so-called enthusiasts whenever convertibles are mentioned. Principal among these is that removing the roof from a car, or even designing one as a cabriolet from the start, ruins the handling.

I wish to declare now, even after decades in which people have been whittering on about ‘scuttle shake’ and weight distribution corrupted by extra strengthening, that nothing matters less. Providing the doors don’t actually fly open on roundabouts, the issue of structural rigidity will never, ever bother you. I have taken countless mates and girlfriends along country roads in open cars, while the single stalkless flower of the sun hangs in a spotless bowl of inverted blue, and not one of them has ever turned to me with a face like a farmer’s arse and said, “You know, James, I can’t help feeling that the dynamic envelope of this car has been compromised by a fundamental lack of chassis stiffness and the weight penalty imposed upon it by all that floorpan strengthening.” No man was ever binned by his best girl because his Saab 900 Cabrio was a bit limp.

That’s one of the great things about driving a convertible; that 90 per cent of its appeal is in its rooflessness, and the rest can go hang. In a Porsche 911 Coupe, the drive is about the car. But in the 911 Cabrio, for all its flaws, the drive is about the world around you. It becomes a sort of personal cinema with added Smell-o-Vision. It’s especially good at this time of year, when speed conspires with nature to deliver the heady scent of recreation to you with a mild supercharging effect. As one anonymous mediaeval lyricist once observed, ‘merrie it is while summer lasts’. On the right day you can flash past a country pub in a convertible and, briefly, the smell of beer will interrupt the olfactory backdrop of wilting grass.

“In the 911 Cabrio, the drive is about the world around you. It becomes a personal cinema with added Smell-o-Vision” 

And then there’s the mistaken belief that convertibles aren’t as safe. This may be true in theory if you turn one over, but the fact is that you won’t, because you’ll hold back. You’ll hold back because the dynamic envelope is compromised by a lack of rigidity and the weight-distribution penalty occasioned by extra strengthening. Add to that the matter of your head being exposed, and a love of arcadia will soon overcome any desire to take it to the ragged edge. It’s rather like riding a motorcycle without a crash helmet – a great feeling, but you’ll be disinclined to get it right over.

Convertibles are also a perfect antidote to road rage. Denied the false sense of security that is a fully enclosed box, the convertible driver is usually a model of civility to pedestrians, cyclists and cab drivers. Think about it. You might shout abuse at Simon Cowell when he’s on the telly, but if you met him face to face I bet you’d say “Hello Mr Cowell.”

Finally, there’s a suspicion amongst blokes my age – which is middle-aged, sadly – that we might look a bit ridiculous in convertible cars. I would readily admit that Wayne Rooney’s missus would look better than me, but she’d look better than me in my clothes. That doesn’t mean I have to wear a smock and it doesn’t mean I can’t have a convertible. I just have to choose carefully.

So – the car. I’m not particularly bothered by the number of seats, the country of origin or the performance. What I want is an open car that I can drive around in without looking like a complete tool. And, I have to say, it’s not as easy as it seems.

There’s nothing new for my money unless I include the Smart City Cabriolet, or the Smart Fortwoluvvies, as I think it’s now called, since that’s only the front half of a car and I’d rather have the whole thing. I want a car with no roof, not one with no bum.

I fairly quickly ruled out a classic as well, despite a secret hankering for a Triumph Stag or a Sixties’ Alfa Duetto. I want to spend my free Sundays in the car, not under it, and so far this year the gaps in the weather have not been long enough to allow a cylinder head rebuild and a nice drive.

So that meant something 10 years old or so – not old enough to be a coveted classic, and not so new that it’s still sitting around as an approved used car on a franchised dealer’s forecourt. This narrowed it down quite a bit, but there was still plenty of room for further elimination.

An old-model BMW 3-Series, for example, is a nice car but I always get the impression that they’re driven by people who think I’ll be interested in the CD they’ve just bought. The MX-5 is too youth, the old Mercedes SL is too German, and the last Alfa Spider is too fragile.

I could go on, but I’ve made my decision. I’ve decided to go for something with an appropriately long bonnet, a well pukka number of cylinders, commensurate maintenance bills, and handling not affected by its conversion from a coupe since it was already rubbish when it was one of those. It’s a late-model V12 Jaguar XJ-S Convertible, a hugely underrated car that can easily be had in excellent condition within my budget.

I expected the usual gales of derision from my contemporaries when I announced this, but to my surprise most people thought it made sense. Even Jeremy, who has never approved of anything I’ve bought, right down to, and including, my shoes, thought it was “a great idea”.

But I’m not even going to let that put me off.


James May, Column, Porsche, 911

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