Clarkson on: soft tops
It's the fastest soft top in the world. So says the rather clever advertising for BMW's rather pretty new Z4.
Of course, it's not the fastest soft top in the world, a Pagani Zonda could get to Leeds much more quickly. But it does have the fastest soft top. You press a button and just 10 seconds later, the whole hood is in the boot.
This sounds wonderful. You can get the roof off while the traffic lights are on red. Actually, while Ken Livingstone's traffic lights are on red, you have time to take the roof off and rebuild the car, but that's another story.
The point is that Z4 drivers can exploit even the slightest crack in the clouds, sunning themselves when the rays break through then closing up again whenever the rain comes.
Small wonder with such cars on the market that British motorists buy six times more convertibles than people in Spain. Though this might have something to do with the fact that when you've spent your whole life on the back of a donkey, an open air car might appear to be a bit plebeian.
Anyway, it's the same story with the new Renault Megane convertible and the proposed open-air Peugeot 307, both of which have Mercedes-style, vandal-proof metal roofs that whirr noiselessly and speedily into the boot.
Great. Except it's not great at all. These clever hoods may look absolutely wonderful on television, or if you're eight. They may have a huge appeal in the showroom too, but think about it. If you were sitting in a BMW Z4 at the lights and you lowered that roof, what, exactly, do you think other motorists are going to think of you?
Do you really think they'll turn to the passengers and say "My, there's a sophisticated chap". And what of people on buses, who will have a bird's-eye view of the action? Are they going to say "Hey everyone. Come and look at this new Beemer. Boy, it's got such a speedy roof action".
Or are they going to hoik up the largest docker's oyster in the history of phlegm, and gob on your newly exposed head.
It's not just the roof malarkey either. I'm starting to doubt whether men can actually drive a convertible at all, ever.
With some, the answer is easy. No man, for instance, can drive a Peugeot 206CC. It may look like a car. It may be priced like a car. It may function like a car with gears and a petrol tank and so on. But it is a skirt.
Men may not drive an MG either. Oh, it's not a bad motor, in the same way that Space NK is not a bad shop. It's just that men don't go in there any more than they'd go in the new StreetKa or the Beetle cabrio.
I saw my co-presenter, Richard Hammond in the new Citroen Pluriel this morning. Now I know he uses hair products, and I know he has a poodle. I'm aware too that he spends time motorcycling with his men friends. Strangely, he gets away with all this, but behind the wheel of the new five-ways Citroen, he looked so camp, even James May admitted to fancying him.
The Saab convertible is for girls and architects. Though if your architect does turn up in a topless Swede, sack him. If he thinks that's a good ride or good looking, the man's obviously useless at his job and you'll end up with cracks in the conservatory and a brushed aluminium spiral staircase that doesn't quite reach the first floor.
The new Audi A4 is awfully girly, though strangely the 3-Series BMW isn't. That's for berks, especially the M3 version. The Fiat Barchetta's for girls (Hammond used to own one) and so is the 911 and so is Audi's TT.
In fact, the only cabrios men can buy are the Mazda MX-5, the Toyota MR2, the Merc CLK, the Alfa Spider (just), the Lotus Elise, the Honda S2000, the Jaguar XKR, the DB7, the 360 Ferrari and, obviously, all TVRs.
However, while you can buy these cars, because they've a certain earthiness beneath the pretty boy looks, you can't drive them around with the roof down if people are looking.
Only the other day I came out of a breakfast meeting with the German ambassador. Nice chap. No idea why I was there. Anyway, it was a lovely sunny day and I thought I would take the roof off the Merc for an al fresco drive to Notting Hill...
My finger hovered over the button, but my mind was adamant. "You can't do this," it said. "You are a middle-aged man with a bald patch, yellow teeth and a stomach the size of Norfolk. What message do you think you are sending out by driving down Park Lane with the roof down?"
"The chances are that you have the complexion of forced rhubarb and hair like wire wool"
It had a point. The real reason we drive with the roof off, is to be seen. But why do we want to be seen? That's the big question.
It's because we think we look good. But we don't. Which is why when you see some middle-aged bloke cruise by in his sports car, you don't think. "Hmm, cool guy." You think, "Look at that fat twat". Well, I do.
I now have a rule with the Mercedes. I drive it with the roof down in the countryside and on the motorway, but before I get to London I pull into a special little lane I've found and, when no-one is looking, put it up again.
There's another issue to the vexed question of whether or not it's possible to go topless. Because you're English, the chances are that you have the complexion of forced rhubarb and hair like wire wool.
So, when you've arrived at wherever it is you are going, your barnet will have an unusual new parting and the texture of a breeze block, and your nose will be a huge glowing tomato.
Yes, your arms will be lovely and brown but you'll likely have had a shirt on, so there'll be a line above the elbow where it all goes milky white. Is that what you want? Raspberry ripple arms, bad hair, a big gut, yellow teeth, a bald patch and a nose as big and red as the starter button on God's Vanquish.
The car will have made you deeply unattractive to your wife or girlfriend, not that you'll be speaking anyway because in my experience, women like the idea of toplessness on the road, but dislike the practice as much as they dislike some of the odd sexual practices one reads about.
If you have a soft top, a typical conversation with a girl goes like this. "Can we take the roof off? Can we take the roof off? Can we take the roof off? Can we take the roof off?"... Brrrm. "Can we put the roof up? Can we put the roof up? Can we put the roof up? Can we put the roof up? I hate you."
Welcome, then, to convertible motoring in Britain today.
Want to comment on this?
"The Saab Convertible"? I'm awfully sorry, but that expression is far too covering. I know a lot of Saab convertibles, and if, as is presumably the case, you're talking about the newer models, you're absolutely right in that they don't look at all good. But if you go back to the last true Saab, the 900 "classic" -- that's just pure beauty. I know I'm biased, but I stand by my argument. Of course I'll never have a convertible, and it's not for lack of money even, it's for lack of availability. The convertible is hugely attractive, and whilst a hardtop will go for as little as £500 here in Norway, there is as of this moment only one convertible for sale in the country (price tag: £10,000.) Yes, I am a Saab enthusiast .... in a family with six 900s. When one dies, parts live on in the others. Of course I'd love a Pagani Zonda or a Saab Sonett III, but in a country with two metres of snow through the winter, that's just not an option.
(continued) I'd be the first one to criticise Saab as it is today, but the old models are fantastic for a myriad of reasons, and has achieved true cult status. Clubs and forums have come into existence, purely devoted to restoring and / or keeping in good shape good old 900s. It's a car that truly deserves its cult status, and, supercar obsessions aside, that's something I feel deserves some attention.