Convertible prices do tend to soar in summer, but James Ruppert shows how to shop for a used drop top
The sun is out, the sky is blue and ordinary motorists are itching to get their tops off. Whether you are a motoring enthusiast, or a reluctant A-to-B commuter the lure of the convertible is a strong one. What better than wind in your hair, a panoramic view and the glorious aroma of the English countryside in bloom. Well, that's the theory anyway.

In practice, a drop-top can mean stunned insects between your teeth a booming sound in your ears and the whiff of smog in your nostrils. Never mind, the sexy, carefree image of bowling along in an open-top car is irresistible and it does not have to cost a fortune, or be a purely spring/summer pursuit. In fact, a good convertible can be as practical to use daily and as secure from the bleak mid-winter weather as a tin-top hatchback. For about pounds 5,000 it is possible to have the best of all motoring worlds, providing you choose the right used model carefully.

The past few years have been good for the convertible marketplace. Once upon a time convertibles were either English or Italian, broke down all the time and, while they were waiting to be repaired, rusted to dust. Worse still the hoods were leaky and the whole experience was dreadfully uncomfortable.

Then in 1989 Mazda launched the MX5, aping the design of a small 1960s sports car, but mating it to Japanese build quality and levels of mechanical refinement. Not surprisingly, it was a huge hit and the concept has been followed by the MGF, BMW Z3, Mercedes SLK, Alfa Romeo Spider and Fiat Barchetta. Trouble is they can cost between pounds 15,000 and pounds 30,000 - used. Luckily there is an alternative in the form of the cabrioleted hatch.

VW designers were always aware of the shortcomings of the traditional sports car and since the Beetle first had its roof lopped it was inevitable that they would prune the highly successful Golf. From 1979, the Golf cabriolet provided four-seater accommodation, utter reliability and one of the snuggest, leak-free and easiest to operate hoods ever seen.

This concept was soon copied by other major manufacturers and the Ford Escort, Vauxhall Astra and Peugeot 205 followed in the early 1980s.

For those after a touch of luxury, older BMW 3 series were converted by Bauer in Germany and a well looked after example will be under pounds 5,000. The same goes for older Mercedes SLs.

There are many things to bear in mind when buying a used convertible, especially at this time of the year. Obviously when the sun is out the prices go up and convertibles start to get snapped up, but it is important not to be in too much of a hurry. What happens is that otherwise unsalable and unsavoury examples get sucked into the classified advertisements in clement weather. What looked pathetic, neglected and unattractive in February suddenly has a lot of promise to the romantic eye in late May.

Now it sounds obvious, but make sure that the hood is working, leak free and in good overall condition. If a cabriolet had been stored with the hood down the material shrinks and then starts to crack under the stress of being erected again.

I went in search of some circa pounds 5K convertibles. First of all I dropped by at the Great Trade Centre in White City, where there are hundreds of ex-company cars for sale. Their convertible selection was fairly eclectic from a 1973 Beetle at pounds 4,999 which really was too old and obviously classic, up to a tired looking 1989 Escort 1.6 at pounds 3,699.

I soon found a much tidier 1991 Escort Cabriolet privately advertised and it even had a fancy electronic hood, all for pounds 4,995. The best find proved to be another privately advertised convertible, this time a Volkswagen Golf Clipper, registered in 1990, with a full service history, an electric hood and in immaculate condition with 80,000 miles on the clock. The owner was willing to negotiate a price on a sweltering day down from pounds 5,800 to pounds 5,250. Who says you can't pick up a convertible bargain in the summer?