Hey, Dad, do you remember roadsters?

The golden era of the open two-seater seems gone, but you can still recapture that rapture
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Indy Lifestyle Online

My edition of the Collins English Dictionary has this entry under roadster: "Archaic. An open car, esp. one seating only two. " Archaic eh? Well, I can see where the lexicographers are coming from. There was that post-war golden age of MGs, TRs and Austin Healeys, which came to an end through a combination of British incompetence and American safety legislation in the early 1980s. Then we made do with convertible versions of hot hatches such as the Golf GTI or Ford Escort XR3.

Reliant, of all people, had a shot at the open goal in 1985 with their boxy Scimitar SS1 roadster, but they missed, as you might expect. But thanks to Mazda's inspired MX-5 of 1989, much loved and very much still with us, the proper roadster market started to recover. Now there are more models to choose from than ever, from the cheap and cheerful Daihatsu Copen to luscious Porsches and TVRs.

If you count the convertible versions of saloons such as the best selling Peugeot 206 CC, or Renault Mégane the choice is staggering. (See On The Road, page 9). This summer saw the launch of two important models: the BMW Z4 and the right-hand-drive Smart roadster. There is nothing archaic about these or some of the more established contenders I enjoyed on your behalf.

One of the highlights of my gruelling summer research exercise was the setting of a new world speed record. No, I have not discovered the only patch of road left unsupervised by Dr Gatso's eponymous ubiquitous invention. Even more impressive is the Z4's ability to lower its powered top in less than 10 seconds. This BMW is an immensely able car. The 2.5 litre straight six version has, in common with its three-litre sibling, a wonderful sonorous, slightly burbling tone, what the BMW press release calls "engine-earing". A German joke, you see.

But they have got it right. The noise a roadster makes is vital. The Z4's front-engine/ rear-drive layout endows the car with a perfect 50-50 weight distribution front and rear. In spirit, the Z4 recalls the "big Healeys" of the 1960s. Indeed, had the BMW-Rover affair had a happier ending that is what it might have become, an Austin Healey. That would have corrected the Z4's only flaw: its badge. To put it unkindly, as someone did to me, a BMW in contemporary Britain is seen as, well, a bit of a tosser's car. A pity, but there we are.

Spiritual successions are in vogue. Smart make conscious reference to their new baby as successor to the frog-eye Austin Healey sprite of 1958. There is something in the idea. Back then, the British Motor Corporation took the mechanical innards of their town car, the Austin A35, and planted them into a light, cute-looking shell and called it a roadster.

That is what Smart did, by placing the excellent 698cc three-cylinder motor (plus turbo) from the original Smart into a striking design that actually looks more like a Bond Bug than the Sprite.

The problem, as with the old frog-eye, is the gearbox. The A35's cogs were not suitable and neither is the Smart's semi-automatic. It is just not right, not having a manual. My tip for Smart is to allow grumpy motoring journalists to drive the car only at night so they can be seduced by the soft red glow of the art deco needles fitted to the Smart's funky dials. It's a beautiful effect.

I should bracket the mid-engined MG TF 160 and the front-wheel-drive Fiat Barchetta because they have so much in common. Both arrived in shades of yellow that would have embarrassed a brassy banana; both were launched in 1995; both have been revised to lend them a more fashionably aggressive stance, and both have variable valve 1.8 litre power units, of which the MG is the more responsive.

Sadly, they share one drawback: manual hoods. Electric hoods are rapidly becoming de rigeur. The new Smart and Daihatsu roadsters boast powered mechanisms, so I hope MG Rover and Fiat have contingency plans to remedy matters. The good news is the Fiat is now cheap. Fiat supply the Barchetta with left-hand-drive only, (make sure those offset pedals suit you OK), and its sales were badly hit by grey imports. So Fiat have cut the price to £10,995. A bargain.

"Barchetta" means "little boat" in Italian. Which brings me to Jaguar's big boat, the XKR convertible, the nearest Jaguar get to the tradition of the XK120 or the E-type.

Now, I am cheating, because the XKR is no traditional, affordable roadster, with a list price of £63,350 and automatic gearbox, albeit with a "sport" mode that gets your land-going yacht to 60 mph in 5.6 seconds. The sybaritic experience was irresistible. It is a superbly finished tourer, with a hard edge. It may be, strictly, mass- produced and have the odd Ford switch, but the craftsmanship is just as fine as it was on the Rolls-Royce Phantom we recently tested.

All very well, but if you want things hot'n'raw, strange to say, you will need a Vauxhall. The VX220 and new VX220 Turbo are there to tell Britain Vauxhalls are not, repeat not, dull. The VX220 is made in the same factory as the Lotus Elise and has much the same the chassis. Vauxhall will even treat you to a day at the Jonathan Palmer racetrack if you buy one. You have no excuse. Except that the VX220 is not quite hardcore enough. If that is the case, there is little left to do except take a trip to Caterham, Surrey, if you think you are hard enough.

The Caterham does, I have to admit, look, a touch archaic. The shape, if that is what you call a bathtub attached to four wheels, has been around since 1963, being the original Lotus 7. Boys point, dogs bark and young women give knowing glances when they see a Caterham (and, yes, I know that can cut both ways). Strangers think its fragile-looking frame means it cannot go very fast. Wrong. It is full of advanced technology. The 1.8 Superlight R500 will take you from 0 to 60 miles per hour in 3.4 seconds and to 150 mph, if you dare.

I made do with the Roadsport 160, almost as fast and just as much of a laugh. All Caterhams are an object lesson in power-to-weight ratios. They do not even bother with an indicator stalk, relying on a toggle switch instead, the type you last saw on your Dad's Hillman Hunter. It has no boot, just an open box. Wonderfully uncompromising. Roaming around country roads on the longest nights of the year watching the world reflected back at you in those big, convex, chrome-plated headlights is a joy for life.

My choice? Any and all of them. The point is this: If you have driven only cars that have roofs you should know there is an alternative. The sun is still shining. Catch it while you can.

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