Motoring: For that wind in your hair, use your head: It's the season when the fancy turns to top-down motoring. We go hunting for second-hand convertibles and test the new Mercedes cabriolet

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Indy Lifestyle Online
IT'S THAT time of year again when normally sane motorists yearn for the feel of wind in their hair. Irrespective of the weather, and even the financial climate, demand for convertibles rises dramatically during the spring. The attractions are obvious. They are great fun. And an open-top car is such a great pose.

Currently, we are on the cusp of the convertible sales cycle. The smart money was spent in winter when prices were lower and sellers less confident. But there may still be plenty of good buys around.

I started at the bottom of the market, setting myself the task of finding a soft-top for less than pounds 1,000. Impossible? No, because in Brentwood, Essex, an independent trader called Chris had an pounds 850 Talbot Samba cabriolet. This red, 1984, 50,000-mile model suffered from only marginal surface rust, the hood was intact, there was every indication that it had been garaged by its previous two owners - and it drove faultlessly. So why was it cheap?

Talbot Samba is not a name to conjure with, unlike GTi or XR3i. Yet it is a perfectly adequate little car. Spares are plentiful and it was by far the best-value soft-top I found.

By thinking laterally, it is possible to include other affordable options. In case you hadn't noticed, the Citroen 2CV has a roll-top roof. Never mind its tiny air-cooled engine and 40-year-old styling, it is practical and roomy; roll back the canvas and you have a four-seat, four-door runabout. Trouble is, they are rather flimsy. At Amber Car Sales, Hayes, a 1987 example was pounds 1,095 but getting ragged around the edges. At the specialists Tudor Price, in Wimbledon, pounds 2,600 would buy one of the last G-registered examples in pristine condition.

However, if you want your convertible to be a fashion accessory, only a GTi or XR3i will do. The recent insurance scares, combined with the convertible's vulnerability to theft, have depressed prices considerably. So I was looking forward to my visit to Northway Garage, Wembley, to see a Volkswagen Golf GTi. But the 1984 car with 91,000 miles, no service history, a torn hood and chipped white paintwork was a serious disappointment. At a VW franchise, and for pounds 2,995, I expect much better.

By contrast, HM Ltd, Harrow, showed me how nice a cabriolet could be. This 1988 XR3i was a one- owner, 47,000-mile special edition. All this very-stealable pounds 5,450 car needed was a decent alarm system.

Then, up to Vilton Cars, Barnet, to see what are perhaps the most instantly lovable of all modern cabriolets, the Peugeot 205 CTi. Two 1987 cars, outwardly identical, were separated by mileage - 36,000 and 42,000 - and number of owners - two and four. The less-travelled model was pounds 4,995; the other, pounds 4,575.

If you can afford a car purely for summer fun, it is worth looking at older convertibles. At Former Glory, Acton, I wondered if MGs in particular would live up to those promises. The good news is that obtaining parts for MGBs and Midgets is easier and cheaper than for many current saloons; the problem is finding a good example. Former Glory concentrates on rebuilt and well maintained models; pounds 4,000 upwards buys a good Midget, pounds 5,000 or more, a very sound MGB. A fine racing- green Midget was pounds 4,500.

As with any car, condition is everything, but open-tops can disintegrate faster if abused or neglected, so a full service history and some evidence of caring owners would be reassuring. Always erect the hood to check the condition - many are expensive to replace. The upholstery and interior trim often take a serious battering from the elements. Oh yes, and check you can get insured. Classics or old convertibles deserve maximum caution. Unless exceptionally well cared for, anything over 15 years old needs a rebuild to remove the rust. Do not get caught out by the promise of a cheap classic - there is no such thing.

(Photograph omitted)

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