Why soft-tops leave them weak-kneed: Even cheap 'pretenders' cannot lessen the lure of the convertible. Rosie Millard meets drivers who are happy to have no roof over their heads

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Indy Lifestyle Online
'I WAS introduced to my car in 1986 by a Skoda enthusiast,' says Robert Balchin, describing his sky-blue Rapid Cabriolet. 'I bought it, brand new, for pounds 5,000. I just wanted a convertible; it was the cheapest one you could get. I know I'm the butt of people's jokes for owning a Skoda. But the jokes come from jealous people who own conventional, boring cars.'

Indeed, on seeing his Rapid, one begins to understand the point. All convertibles possess a certain allure, and like the rest of the soft-top brigade, even the lowly Skoda becomes quite sexy once its roof is off.

The convertible Skoda was made to order and marketed by Skoda UK between 1984 and 1991 as a version of the (now discontinued) Rapid. The vehicle's designer, Roger Ludgate, who specialises in conversions, says: 'It gave Skoda a market that it had never envisaged.' Fashion-conscious people with money to spend, who formerly would not be seen dead in or even near a Skoda, suddenly realised that these 'skips' (as convertible Skodas are fondly known) were chic.

'They hit a spot,' Mr Ludgate says. 'The design was strong and simple and the engineering isn't all that bad, you know. A lot of people don't realise that Skoda was sorted out by Porsche.'

Mr Balchin, a professional pianist who lives in Bayswater ('well, Paddington actually') probably wasn't aware of this either - it was the Skoda's rooflessness that appealed to him.

'I think it was because I loved sticking my head out of the family car when I was little,' he says. 'Maybe it was a desire to recapture that feeling. I have had my moments with it, however. The other day the roof was slashed, and once when I was driving down the autoroute in France the roof actually blew off. It's probably good that the car is a bit battered. It means I'll keep it indefinitely.'

Mr Balchin is a convertible Romantic, unimpressed by flash Italian logos or overt modernity, yet enchanted by the simple action of opening his car's interior to the sky. These drivers speak of the wonder of driving in cities, how the vista of the streets and buildings opens up once you are roofless. Get them into the country and they talk enthusiastically about the feel of nature around them.

Neil Preston, of Preston Motors in east London, says that a spin in a soft-top Skoda leaves him feeling like 'a million dollars. If you didn't know about cars, you wouldn't know it was a Skoda'.

A Skoda Cabriolet can be bought for about pounds 4,000; it costs an extra pounds 1,500 to have its roof removed. With the addition of a roll-bar and canvas, the car is transformed into a cult object with hints of summer holidays, romance and danger.

John Impey, a car dealer from Chiswick, west London, sells converted Vauxhalls. A 1987 soft-top Cavalier that he recently sold makes an exciting departure for the king of dull fleet cars. Mr Impey is at a loss to explain the transformation. 'It's a paradox. Convertibles are always intimate cars; you rarely find a four-door or family saloon version, for example. And yet they are the opposite of private. With the roof down, all your driving is done in public. And I've never dealt with a convertible, from a Rolls- Royce to a Vauxhall, that didn't leak.'

Mr Impey says that owners of convertibles simply ignore the realities of damp seats and shouted conversations. 'The aspirations of convertible drivers, no matter what car they own, are essentially the same: it's that peculiar feeling of emancipation as you drive along.'

Matthew Larkin, an agricultural civil servant from Reading, Berkshire, bought Mr Impey's red Cavalier in January. He says that within days of taking possession of the car, he was driving with the roof off, even though it was mid-winter. He seems to relish the fact that his car previously was a bit of a bore. 'It's all a pose, you see,' he says. 'People look at me as I drive along. It's like so many thousands of other Cavaliers . . . but it's not. It's different. It's unique.'

Passengers enjoy being the focus of attention on the road. His colleagues in the Civil Service ask for lifts and then for the roof to be taken off, as a treat. 'They enjoy it,' he says.

Even if the three-wheel Robin Reliant is your normal mode of transport, you can still convert to a convertible for immediate street cred. The Reliant Scimitar Sabre, launched last year and costing about pounds 12,000, is ideal for cheap conversion. Its fibreglass body and clumsily press-studded hood belie the fact that when you're in it, you will feel as cool as Jean-Paul Belmondo in A Bout de Souffle.

Alan Thorniley, director of support services for Cheshire magistrates' court, bought his Reliant Sabre last July. 'I was at the garage taking my Montego for a service when I saw the Reliant. The man at the garage said, 'Why not have a spin?', and afterwards my wife said, 'Go on, treat yourself,' so I did.' He now drives the car to work every day.

'Things become alive when you're driving it,' he says reverentially. 'With the top down, you feel like you're in another world. You see and hear things you never would otherwise. It's the feeling of wind blowing through your hair; it's brilliant.'

This sensation appears to be one of the convertible's most crucial assets. Reacting to lives conducted in air-conditioned offices and on stuffy trains, convertible owners, it appears, crave an experience vaguely akin to sitting in a wind tunnel.

'It was real wind-in-your-hair stuff,' says Alan Dale, a property developer from Reading, Berkshire, who owned a fibreglass Berkeley in the early Sixties. 'I felt so groovy when I was driving it. It would go around curves like it was on a railway track. I grew so used to it doing this that once I shot round a corner and the wheel just kind of flew off; it didn't seem to matter. Eventually it caught fire in a girlfriend's father's garage. I was terribly sad.'

Sexy, fun, free - owners invariably use these words to explain the convertible's extraordinary appeal in a country known for its wet climate. 'Well, you pull the birds, don't you?' says Ben Butler, a former RAF pilot who went on his honeymoon in a 1960 soft-top Austin Healey Sprite.

According to Mr Butler, convertibles are used by men to attract women and, as such, are only properly driven by men. 'A convertible is a man's car,' he says. 'I mean, most women don't want to pull birds, do they?'

'Obviously more men than women buy sports cars,' Andrew Beedles, from Reliant Motors headquarters, says. 'Men have a bigger point to prove.'

Naturally there are some who say that quality is more important than a budget price. Alan Hames, director of the Jaguar Drivers' Club, owns an E-Type Roadster worth more than pounds 100,000 and considered by its devoted owner to be the 'pinnacle of convertibles'. He says that beyond his immediate family, the car is the most precious thing in his life.

'A brick wall fell on it in 1976 and smashed it completely; it was the worst day of my existence,' he says. 'But I completely rebuilt it. The trouble is that nowadays, any old Escort can be a rag-top. I suppose convertibles can be enjoyed by those with more mundane cars, but the ultimate has to be a real sports car.'

Most owners of convertibles have little interest in such 'ultimate' vehicles, however. The simple act of opening a car up is enough. 'Bombing along in my Vauxhall with the roof down, I can't help but smile at living,' Mr Larkin says. 'It's all about the joy of life, really.'

(Photograph omitted)

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