Going Topless Remains Summer’s Biggest Trend

open season
Photo by David Burton/Trunk Archive

Speed is a strange thing, because, as with time, it fools your senses.

Riding a motorcycle at 100 km/h feels like you’re sitting on a rocket, but riding in a Bentley at 180 km/h feels like sitting in your living room on a windy day. An airplane at 900 km/h feels like it’s hardly moving at all. Speed is slippery that way. To really feel speed, you need to be in the elements, and you need to be low to the ground: you need a convertible. Until now, that’s meant compromise.

In the beginning, of course, cars didn’t have tops at all. If you bought a Mercedes in the 1880s, it wouldn’t even have a windshield. It was essentially a park bench on wheels — three of them — with a crude engine to putter you along at 16 km/h.

The motoring public quickly grew weary of being exposed to the elements. After all, the car was supposed to replace horses — to be more convenient and less odorous. Hardtops became the norm by the 1920s. By the ’30s, the open-top car was dead or dying, according to a story on CBS News. Only the wealthiest drivers could afford to have a convertible for sunny weekends.

It was in France, the land of good taste, where the convertible was first perfected as a luxury object. The Peugeot 601 Eclipse of the mid ’30s was an Art-Deco masterpiece. As low and long as a speedboat, it could carry four people and had a folding hard-top that disappeared into the trunk when cruising along the French Riviera.

Franklin D. Roosevelt was an early proponent of the drop-top. On official business he could often be seen in the back of a custom 1939 Lincoln convertible dubbed “The Sunshine Special.” It looked like American wealth and power incarnate.

After the war, everyone wanted a taste of the good life, and automakers were churning out convertibles of all shapes and sizes, from the sporty Mustang to the Lincoln Continental, which was about as big as a townhouse.

From Dustin Hoffman’s Alfa Romeo in The Graduate to Ferris Bueller’s stolen Ferrari, to Leo DiCaprio’s lemon yellow 1929 Duesenberg in The Great Gatsby, to Kate Moss’s vintage Mercedes SL, convertibles became cool.

Drivers would happily pay a little extra to feel the speed, the wind in their hair, the roar of the engine, the rattle of the windows, the shimmy over bumps, the greatly diminished crash protection…. Yes, convertibles have always been a bit of a compromise. But that’s all changed now.

The Audi R8 Spyder moves the state of the art forward. It’s no different from its closed-top counterpart except for the fact its roof folds down at the push of a button. The Spyder — Audi-speak for convertible — will not shake or rattle; it is as safe and comfortable as the hard-top; it’s just a quick off the line; but it feels so much faster because you are in the elements.

The new car, with its sonorous 10-cylinder engine, will fly from a standstill to 100 km/h in just 3.6 seconds. That’s surely fast enough for an Iron Man product placement.

We haven’t yet invented a time machine, but we do know how to slow time down. If you’re looking to make the minutes last longer and relish every second, speed is just the ticket, and the new Audi convertible is the ideal chariot.