What is fascinating about the car industry is the number of names used for the same item – and often it comes down to history with Europe and the US adopting different names at different times.
The convertible is such a beast – it has so many different names, some driven by marketing and others by other long forgotten reasons. The simplest of the names, a convertible converts the car from a closed to open top, originally by hand and now often electrically operated. In some countries these cars were simply called “soft tops” or “rag tops” due to their canvas or fabric roof.
My first car was a red 1965 MGB Roadster. Like many motoring terms, “roadster” pre-dates the industry having been used in reference to a good horse, roadworthy bicycles or tricycles. In the early years of motoring in the USA it was used to define a two seater sports car with minimal weather protection (that suits the MGB to a tee). During the 1950s and 60s, many European manufacturers started to use the term to define a two seater tourer (as opposed to a GT being a Grand Tourer).
An original Phaeton was an open sports carriage with large wheels and made of a lightweight construction. Named after Greek mythology, the carriage was fast and therefore quite a handful on rough roads. Early luxury cars were often called Phaetons although the current VW bears no resemblance to the name’s heritage.
The Italians seem to be the first to use the term Spider to define an open topped sports car, although many other manufacturers including Porsche and McLaren have used the term (with or without the “y”). It is feasible that the name was also taken from pre-automobile transport with a carriage known as a Spider Phaeton which was designed for owner/drivers – an evolution that would also happen in the automobile world.
Like the Phaeton, the term Cabriolet came from a style of horse drawn carriage that had seating for two and a folding hood for weather protection, in fact the term taxi-cab is derived from the cabriolet carriage used to transport people around towns. The original carriage was developed in France using a lightweight body with power by a single horse and the driver positioned behind the passengers.
Like the Roadster, a Cabriolet is mostly a two seater car and in some cases is distinguished by being a mix of Targa and Convertible – remember the Jaguar XJS Cabriolet or the TVRs that had removable panels over the occupants and then a fabric rear panel that could be lowered to make it a full convertible?
Porsche didn’t pioneer the Targa top on their 1966 911 Targa – still one of the classic body styles – however they did make it look great. What Porsche did was to make the panels above the occupants easy to be stowed away and then open top driving was available whilst having a solid safety frame in the car. Triumph and FIAT had already released models with this type of top but with different names. The Triumph TR4 had this as an option and called it the “Surrey” top – possibly named after the Surrey carriage, or it could simply be named after someone or the county! The “Targa” name is in relation to the famous Targa Florio race in Italy.
The Honda Del Sol (CRX in some countries) also had this design. I had one of these for a few years too and it was great – it had an electric rear window as well that was useful for lowering when the roof panels were in place to get better airflow through the cabin.
Drop Head Coupe
My first memories of this name was with the 1950s Jaguars – XK140s and XK150s. I remember hearing that these were called drop heads yet apparently this term was mostly used for four seater cars. The XK’s would probably be classed as 2+2s where the second “2″ are very small! The rear seats were really not that useful. The XK150 is a personal favourite of mine – in my view, prettier than the E-Type that followed.
Following on from several manufacturers using the Spider name, Aston Martin took Volante as the name of their convertibles. An original volante was an open carriage originally from Spain that had 1 or 2 passengers and unlike the cabriolet, the horse was ridden by a rider.
Interestingly, other terms from the horse drawn carriage days have made it into the automotive industry as names for cars: the Brougham, Landau, Brake (as in Shooting Brake), Buggy, Coupe, Limousine and Victoria are all types of carriages.