17 September 2007

The devolution of the soft top

I've owned convertibles all my adult life. No tintops. My first was the first car I bought with my own money, a jellybean blue Geo Metro that I bought in '91.

Piece of crap? Tiny little engine? Sure. But it also weighed about as much as a Barbie Jeep so it was quick. Plus, the wee wheels and chassis arrangement made for a lithe, if slightly skittish car. You'd be amazed what you can do with something that small if you're fearless when driving.

I drove the Metro into the ground, putting about 85K miles on it in five years. As it was beginning its very rapid death spiral, I traded it in on the next convertible - a '96 Jeep Wrangler.

Now, the Jeep's a fun ride, but for someone who likes high speed and agility it's a bit of a challenge. Don't get me wrong, I used to bob and weave with her, but it just wasn't the same. And the top's a pain in the ass. The Metro's manual top I could put up or down at a stop light without getting out of the car. The Jeep...that took considerably longer. Still, it was a manual operation, so it wasn't going to break on me.

A few years and several Bay Area job hops later, my salary had gone up just a skoch. Time to trade in and trade up. So I satisfied my childhood dream of owning a Porsche by paying *way* over Blue Book for a slightly used Boxster.

Let me tell you, there are few cars that handle quite like a Boxster. It's quick - though not super fast - and with the mid-engine design it hugs the road like week-old roadkill. Did I mention the mid-engine design? Because of that, every repair costs an arm and a leg and takes an inordinate amount of time. Ever pay $1500 to replace a clutch? If you've owned a Boxster you have.* Ever pay $2500 to replace a windshield? Alright, I didn't pay that thanks to glass coverage, but I could have. And the Boxster had the first power top I'd ever owned. A "clever" two-clutch design: one for the soft top; one for the hard cover. The wife and I got to know our mechanics really well, because that shitty, over-engineered design meant it was broken about every nine months.

Last year I got a chance to pick up one of my dream cars. An amazing deal on an '01 Esperante with only 7K miles on it. I jumped. Now, the Roadster is cooler, but the top on the Roadster is a snap-on affair reminiscent of the Jeep. The Esperante's got a nice power top to go with its sleek lines, high power, and great handling. Well, it has great handling now that we've replaced the shitty deep dish rims and low-profile tires with proper wheels and performance tires.

(That one's actually mine, unlike the other photos I culled from the web.)
Oh wait. Did I say a "nice power top"? My mistake. The Boxster should have prepared me. Last week, the top broke. A few days in the shop and it's been repaired. Well, that's what the mechanic says, but I know better. You see, you can't actually repair a power top. You can patch it so it keeps working for a little while, but it'll give out again. That's what they do. My $9K Metro with the manual top - the top that I could put up or down in thirty seconds including the top cover - that never broke. It also weighed a lot less because it didn't need hydraulics, or electrics, or gears. It was just a hinge mechanism with a canvas top and plastic rear window. Cheap, right-sized, and easy. The Esperante, like the Boxster and all other power soft tops is over-engineered. I believe they do that for old people. The wife thinks it's just for the congenitally lazy.

So now, I don't own a convertible. I own a car with a rattly cloth top. I picked the car up this afternoon with the top up, and up is where it'll stay until I sell it. The only way I'll put it down again is if we can get the good folks at Panoz to retrofit the top and make it a manual. Since it's highly unlikely they'll do so, the car will soon be someone else's problem and I'll be looking for a manual top. Of course, since the only new car on the market with a manual top is the Wrangler...and since they've ruined the Wrangler by giving it a suspension built for soccer moms...I'll definitely be forced to go used. And that really pisses me off.

Manual tops are pretty much extinct, as manual transmissions will be within a decade. Idiots.

Remember: technological advancement to solve a problem that doesn't exist, and is prone to failure, is no advancement at all.

* No, I didn't burn it out. The previous owner had ridden it.