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Convertibles are expensive because of limited supply

Cadillac advertised its 1976 Eldorado convertible as “the

Cadillac advertised its 1976 Eldorado convertible as “the last American convertible.” Credit: General Motors

Whether or not to buy a convertible, as opposed to a coupe or sedan, is the subject of many of the inquiries that I receive. Even first time classic car buyers can’t help but notice the disparity in price between an open car and a roofed car of the same model. But why is there such a disparity, and is it worth it?

I understand the allure of a convertible. I’ve owned many. In fact, I’ve owned the same one for over thirty five years. But the allure and the reality are two different things.

The image of driving down a scenic country road, sun on your face and wind in your hair, is very appealing. But the truth is that fully 50% of the nation’s 311 million people live within 50 miles of a coast. That makes for some pretty crowded roads. I’m a member of that 50%, and if I want to drive my convertible on anything the resembles “scenic,” I have to travel at least 100 miles, which here in the northeast can easily take three or four hours. Once there, it can be pleasant. Or it can be 100 degrees, or raining, or both. You take your chances. Or not. I usually choose not to.

There was a time when my convertible was my daily transportation. I was younger and I didn’t mind the sun relentlessly beating down on my head, or the inability to have a conversation with a passenger, or the squeaks and rattles so common in convertibles of that era, or the lack of cup holders (it does have a cigarette lighter, but unfortunately I don’t smoke), or the old fashioned AM radio with no CD, iPod or MP3 inputs.

These days I prefer my eerily quiet SUV with too many audio speakers to count, climate control, multiple cup holders and household power outlets.

That’s not to say that I don’t use my convertible and enjoy it, because I do. I use it in the spring and fall, and nice summer evenings when the temperature is pleasant. It now has an easy life.

What I find interesting is the fact that as a nation, we really didn’t want convertibles any more…until we thought we wouldn’t be able to get them. Many people think that government threats of stricter safety standards, and implementation of some of those standards in the mid 1970s is responsible for the demise of the convertible. But the truth is that convertible sales began to decline a decade earlier. Chrysler had already built its last convertible in 1971, and Ford followed suit only two years later. GM soldiered on for another two years, and then called it quits in 1975, except for the Cadillac Eldorado which continued for one more year.

The 1976 Eldorado was the end of the era of American convertibles, or so it seemed, and Cadillac did not miss the opportunity to use this fact in its advertising. Buyers flocked to the Cadillac dealers to buy “the last American convertible” and store it away in hopes that a few decades later they would be able to sell it for enough to put their children through college. It didn’t work. Their money would have done better in the bank.

The reasons that convertibles lost favor with the public almost half a century ago still apply today. Convertibles are more expensive than comparable hardtops, better highways and higher speeds are not as conducive to top-down driving, coupes and hardtops are just as attractive as convertibles, and air-conditioning is practically standard on all cars.

So why are convertibles so expensive compared to their roofed counterparts? The answer is the simple…supply and demand.

Interestingly, I think that demand for convertibles has dropped off sharply. Anecdotally I see a lot more people buying coupes, sedans, and hardtops. It’s not that they’re settling for cars with roofs, it’s what they want. They realize that they can be used year round in many parts of the country, they generally ride better, and you stand a much better chance of finding an air-conditioned car if you’re not shopping for a convertible.

But if demand for convertibles is dropping off, why are prices still higher than those of cars with roofs? Because there are still fewer convertibles available than those who wish to own one. Convertibles were generally made in numbers that were only a fraction of their roofed counterparts. They also rusted away much faster leaving an even smaller supply. So even though demand seems to be decreasing, supply is still relatively small. I think that there will always be a premium for a convertible, but if this trend continues, the premium will shrink.

Of course if I were eighteen again, and the wind in my hair were my motivating factor, I might feel differently. 

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