Car History Chronicle
Renault Spider is a Memory of an Almost Extinct Segment
French model came to life 25 years ago, a time when automakers weren’t afraid to offer compact convertibles
Aluminum chassis and plastic composite body panels dramatically reduced the weight while ensuring rust would never be an issue. Rear-wheel drive and manual transmission made the best of a 2.0-liter engine. The minimalistic approach made the windshield an optional item while power steering, heating and sound system were unavailable. 1,493 units were produced in four years.
The very first Renaultsport car was a particular case, of course. What calls our attention is that the market segment it used to symbolize has almost died with it; when was the last time we’ve heard of compact convertibles? Looking back, we can say they became yet another casualty of people’s everchanging desires. The Spider has given us a chance to talk about those who shared its concept.
What makes them so rare?
Convertibles exist because of emotion. They’re naturally considered beautiful, keep your mind away from everyday driving and bring a sense of joy. Besides, none of that appeal is tied to high performance as with coupes. Because of all that, most automakers made sure to give this body style a premium status and restrict it to upscale models with flamboyant appearance and very high prices.
Smaller options would only appear in the 1950s mostly in Europe. Alfa Romeo and Volkswagen, for example, proved possible to apply their charm on models like Spider and Karmann Ghia. Performance would join the party in the 1970s in North America thanks to the rise of pony cars like Plymouth Barracuda and Ford Mustang. However, that was only the beginning for affordable droptops.
Were there technical issues?
Take a shoe box, hold it with your hands on each side of its length and twist it. Now, do the same with the lid on. That symbolizes how the absence of a fixed roof affects structural rigidity; the body twists more in general and transmits a negative feeling at high speeds — not to mention reduced protection in case of an accident. There are solutions for that, of course, but they all come at a cost.
Reinforcing the remaining body structure makes it heavier, which takes a toll on performance, and more expensive, which is already an issue for these cars. Some companies came up with whole new designs, such as adding the rollbar behind the seats or the “T-top”, whose roof is removable only right above each seat. They were uglier than the original convertible idea, but got the job done.
No roof, all glamour
Up to the 1990s, convertibles had no other big issues to address. Automakers slowly made them the cherry on top of their generalist lineups, hiring famous studios such as Bertone and Italdesign specifically to create a droptop version of their hatchbacks and sedans. In general, the same studio would receive the base parts from the maker, produce the custom ones and put them together.
The European market was their biggest fan. At the time, many companies had a family-friendly model and some would add a sportier option — like Renault’s Spider. Besides the boosted appearance, those models would offer somewhat rational advantages as well: they were excellent to enjoy the local sunny days. In some countries, convertibles made an entire market segment of their own.
Over time, people and press began to demand more. The cheaper convertibles would develop many problems regarding the roof seal under bad weather and to the resistance of its opening/closing mechanism: the manual ones were too impractical to use while the electric ones were expensive and unreliable. Both problems were joined by the lack of rigidity which persisted on some models.
With such grave problems appearing all at once, it’s easy to see why generalist convertibles had their image quickly damaged. Complaints became numerous and came from people who couldn’t afford the level of expense their solutions usually demanded. Since that immediately made those cars hard to resell too, by the 2000s, most automakers had lost motivation to keep investing in them.
How convertibles survived
Now, it’s important to say droptops have only parted ways with the generalist market. They’ve always done well at the luxury and sporty markets all around the world; in fact, it’s possible to subdivide them into cabriolets, name usually associated to the fancier models, and roadsters, which are the more aggressive and performance-oriented examples. “Convertible” is more of a general label.
In short, this body style is so emotional that the very intention to thrive in the generalist market is already commendable. Sadly, their characteristics render them too costly to buy and keep. Feeling the sun and the wind while driving is already effective to take our worries away. Companies are yet to use the latest technologies to bring that to everyone in an affordable and dependable way.