Essay : Does going topless lose its appeal?

Richard Kilptrick

Back in 1992, when I gained that hugely valuable slip of paper allowing me to drive anything, anywhere (within reason), I had one thing on my mind. Well, two. Only one’s relevant to this article though. I was utterly obsessed with topless models.

Yes, the glorious red four-door Chevette that gave me those vital first tastes of freedom was frankly, the best car I have ever owned – out of 137 now – purely because it was the car that made the rural desolation of the Scottish Borders seem like a paradise – friends that were 2 hours away by bus were now 20 minutes, roads were deserted. Having passed my test in May, the summer was glorious, and I wanted a Cabriolet.

First there was a Renault 5 Cleveland – a car which was converted by former McLaren engineers, but was little more than some tubes, fibreglass and a floppy roof that I mostly abused as a “sedanca” style cabriolet by rolling up to the rollbar and tucking under. Then there were Citroën Dyanes. A 4 year old Fiat X1/9 Gran Finale possibly replaced the Chevette’s place in my heart, before insurance and obsession with “new things” saw it cruelly kicked aside for a 1.8 Manta. A Talbot Samba cabriolet was narrowly avoided (too brown), before a full-length sunroof Beetle and a proper Karmann Beetle, then a Visa Decap whilst the rest of the fleet was CX shaped.

My first new Contract Hire car? A Peugeot 306 Cabriolet; rapidly followed by a New Beetle Cabriolet.

The thing is – I loved driving, and loved driving with the roof down, in Scotland. Since moving I’ve had an MX5, Sunbeam Alpine, Golf Cabriolets…  and before that either owned or considered owning pretty much everything with a removable roof. In the early days, if it had a roof, I’d sketch how it’d look without one if I liked it. A reluctant move forced the sale of the best cabriolet I could imagine, a Mercedes 500SL-32v, and I wasted daft amounts on bad mechanics trying to perfect my Golf Clipper.

So I end up in my mid-30s, having done the sensible thing and passed a C6 over to a dull-but-economical C3 with a big windscreen and small thirst. First an SS1. Didn’t like it. Then an MG F VVC – too refined.

Rover 114 CabrioletA chance encounter with a Rover 114 Cabriolet – yes, that rare (in the eBay sense) and seemingly unloved little ragtop Metro – saw it taking residence beside Keith’s old Ro80 (which looks much the same, but has fewer panels on the front at the moment). Surely this simple, unrefined 8v Cabriolet would be the joyous, fun transport I longed for. It certainly wasn’t the practical small car my girlfriend wanted, and I’d originally set out to buy (fortunately she now has another Mk 5 Fiesta, rust aside one of Ford’s best designs in my opinion).

I have no doubt that my seventeen year old self would have absolutely loved the Metro Cabriolet. Despite being a permanent and VERY annoying fixture at our local Jaguar-Land Rover dealer (and associated Rover dealer, where I bought my first car) the existence of the Cabriolet escaped my attention – otherwise, I may well have bought one; my first new car cost about £10K, easily comparable to the selling price of the 114 Cabriolets in 1996. Small, chuckable and leagues ahead of the A-series MG Metro that replaced the Chevette (I loathed it, wanting a BX), the 114 Cabriolet’s build quality is seemingly far ahead of those ’80s AR products. Mine’s had 45,000 miles of use and neglect, and the doors shut well, there’s very little rust compared to, say, a 2001 Fiesta or 2006 Ka. The special interior components are well finished, and as with any hydragas-suspended Metro the ride quality puts other superminis to shame.

It pitches a bit on really poor surfaces, but at 50mph, on a rough Leicestershire B-road, it glides where a modern car will jiggle.

Most of my bugbears with modern cars are lost, too. I can dangle my arm out of the window like the obnoxious, t-shirt tanned driver I am. I can see around the windscreen pillars – just don’t think about what happens if the car should roll. The gearbox is a delight, more precise than my new Citroën, and the 8v 1.4 K-series is possibly the perfect engine for this size of car.

Much of this applies to a regular 114. Maybe a nice Ascot SE or GTa. Removing the roof adds nothing to the driving characteristics of the car.

LAMM & Tickford, and Rover of course, did a fantastic job of removing the tiny Metro’s roof. Unlike many mainstream conversions, there’s no ugly roll bar and the boot space remains usable – no worse to access and use than a Golf or New Beetle Cabriolet, and probably bigger than an MX5 – definitely, when you consider the seats can be tumbled forward like a regular Metro to leave a flat floor.

The Mk 1 Golf might have had a removable parcel shelf, but it had a bar between the suspension turrets that made it hard to fit bulky objects even with the seats down.

The rear side window modules are well made and provide an attractive, pillarless look with the roof up. Rimmers currently have NOS ones of these at 1/6th of their RRP; tempting to buy to keep as spares, it’s hard to imagine needing them. The sealing is well executed too, with a complex rubber cant rail that works surprisingly well. The roof itself is comparable to the better Cabriolet models of the era, let down only by the plastic rear window (which even a BMW 3-series had to put up with); it folds quickly under power, raises effectively and doesn’t need to be pulled down for the final latching. Manual windows provide the only pause in the process, as the rear windows should be dropped before raising the roof.

Of course, the folded roof utterly destroys any chance of rear visibility you might have hoped for. This is no different to a Mk 1 Golf, a Samba; even the pretty 205 Cabriolets have a fairly bulky roof.

Extensive body strengthening does a sterling job of making the Metro Cabriolet handle well and feel solid, too. There’s less scuttle shake than a C70 Cabriolet or Saab C900; the suspension no doubt helps. Rear passengers are robbed of under-seat footwell space (but kneeroom for a 5’8″ driver and passenger behind is acceptable) thanks to an immense beam that crosses the floorpan – in a side impact, this car would undoubtedly fare better than the hardtop and Rover could – and possibly should – have learned some lessons here for making the Rover 100 tougher prior to Euro-NCAP testing.

In short, it’s a good small Cabriolet. I’d go as far as to say that technically, it is one of the best; superior in rigidity to the Punto Cabriolet that provided the most direct competition.
The 114 Cabriolet conversion left a fair amount of bootspace.

And so I have to come to the realisation, that I have been spoiled. Cars like the 500 SL and MX5 have made me realise that I need more than just a topless model of an otherwise unappealing (to me) car to entertain me when driving; and cars like the Toyota Sera demonstrated that the light and visibility I want can be had without having an insecure compromise for a roof.

Roads have changed, driving habits – for me, and for many others – have changed. And I think new drivers just aren’t open to the suggestion of a slow convertible car as a way to enjoy that early, life-changing experience of being in control of your own destination. Insurance on even the most basic car is excessive, unreasonable, regardless of your opinion of young drivers’ abilities; slicing the roof off makes them utterly unmanageable.

But the Metro… if I had the freedom and space that I had when I was a teenager, yes, I would love it. It’s just quirky enough that it’s uncommon, the Rover Metro/100 is a much, much better drive than the old ones that put me off Metros as a breed, and Rover did a fantastic job with the conversion. It’s a shame that – as the heydey of hacksaw-and-metal-tube conversions like the Rapport, Top Hat and Crayford indicates – they did it a decade too late. Had the Mk 2 MG Metro been presented with such a variant (or even a more practical creation based on the saloon prototype), it would have been a best seller.

At this point in life though, the credit must go to the creators of the 78mpg, panoramic-windscreen equipped tiny Citroën – for making a car so painless to own, and so pleasant to be in and drive, that it’s utterly ruined the pleasure to be found by removing the roof from an otherwise dull small car. And every time I realise that I can no longer justify, even on an emotional level, a car which is convertible just for the sake of having a convertible, I hate growing up a little more.

Richard Kilpatrick
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  1. It depends on the car. A proper sports car is very appealing topless. A 4 seat cabrio, or any vehicle that is usally a hard top of some description is almost always unattractive with the hood up and not particularly good with it down. Add to that the folding hardtop/rag top debate and they all seemn an expensive waste of time. unless it’s an MX-5. Sorry!

  2. Mike: That’s kinda where I think I got to… once, if you gave me a Yugo with no roof I’d have been delighted. Hell, the main reason the Samba was considered at all was that it was a convertible – and I rejected it in part because it was, in 1995, an 11 year old pristine example with only 9,000 miles on the clock – it was far, far too good for my 30,000 miles+ each year.

    So now I DO want a topless car, but it’s gotta be part of the whole package of things I want[1]. good engine, RWD, a good chassis, good build quality. Mk 1 & 2 MX5s are more than welcome to apply, but I can’t stand the Mk 3 MX5, too heavy, too overbearing body-wise; I’d rather revisit the RX8.

    I’d give a W124 E-class Cabriolet[2] a fair go though, and I have to admit to quite liking the A5 Cabriolet. *walk of shame*

    [1] Proper classics are of course, exempt. There’s no way that a Vitesse Convertible, or a Morris Minor, could fail to be interesting.

    [2] Fortunately they’re rarer, more expensive and under-engined compared to the far more focused platform-mate R129 SL. I think the ideal for me is a 1997/8 Mercedes SL 60 AMG with Panoramic hardtop.

  3. It is nice to read something so encouraging about this vastly overlooked addition in the Metro/100 Series range.

    My only two gripes with the Rover 100 Cabriolet were that a)there was never a 16-valve version (then again, the 16-valve K Series engine was never available in the updated 100 Series range from December 1994), and b) leather seat facings were never available, not even as an option. Apart from these factors it was a cracking little car that deserved to do better than it did.

    The registration on this example (M109 CWK) is interesting as it is not only a factory registered example, but may have potentially been on the Press Fleet too.

  4. David: The car’s history shows it being serviced by “Vehicle Operations”, Rover Group Gaydon for the first year, before being sold with roughly 12K on the clock as a Rover Approved Used vehicle via the dealer on the plates, Soul Garages of Olney.

    They looked after it until 35,000 miles in 2004, then there’s a gap; the MOT history seems to verify the mileage and lack of use though. Not sure if it’s possible to check if it’s a press car though.

    If it was a Rover press car, then I might be inclined to put a bit more effort into it. I’d need to see something to reinforce the suspicions though!

    First registered 1st June ’95.

  5. Richard:

    I think Press cars usually had ‘Press Garage’ stamped in the service book or listed on the first page relating to the first registered owner.

    Sadly records relating to Press cars would have been lost/destroyed etc. when MG Rover Group went into administration, if not before then. I will have a look through some old copies of Autocar and Auto Express from 1995 to see whether there is any correlation between press cars and M…CWK registrations issued on Rover 100 Series variants.

  6. Topless cars should be all about style. Jag XK8, MGB, TVR, SL Merc are the kind of cars to be seen in.

    VW Golf, Eos, and the like – especially with a DERV engine- are sad.

  7. First up, I’m surprised you hated the MG Metro. We got one of the first in Edinburgh and I though it was a great drive. Coming off a 1970 Morris Mini 1000, there was probably a good explanation for that….!

    As for rag tops… I have to confess that, at the age of 47, I got my first last year in the form of an MG Midget – purchased with part of the proceeds of my redundancy payment from a Certain High Street Bank. Not the most popular of MG’s (it’s a rubber-bumpered 1500) the first decent drive I took it with the roof down was from Edinburgh to Inverness, sunny day, and a tan by the time we got to the Kessock Bridge!

    I agree with the sentiment that the experience is about open-air motoring, not how fast you do it or the badge on the car. The Midget, while rougher than the newer TF we bought later in the year, is a joy to drive with the roof down and handling is more than satisfactory. It can shift a bit too, attaining and maintaining motorway speed limits with ease. A bit claustrophobic with the roof up, though, and not nearly so much fun.

    Although we own 3 classic Minis (well, 2 and a Wolseley Hornet) it has never been a car that has appealed in cabriolet form. I don’t feel it suits the body shape, and the Metro does it much better. I always found the various cabrio versions in the 80’s and 90’s a bit fascinating, and had some memories flood back only this afternoon when I saw a Mk2 Cavalier soft top near where we live.

    Great article, Richard.

  8. I always had a soft spot for the 306 cabriolet, far more attractive than the folding hard top convertibles that followed it. The saloon type body they adopted makes it much more stylish than the standard hatchback convertibles of the era, like the Golf, Escort and (to a lesser extent) R8. It’s a bit like going on the top deck of an open top bus, you don’t have to go fast for the journey to be exiting!

  9. I cannot imagine owning so many cars over so few years. I have owned only two cars over many years. My present car is almost 11 years old and through much care and understanding it continues to serve my long distance drives. When I bought it new, I beleived that it would be a car for the ages. It still looks new but the fuel economy is nothing to elert the relatives about. nonetheless, everytime that I get behind the wheel early in the morning to head from Toronto to Nova Scotia, I feel that my ally is there to serve.It always has. I hope that it will continue to, as long as long as I can care for it. I do appreciate serial ownership but I think that such behavior may be somewhat suspect.The payback of experience of many models cannot be denied. However, where is the commitment of a man to his machine? Is the poster simply, unable to commit, is he a serial owner? or is he just like me, just different.

  10. I’m in the Usa so I have never seen a Metro Cabriolet. But I do have a 1995 Rover Mini Cabriolet left hand drive. I have always loved convertibles. I feeling of freedom with the top down is hard to be without for me. My first car was a 1965 Chevrolet Corvair Corsa convertible with a 4 carb engine and 4 speed when I was 14. I bought it from the scrap yard for 50 US dollars. It was supposed to keep me out of trouble and keep me busy. I am now 53 and every year since I was 14 I’ve had a drop top car. It is something I just can’t do without. I’m hooked.

  11. Paul: The MG Metro – a C-reg Mk 2 in that pale metallic blue – was a ‘toss a coin’ moment between it and a BX19 TRS estate. As my dad was footing the bill for my car, we drove them back to back – I drove the BX first, him the Metro.

    When we got back from the drive, I thought the Metro was harsh, tiny and horrid. He thought the BX huge, wallowy and dangerous. I lost the argument.

    By the time I had warmed to the Metro, it went through three engines (having been clocked, then bad replacements from Border Engines) and then the subframe was revealed to be rotten.

    It was replaced with… a BX 16 RE.

    Mark: I love cars. All cars. Also, life forces changes on us sometimes. But basically I’m a serial caraholic. I had the 306 for four years though (just a lot of extras at the same time). I’m committed to my Leica; the cars are a feast to enjoy all flavours 🙂

    Mikey C: The 306 Cabriolet was a beautiful, well executed conversion, but it’s also a French car built by Italians. Other than the seats being offset to the centre of the car, meaning I ended up sat on the bolster to maintain a comfortable wheel/pedal/torso interface, I couldn’t fault the car as a thing to look at and a thing to drive (45 minutes from Kelso to Edinburgh Fort Retail park in torrential rain felt totally safe) – however, by 33,000 miles the coolant was black, the roof had broken once (frame snapped), the door trim warped and fell off, the brake discs cracked and I was sick of arguing with the local dealer over irritating little faults.

  12. I think a good £1500 – £2000 306 Cabriolet, is a good buy in the right colour and leather combo. No great shakes to drive (like any overated 306 really, and was using new XSI’s in period, with £115 michelin pilots, but thats another embarrasing story!) And to think Mrs E scrappaged a leaky one… and now she wants another one!

  13. Richard – try a Honda S2000.

    I’ve loved mine for a decade. Correct alignment & a couple of chassis braces give reasonable steering feel & excellent handling, compared to most modern rubbish. The engine is bonkers.

    I had a couple of MX-5s before that (MK1s) so I know what your problem is!

    The roads WERE emptier way back then & the weather a lot better when the global was still warming, so yes, crap convertibles were tolerable. Not that the X-1/9s I had were crap, but the point applies.

  14. Andrew – 306 overrated?

    At least it had Pug fluidity of suspension (probably I ought to reserve that adjective for Citroen!) and Pininfarina elegance, unlike the dreadul 307 that replaced it. That was when I first started to go off modern cars, I think.

  15. interesting comment about the 114 (same body as the tomcat targa top more or less), and the boot space, yes there was a bit of space but you couldnt actually get anything into it. the aperture into the boot was too small. only wide enough for a tennis racket (or the targa glass in thier bags). certainly our rugged pushchair wouldnt fit, but there is something kind of cool about a topless car. i think the best compromise allround though is probably the targa top tomcat as long as the boot space was able to be used. the targa top meant you got all the water tightness of hardtop and the air and fun or the topless car. I think Rover made some great cars in the late 80’s and early ninetiese. the 827 vitesse and the t16 tomcat. bring it all back I say!

  16. Andrew – for many years the 306 was used as the benchmark for modern car handling, until the arrival of the focus.
    Top-gear even sing the praises of the ride and handling qualities of the van version (Berlingo/Partner).
    They were pretty well screwed together and didn’t rust out. Not really sure what was to be overrated about them?
    The later replacements are really flimsy by comparison!

  17. Much as I was disappointed by many aspects of the 306, the handling was entirely satisfactory. Just enough lift-off oversteer to be useful, good ride quality (Kelso is cobbled, so I hated stiff suspension). I looked at the 307cc and thought it horrible in every regard!

  18. I only say overated for 306, because I was driving new one’s and new mark VI Escorts at the same time – the Escorts were a better drive, the 306 was good, but it seems to have entered a mythical status – no-one ever harps on about its far greater upholstered glovebox lid on launch ever!!!

  19. Mine had airbags, so no upper glovebox. I’m always disappointed that LHD BXs got the upper glovebox, and RHD ones didn’t…

    Mk VI Escorts a better drive? Really?! They were much worse when they were 5-7 years old if comparing similar ages and mileages of car.

  20. I have to disagree with Mike Bushell about 4 seat cabrios. My wife has been driving a 1993 Rover 216 cabrio (Honda Twincam engine) for about 5 years and it’s a handsome and reasonably practical car. Some cabrio conversions are shockingly ugly (see the current Peugeot range for examples) but the obly obvious aesthetic problem on the Rover is the one that all R8s suffer from – the wheels look too small for the arches.

  21. I would add that the NG c900 SAAB also looks prety good roof up or down.. Although it’s a pity as standard scuttle shake is an issue (which IIRC it was on the saloon version) however I have added some metalwork to mine and its pretty good now.

  22. I will be quite bold, I’ve had many R8 Cabbies, the best ( and last, so far) was a tomcat turbo in drag, I should never have sold it. I’ve owned a Bertone X1/9, fantastic to drive, the targa was neatly stowed at the front, add up K&N induction kit for good measure and that was a wonderful wee car, but not really a sports car, it was slow by any standards, impractical and cramped, boot(s) space was great but the rear one was heated constantly and the front one was pretty useless with targa in- but cheap to maintain (how about £10,50 for a front disc or set of brake pads, thanks to cheap Polish or Russian parts) as long as you bother to waxoil the undercarriage at each MOT visit! I sold it well, mind.
    A Porsche 944S2 cabrio took its space in the front drive, that really was the BEST driver’s car I have ever owned, but more a 2+2 than a four seater really, and what about £250 + VAT for one stupid little (14″ in length) window seal!!!
    I have a Golf Avantgarde, 2L “GTI”, it is very dull to drive(how could VW call its tin top sibling “GTI” is beyond me, the 216 “K” felt more sprightly)if not to look at, but it has 5 (yep, FIVE) seat belts, a decent boot with folding back rest if that’s not big enough and it will always bring me a smile driving to Largs on a sunny day for a family sundaylunch at Nardini’s!!!
    Top down drive isn’t about speed, IMO, it’s the fact that there’s no confinement as in a tin top. The sky’s the limit, and there’s gazzillions miles of it above you before the limit is reached! I will, in time, change for a CC, and the EOS is the best looking of the bunch-pre-facelift- although it seems that its not as spacious as my Golf, and only 4 seats! The Honda S2000 would be my ideal 3rd car, Vtec engines are diabolical above 5000 revs!!! but so docile in town…
    This 114 looks good, if less than £1K, go for it, you won’t lose a penny at resale time. Go on, you know you want it!!!

  23. I’ll let you all know my thoughts on this car after I drive it home on Sunday.
    I’ve agreed to buy it from Richard. My wife has a recent Mx5 which I can compare it with but I’d also love to try a Rover 200 cabrio.

  24. My wife also owns a Flame Red 114 Cabriolet. Last year, the one featured here was for sale locally to us and we went along for a look, on the offchance it might be in better condition than hers. It was not, so we didn’t buy it, but it was still in remarkably good condition for a 1995 car 🙂

    David 3500: there was a 1.4 16v MPi option available on the Rover Metro cabriolet, but very few were built (one came up for sale on eBay a couple of years ago, but it was withdrawn early……) Trim and equipment was the same as the contemporary Metro GTi.

  25. Enjoyed readying the comments on the Rover Metro and 100 Cabriolet. I have spent the last two years rebuilding a Rover Metro GTi cabriolet which was on display at the BL rally on Sunday. This is possibly the example PaulV spotted on ebay. I have never seen another though there were cars produced for export with the GTi wheels body kit but they had the 1.4 8V engine fitted. Id like to know if there are any more examples that still exist.

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