Richard Kilpatrick reckons we’re in a golden age of affordable open-tops…
And here’s why
Back in the ‘80s, one of the photographers working at our studio was a properly keen young bloke with a taste for bikes and cars. The memorable experiences of his automotive youth are invariably how desperately unreliable and ratty these vehicles were – and the one that sticks in my mind was a Spitfire 1500.
So when a vicious staircase assaulted me and my solution to having one leg for three pedals was to grab a Mercedes-BenzSLK – a car I’d previously dismissed as being of ‘that’ era of Daimler-Benz products – due to the astoundingly low cost, it dawned on me that I was effectively driving the equivalent of that blighted Triumph…
Let me explain. In Britain, the roadster drought was astonishing in the 1980s – to the extent that whereas a 20-something in the mid ‘80s might have cast eyes upon an MG, a Triumph, perhaps a Healey of some flavour, and a variety of imported lovelies like the Peugeot 304 Cabriolet, by 1992 they weren’t really on the radar. They were classics – in fact, the only one to still be lurking around as a used car was the Fiat X1/9 – which I had, and enjoyed, when I was 19 and the car was only 4 years old – yet was utterly welcome at a classic car show parading around with the mid ‘70s 1300s.
British cars like MG Bs, TR7s and Spitfires, despite being only around 12-13 years old – even younger sometimes in the case of models like the TR7 – were already seen as either classics or anachronisms, depending on how fresh the memory of them was with the source of the opinion. In the mid ’90s I considered buying a Jensen Healey GT from Clelands, the Volvo dealer – it felt like an old classic car, yet it was only 18 years old or so.
Now, I don’t know what these old cars cost in real terms – I got the impression one of the factors affecting our young photographer’s choice was budget, and that’s possibly why his examples were less than reliable.
My SLK was well under £3000. For that, I got a relatively uncommon Yellowstone 230K automatic with MOT & Tax on it, good cosmetic and structural condition for a 14 year old car, and a good to average interior. A patchy history seemed to imply generally good care, though aftermarket and ill-fitting wheels and a generally coarse engine note suggested recent neglect. Ill-fitting third-party rims look as bad as overused colour popping effects in photographs…
Almost everything worked – in fact as far as I was concerned, everything did work! More on that later…
The SLK’s footwells are spacious enough to deal with a leg in a cast (though the organ-style pedal was not as compatible with left-foot driving, so the car got a rest until I could use my right one in the end), and the boot – with the roof up – is huge. There’s not much headroom, and the angle of the small roof means I tend to clout my head on the cant rail when checking over my shoulder. Most of the time the roof is down, as the car is garaged, so it’s not really a problem! Unlike the full size SL, leaving the roof down all the time isn’t destroying an expensive canvas and plastic window top, and in day to day use it’s more convenient than removing a hardtop and more secure than a softtop (particularly the SL’s vented example). The M111 four cylinder, 16v engine puts out just shy of 200bhp, enough for 0-60 in 7.3 seconds and 143mph. Or ‘adequate’, really.
The steering is precise enough, and better than modern systems, but not as talkative or as sharp as the MX5. It’s a nice car to be in, feels solid and the general condition suggests that rumours of the death of MB quality were greatly exaggerated – it is, in areas, inferior to the W124/W201 era of solidity, but those cars were as overrated as the C-class was underrated, in hindsight – we tolerated rust on the W124, decried it on the W210, for products that were relatively cheaper and more sophisticated.
Now at six months of ownership, the SLK celebrates by showing what it can do when running correctly, and it’s impressive… getting there has been a fun, and not overly expensive experience. More to come on that; for now, it’s interesting how many two-seater softtops there are on the market.
Perhaps the roadster was killed off, like the proper sports coupé, by derivatives of hot hatchbacks. When I was a young driver, the Golf GTi/Clipper Cabriolet was almost an inevitable solution when looking for a convertible. In fact, it felt like the roadster end of the market was held up by some fairly ropey specialist cars… with the mainstream manufacturers opting for fairly dull conversions.
VW’s Karmann Ghia gave way to the Golf. Peugeot’s pretty cabriolets were replaced by the 205 Cabriolet – still pretty, but with four seats and a roll over bar combined with an upright driving position, not really the sporting drive that a dashing young blade around town was looking for. And the 205 was related to the Talbot Samba Cabriolet, a car which only looks right in brown.
Fiat’s family car line had given us the 124, which really refused to die in Lada form. Yet it also spawned some stunning variations – the 124 Spider was a remarkably attractive car that continued in production for some time, for the US market at least – Europe got a drophead version of the 124’s successor… the Strada/Ritmo.
MG didn’t even dare to tread the waters of convertibles; Rover wouldn’t do that until the ’90s. Enterprising chaps with hacksaws slicing the top off the Metro and Montego really didn’t cut it against fully engineered cabriolets, though the success of the MG R V8 and the proposed redesign of the MG B hinted that perhaps, the B could have carried on in the same way the Mini did. The real loss for Austin Rover was throwing away the TR7 redesign, Broadside, which refined the original drophead into a very mature design with mass-market appeal.
Toyota’s MR2 lost the raw appeal of the Mk 1, itself almost a copy of the Fiat X1/9. The Mk 2 MR2 was heavier, grown up; a spider version was produced in limited numbers.
Only Reliant tried with any effort to fill the vacuum – the plastic-and-spaceframe SS1 was a sophisticated handler and a well proportioned, albeit challenging design – let down by poor build, some cheap implementation of clever solutions, and generally substandard finishing.
For young drivers, the landscape is of course wrecked by insurance premiums that seem positively unreasonable. Which is a shame, because our stars of the ‘70s have been replaced by a troupe of affordable, fantastic little cars, few of which have any serious drawbacks compared to their spiritual forebears.
Bringing up the mass market of the MG B and perhaps, the Midget, we have that staple of the roadster market, the Mazda MX5. These are critically acclaimed and deservedly so, yet a basic S1 1600 will make you feel at home even if your heart lies with Abingdon’s finest. Forget the Hethel cues of the pop-up nights, bumperless nose and fake chain-driven Twink cam-cover – the flat cardboard and vinyl door trims, the hard plastic dash, clicky switches and sheer fun of the MX5 are pure MG Midget or B.
For the Spitfire, GT6 and the like, may I offer the BMW Z3. Not a car I’m particularly fond of, the parallels between the Z3 and Triumphs are fairly obvious, and the flat rump, long nose and general character of them reminds me very much of the Spitfire – the GT6 of course being the breadvan M-Coupé.
The SLK feels so much like a TR6 to drive, that it’s almost an insult to Mercedes’ designers. The vague steering compared to the sharp responses of the MX5, the chattering of the hardtop seals… but also a maturity to it. Yet it’s also successfully evocative of the original 190SL, a wholly deliberate act by the designers. Although perhaps it’s fairer to liken the SLK to the Sunbeam Alpine – a strong, sophisticated alternative to the MG B which is often overlooked.
Porsche’s Boxster revived the 914/6 concept, though as they reach middle age, they’re proving to be almost as unreliable – and a considerable amount more costly – than 1996’s other mid-engined debutante…
The MG F was so modern, so accomplished, that I struggle to place it. Rather than being an echo of a past benchmark, the F IS a benchmark in itself – and hopefully will be recognised as such.
Fiat’s Barchetta, far from reviving the 124 Spider, feels more like the real replacement for the 304 Cabriolet than Peugeot’s lardy folding hard-top alternatives.
However – this is just one opinion. The fact, the solid part of this, is that from Alfa Spider to Z3, a smorgasbord of affordable roadsters lurk within the classifieds of 2012 – and with a late summer hopefully lurking in September, there’s still time to enjoy it before finding that the winter layup involves rather less rust, and rather more computing power, than it did in the ‘80s.