They may break down a lot, get lousy mileage, and are about as safe as a gum wrapper on wheels, but so what? These two-seaters have always been a hoot to drive.
Have fun, will travel
The news that Subaru is planning a convertible version of its new BRZ for the 2014 model year comes at a welcome juncture. At a time when car are increasingly encumbered with all manner of electronic nannies, the revival of the traditional open-top, rear-drive, two-seat roadster is a tonic for enthusiasts. With its chunky good looks, eight-speed transmission, and 200-horsepower four-cylinder engine, the upcoming BRZ convertible, like all proper sports cars, will be aimed at a single emotion: fun.
The spiritual ancestors of the BRZ go back 65 years to the European roadsters that began arriving in the U.S. after World War II. Rakish in design, frisky on the road, and near zero in practicality, they expressed the optimism of a new generation. Over the years, they became more civilized, replacing plastic side curtains with roll-up windows and undependable electronics with more reliable ones, as Japanese and American manufacturers have developed their own interpretations of the classic formula.
Today, most of those early roadsters are parked under tarpaulins or collecting dust in museums. Some better-known marques are pictured below. Among them is one that remains on the market. Like the coelacanth, it is a living fossil — a visible reminder of how the convertible sports car has evolved and a source of inspiration for Subaru to follow.
Triumph TR3: 1955-1962
A product of Britain’s old Standard Triumph motor company, the TR3 was notable for its low-cut doors. Because it was fitted with plastic side curtains instead of rollup windows, the doors were short enough for the driver to rest his arm on top. From the front, the TR3 was just as distinctive, with prominent headlamp housings and a large egg-crate grille. Although it was the first production car with disc brakes, the TR3 hardly needed them. Its four-cylinder engine produced only 95 hp. Just 10% of the cars built remained in England. The rest were shipped to the U.S.
Jaguar XK150: 1957-1961
The classically proportioned XK150 boasted a leather-trimmed dashboard, aluminum center dash panel, and Jag’s famed inline six-cylinder engine displacing 3.4 liters. In time, the engine grew to 3.8 liters, generating 265 hp and making possible a 135-mph top speed. Jaguar produced just 2,265 XK150 convertibles, but its popularity (and profitability — the highest of the early Jags) paved the way for the groundbreaking XK-E.
Austin-Healey 3000: 1959-1967
Designed a half-century ago, the Austin-Healy 3000 still turns heads. Its long hood and sweeping fenders exude a classic elegance. Adding to the ambiance were two-tone paint jobs and, in later models, wood veneer dashboards. New safety and emission standards doomed the 3000 after an eight-year run. Designer and engineer Donald Healey left Austin-Healey a year after production ended, and the company itself disappeared in 1972.
In its various guises, the MGB was remarkably long-lived (18 years) and commercially successful (more than half a million sold). Exotic compared to the American cars of its day, early versions featured wire wheels with knock-off hubs, leather-covered bucket seats, and a floor-mounted manual transmission. As I learned first-hand you didn’t so much own an MGB as adopt it. With its trouble-prone SU carburetors, Lucas electronics and rear-mounted batteries, it was either in the shop or dead on the side of the road.
Fiat 124 Sport Spider: 1966-1979
The Sport Spider shared the numbers 124 in its name along with much of its running gear with the same-named Sedan. But that didn’t bother buyers who, as with many things Italian, were attracted by its beauty. The convertible body was designed by Sergio Pininfarina, who was reportedly inspired by Ferrari and Corvette. Power was provided by a pioneering four-cylinder engine with double overhead cams. 124 Sales were suspended in Europe when it was modified to comply with new U.S. regulations in 1975 and then halted for good in 1979.
Alfa Romeo Spider: 1966-1993
Pricey for its time, the Spider sold for $3,950 at introduction vs. $2,607 for the MGB, but buyers got a Pininfarina design, disc brakes, and independent rear suspension. A starring role in 1967’s “The Graduate” helped get it off to a fast start, and Alfa’s mystique carried it the rest of the way. The boat-tailed Spider remained in production for nearly three decades with only small changes to its design and mechanics.
After leaving Austin-Healey, Donald Healey linked up with the Jensen Motors dealership to produce the Jensen-Healey. Equipped with a Lotus engine that produced 144 hp, it zipped to 60 mph in 8.7 seconds. While it lacked the charisma of the 3000, some 10,000 Jensen-Healey’s were produced during its five-year run.
Mazda MX-5 Miata: 1989-
The first successful reinvention of the classic roadster, the Miata took the traditional ingredients — light weight, two seats, front-engine, rear-drive — and improved them. The Miata is functional, reliable, and easy to drive with enthusiasm. Though not especially powerful or fast, it is beautifully balanced and handles with ease. Somehow the car has survived two complete redesigns and several facelifts to retain its original character and become the most popular roadster in history by far, with sales approaching one million.
Honda S2000: 1999-2009
A more technical take on the traditional roadster, the S2000 had a high-revving engine, double-wishbone suspension, electrically-assisted steering, and a price to match: $37,000. Created to celebrate Honda’s 50th anniversary, it lasted for only one generation when plans for a successor collapsed in the global financial crisis. Still, more than 66,000 found their way to American buyers during its lifetime.
Pontiac Solstice/Saturn Sky: 2006-2009
One of old GM’s last gasps before bankruptcy was to produce these ill-starred twins. Striking in shape and proportion but deficient in functionality (no storage space, bulky top) and overweight, the Solstice/Sky enjoyed 15 minutes of fame and then vanished from sight along with their respective brands. A 260-hp engine and a brisk 0-60 time under 5.5 seconds couldn’t help. Although production was halted just three years ago, they are rarely seen in public today.
Morgan Plus 4: 1950-1969; 1985-2000; 2005-
An antique that is still in production more than six decades after introduction, the Plus 4 is known for its ash-wood frame, leather hood strap, and unchanging design. “Built on the same principles as the 1950s original,” brags the Morgan website, “a big torquey motor in a lightweight car.” The definitive verdict was rendered by the irreverent car testers of BBC’s Top Gear: “As fine a British institution as cold showers, and about as comfortable, the Morgan Plus 4 is an antiquated indulgence that you shouldn’t want but absolutely will the second you step aboard.” If Subaru needs an object lesson in how to build a classic roadster that oozes character, it can find it here.