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Here comes the sun: The UK is the convertible car capital of Europe

The sun is out at last and convertible owners are putting down the roof to soak up some rays while enjoying the freedom of wind-in-the-hair motoring.

And you’d think it would be those sun-kissed continentals from the South of France, Spain and Italy who would be the biggest convertible fans. Well, not so.

Despite the relatively inclement weather on our wind and rain-swept island, most car-makers report that the UK is the convertible capital of Europe.

On the open road: Volkswagen’s T-Roc is one of Britain’s best selling convertibles and currently the only open-top model VW offers

In truth, the sun doesn’t even need to be out for resilient wrapped-up Britons to be driving alfresco. Indeed, well into autumn, and even winter, it takes little excuse to lower the hood.

Some years back I joined an ice-driving trip to Switzerland to test-drive a Maserati convertible. 

Despite the freezing temperatures and lightly falling snow, it was second nature to the parka-clad British contingent to throw down the roof and start sliding like delighted schoolchildren around the slippery alpine circuit. The accompanying Spanish group, by contrast, looked aghast.

Happily, convertibles are not the preserve of the super-rich. German car-makers such as BMW, Audi, Mercedes-Benz and Porsche may dominate the middle ranks, but there are still plenty of moderately priced convertibles to be had, and a thriving second-hand market for the budget-conscious.

The T-Roc - which boasts a plush comfortable interior (pictured) -  is priced from £27,860 to £34,955

The T-Roc – which boasts a plush comfortable interior (pictured) –  is priced from £27,860 to £34,955

More than 42,000 new convertibles were sold in 2018, though that’s down from 55,000 in 2012.

Today, the MINI Convertible is Britain’s best-selling soft top – selling 1,213 in the current year to date and 5,435 in 2019 – the last full year before the Covid pandemic. 

Latest figures from the SMMT trade body show other convertible best sellers so far this year are: the Mercedes-Benz E-Class (826); Mazda MX-5 (695); Mercedes-Benz C-class (579); BMW 4-series (568); BMW Z4 (568); Volkswagen T-Roc (566); FIAT 500 (389); Porsche 911 (354); and BMW 2-series: (327). 

Four of Britain’s best selling soft-top models this year 

Mini: Latest versions start from £21,305 for the entry level Cooper with a 136 hp 1.5-litre petrol engine that hits 62 mph in 8.8 seconds and a top speed of 129 mph

Mini: Latest versions start from £21,305 for the entry level Cooper with a 136 hp 1.5-litre petrol engine that hits 62 mph in 8.8 seconds and a top speed of 129 mph

Fiat: Fiat’s first all-electric ‘New 500’ is on sale as a soft-top from £20,495 (after a government grant) and can recharge to 80 per cent range in just 30 minutes

Fiat: Fiat’s first all-electric ‘New 500’ is on sale as a soft-top from £20,495 (after a government grant) and can recharge to 80 per cent range in just 30 minutes

Mercedes-Benz: Fresh-air motoring in a Merc starts from £43,684 for the compact C-Class cabriolet (pictured), rising to £51,010 for the E-Class, right up to £119,990 for the AMG-GT Roadster

Mercedes-Benz: Fresh-air motoring in a Merc starts from £43,684 for the compact C-Class cabriolet (pictured), rising to £51,010 for the E-Class, right up to £119,990 for the AMG-GT Roadster

BMW: You can pick up a BMW 2-series convertible for about £30,000 — the new 4-series coupe is from £45,000 — or splash out on the 8-series from £80,000 (pictured)

BMW: You can pick up a BMW 2-series convertible for about £30,000 — the new 4-series coupe is from £45,000 — or splash out on the 8-series from £80,000 (pictured)

 

My own love affair with these cars began when I spent a year studying in southern Germany and yearned for an original Volkswagen Beetle cabriolet like the many I used to see tootling around the beautiful Black Forest, all with University of Freiburg stickers on the back.

Later, as a young trainee reporter on the Coventry Evening Telegraph in the Midlands, I bought a late rubber-bumpered MG Midget in British Racing Green. 

TV and radio presenter Jeremy Vine, a fellow trainee, waxes lyrical about it to this day after we drove to Stratford- upon-Avon for a job; top down, of course.

I travelled the Continent in that car: across France, through Germany, and down to the shores of Lake Constance and beyond. 

Mazda's MX-5 reinvented that market and celebrated its 30th anniversary last year

Mazda’s MX-5 reinvented that market and celebrated its 30th anniversary last year

In the early 1990s, I landed on the Hawaiian island of Maui and reported to the airport car hire to pick up my ordered Jeep Wrangler.

I was about to set off when another car piqued my interest. I switched on the spot and took off around the island in a brilliant Mazda MX-5, at a time when small convertible sports cars had fallen out of fashion and been written off.

In design terms, the MX-5 owes much to classic British sports cars, being a reincarnation of the classic Lotus Elan built in Norfolk between 1962 and 1975 and arriving nearly a decade after the closure of MG’s factory at Abingdon in Oxfordshire, which marked the end of the MG Midget and the larger, more powerful MGB.

Mazda’s MX-5 reinvented that market and celebrated its 30th anniversary last year.

The car has sold more than 1.1 million globally, of which about one in eight have been sold in the UK since launch here in 1990. Mazda said: ‘At one point half the cars we were selling in the UK were MX-5s.’

I first met racing legend Sir Stirling Moss at the launch of Mercedes-Benz’s original 1996 two-seater, tin-top compact convertible SLK with its stowable metal roof.

Mercedes AMG-GT Roadster boasts serious wind in the hair performance and costs £119,000

Mercedes AMG-GT Roadster boasts serious wind in the hair performance and costs £119,000

Later, I rode in the passenger seat alongside him as he test drove a special edition SL500 Mille Miglia convertible; named in honour of his famous 1955 victory in that 1,000-mile race.

When the Beetle was ‘reborn’ for the 21st century — based on the underpinnings of a Golf — I drove a new cabriolet version across north Germany to charming seaside resorts on the Baltic.

TV couple Richard Madeley and Judy Finnigan are clearly fans, too, and were spotted out shopping top-down in a cream-coloured VW Beetle in London’s Hampstead in April.

The ten most popular UK convertibles

Sales year to date 2021

  • Mini Convertible: 1,213
  • Mercedes-Benz E-Class: 826
  • Mazda MX-5: 695
  • Mercedes-Benz C-class: 579
  • BMW: 4-series: 568
  • BMW Z4: 568
  • Volkswagen T-Roc: 566
  • FIAT 500: 389
  • Porsche 911: 354
  • BMW 2-series: 327

(Source SMMT)

 

The original Golf convertible was another huge favourite. But now VW’s sole cabriolet is the four-seater T-Roc, priced from £27,860 to £34,955.

Audi convertibles have been popular since the days when Princess Diana was photographed driving William and Harry in her 1994 A4 cabriolet; a car which pops up regularly at auction.

Today, Audi has just one mainstream convertible, the A5, priced from £43,185.

The two-seater TT range is priced from £35,545 for the Roadster up to £58,680 for the hot RS version. 

But the ultimate Audi convertible is the 204 mph R8 Spyder, which accelerates from rest to 62 mph in 3.2 seconds and costs from £126,835 to £166,540.

John Mayhead, manager of automotive intelligence for motor industry experts Hagerty, highlighted some trends: ‘Cabriolets and convertibles are more popular with women than men.’

Some 22 per cent of classic cars owned by women are cabriolets, compared with 20 per cent for men.

Convertibles also tend to be more popular with older car enthusiasts and collectors.

For enthusiasts born before 1945, cabriolets account for 25 per cent of their vehicles. Down to 21 per cent for ‘baby boomers’ (born 1946-1964); 17 per cent for ‘generation X’ (1965-1980) and 11 per cent for millennials (1981-2000).

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