Americans have long had a love affair with their cars, but lately the liaison has been platonic: a sensible, economical and safe arrangement that every mother would approve of.

But now we are--or so it seems--again looking for romance: the wind to ruffle our hair, th w0147 ----- r i BC-06/02/83-WHEELS 2takes 06-02 0001 WHEELS: Letting the Sun Shine In By William Smart

Americans have long had a love affair with their cars, but lately the liaison has been platonic: a sensible, economical and safe arrangement that every mother would approve of.

But now we are--or so it seems--again looking for romance: the wind to ruffle our hair, the sun to burnish our brow, the stars to wink down on us, a sense of abandonment and the open road . . .

Convertibles are back.

"To understand the comeback of the convertible," says Martyn Schorr, editor of the new Convertibles quarterly magazine, "you have to understand why the Detroit auto manufacturers started phasing it out in the first place."

The decision was made sometime in the mid-'70s, says Schorr, to drop the magic of motoring as a selling point in the wake of such unseductive givens as the Arab oil embargo, a mounting demand for fuel economy, air-emission and safety standards, and a downward-spiraling economy.

"The manufacturers," says Schorr, "felt that the future in car sales would be in the area of efficiency, fuel economy and light weight."

Besides, he says, people got tired of having their hair blown all over the place.

Suddenly it wasn't fun to drive any more. Cars were to be used to get from here to there, to work and back home again. Finally, in 1976, the last of the convertibles rolled off the assembly lines.

"That," says conversion-company executive Scott Lipton, "was the Cadillac Eldorado Bicentennial edition red, white and blue motif, with commemorative plaques on the dashboard . They built 200 of those and before they ever came off the assembly line they were all presold, at big, big price tags."

At the same time Detroit was phasing out open-air cars, "A cottage industry was born," says Lipton, "the independent convertible-conversion industry." Even though it apparently wasn't a market worth the attention of Detroit, scores of mom-and-pop conversion businesses popped up in body shops across the country.

"People saw a quick buck that could be made," says Lipton, "and dozens of instant companies cropped up. They would take can openers to the tops, put new ones back on and have them come out 'convertibles.' "

Lipton, who started his own conversion business in 1976 and now is president of Convertible Concepts Ltd. of Blaine, Wash., says the first true conversion companies were started in Michigan, many by engineers who had worked with the Big Three.

At the same time the conversion businesses were growing, says Schorr, "We started to see a Detroit that was meeting all the efficiency standards and they were looking for 'new' things to sell cars with.

"With the cost of fuel going down, people were more inclined to get into the car and take a drive."

Chrysler was the first to test the market. The K-car convertible hit the market in 1981 but it was not until 1982, when it had orders for more than 20,000 Chrysler LeBaron (Sen. Edward M. Kennedy took delivery on his LeBaron Medallion just over a year ago) and Dodge 400 convertibles, that the company turned from Cars & Concepts' mini-assembly line and began manufacturing them on its own.

Buick followed Chrysler, and they were joined this year by Ford, Chevrolet and Pontiac. Cadillac plans to introduce an Eldorado convertible model for the 1984 model year.

Who are the new ragtop owners, and why are they buying?

"We're talking nostalgia," says Schorr. "A lot of the people buying convertibles now are the ones who had them when they were growing up, during the '50s and '60s."

Also, "There are a lot of young people out there who are potential buyers for the popular-priced cars." (Dodge 400 convertibles start at just under $10,000.)

Says Karen Korengold, 30, a sonographer at the Washington Hospital Center, who sold a Mercedes two-seater to buy her first convertible, a maroon Dodge 400 with a white top: "I bought it in the middle of the winter looking forward to this. It's so wonderful to have a spring day and be able to put the top down."

Another impetus for fun-in-the-sun driving: "The economy is starting to pick up again," notes Lipton. "There's a psychology attached there. Everybody wants to think that bad times are behind us, that the good times are here. The symbol of good times has always been the convertible."

"People are interested in cars that do more than transport people from one place to another," adds Schorr.

"There's a large segment of the market that drives a car to be looked at: Ferrari people. Exotic-car people."

Unless you have the $40,000 and up that it takes to buy an exotic car, the convertible is an attractive option. "You can be a hero in your neighborhood for $12,000. You can have people looking at you every day, because when you drive around with the top down in 1983, you're unusual."

Lipton says the millions of dollars Detroit is spending to advertise and promote convertibles also is a real boon to the conversion industry. "We've been dabbling at production runs on select models for the last five years, but it's just this year that once again it's become what we look at as very big business. And that's primarily because of the Big Three coming back in."

One major benefit from convertibles is increased showroom traffic. Says industry observer Harry Stark: "It's a traffic-builder more than anything else." Echoes Lipton: "The auto-industry psychology is that they have to have a convertible just to build showroom traffic. They don't look at it as a profitable item."

Whatever, the convertible market potential is huge. A Los Angeles market research firm says convertibles now represent 2 percent of the total U.S. new-car market, and estimates that 20 percent of the 178 million Americans of driving age are potential ragtop customers.

"The outlook for the balance of '83 and '84," declares Lipton, "is indeed sunny."