For years, Marcia Early has been driving around in a station wagon filled with groceries and kids and the trappings of motherhood. But with her two children now nearly grown, she wanted a new car and a new image. A few weeks ago she found both -- she bought a red convertible.
"This gives me a new feeling of freedom," Early said of her car, a 1985 Chrysler LeBaron loaded with accessories, including a turbo charger for extra zip.
"I love the outdoors, and now I can be out in the open while doing errands and going to work," she said. "I want the breeze in my hair and the sun, because it won't be hot while the car is moving. It will be kind of like a sea breeze."
Early, who is the business manager in her husband's dental office in Montgomery County, isn't the only one with a special feeling for the convertible, the beloved "ragtop" that for many people symbolizes fun, romance, glamor and a certain undefinable sense of the good life.
Since Detroit resumed production of convertibles in 1982 after a six-year hiatus, Americans have renewed their ties with the cars in increasing numbers. Dealers sold 21,550 new domestic convertibles in 1982, 39,957 in 1983, and 57,614 in 1984.
The mystique endures despite questions about the car's safety and practicality. Convertibles generally haven't performed as well in government crash tests as hardtops. Their ride isn't quite as smooth as a sedan, because of the design that one fan describes as "a lot like a bathtub with a steel rim holding everything together." The back seats and the trunks are usually tiny, to leave space for storage of the top. And there are those inevitable rattles.
According to George Lowe, a marketing manager for Ford, convertibles appeal to consumers for a variety of reasons.
"They are fun cars, first and foremost," he said. "They are cars that make a statement about the person who drives them. They say, 'This is a fun-loving person who is enjoying life . . . . This is a light-hearted person,' just as a dark gray or a black sedan makes a statement that this is a serious, sedate person."
When kindergarten teacher Beverly Ostenso of the District starts talking about the mystique of driving a convertible, she gets downright poetic.
"A convertible is a magic machine," said Ostenso, a convertible owner for 18 years who now has two. "It can extend summer into November and turn a morning drive to work into a minivacation. It is a youth machine. Children wave at it. Young men want to drive it. Older people sing '50s music from the back seat. And one friend claims that when he drives his convertible he looks 10 years younger."
At the end of a hard day, says Ostenso, "The convertible is there waiting for you, smiling at you with its top down."
Industry sales figures show that production of convertibles peaked in 1965 when 509,415 of the cars were turned out, and there was a convertible for every American car line.
But sales declined annually after 1965, and the 1970s brought new questions about safety and new concerns about fuel economy. Car makers turned their attention to producing "econoboxes," small, sensible cars that provided maximum fuel economy. In 1976, Detroit produced what was believed to be its last convertible.
"But as soon as we quit making them, the 'after market coach builders' started up," Lowe said. "So convertibles have been available continuously, in low volume, of course.
"By the late 1970s, we saw that there was sufficient volume potential in what the converters were doing to consider reentering the business."
Chrysler reintroduced a line of convertibles in 1982 and since then the number of convertible models has multiplied. Today, there are eight domestic models and several foreign offerings.
These cars range from the little Volkswagen Cabriolet, which has a suggested retail price of $11,595, to the big Cadillac Eldorado, which has a suggested list price of $32,105. In between are the best-selling Chrysler twins -- the LeBaron and the Dodge 600 -- and the Ford Mustang, all of which list at $11,000 to $12,000. But none of those prices includes freight or dealer preparation.
According to Lowe, the car makers "aren't looking for radical growth." But it is his personal belief that the convertible sales represent a "steady piece of the business" for the foreseeable future.
"People haven't changed," Lowe said. "The demand has been there all along. When we weren't producing real convertibles, people were buying cars with sun roofs, moon roofs, T-tops, collector Mustangs and conversions."
The one cloud hanging over the convertible's comeback is its safety.
"The problem is that the convertible tends to be driven more outrageously than the basic four-door sedan, and that can be fatal if the convertible rolls over since there is no roof to protect you," said Jack Gillis, author of "The Car Book," a popular consumer publication that contains safety information on dozens of new and used automobiles.
Also, Gillis said, the convertible generally hasn't fared as well as the hardtop in the experimental crash test programs conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In these tests, a car containing two dummy figures and traveling at 35 mph is crashed into a barrier. Damage to the two dummies, one strapped into the driver seat and the other strapped into the passenger seat, is evaluated in terms of injuries and the results published.
When the injuries to the dum- mies, as measured by the head injury criteria (HIC) developed by NHTSA, are more than 1,000, it suggests that humans involved in the same crash in the same car would suffer serious head injuries and perhaps even be killed. An HIC of less than 1,000 suggests that humans wouldn't be injured so seriously that they would die.
Three of the four convertibles that have been through the 35 mph test have an HIC of more than 1,000. They are the 1982 Chrysler LeBaron, which had a driver HIC of 2,644; the 1980 Volkswagen Rabbit, which had a driver HIC of 1,328 and the Ford Mustang, which had a passenger HIC of 1,112.
The hardtop versions of the same cars generally -- though not always -- had lower scores than the convertibles. The Chrysler LeBaron sedan, for instance, had a driver HIC of 520, compared with the convertible's 2,644. The Mustang hardtop had a passenger HIC of 567, compared with the convertible's 894.
Car manufacturers play down the importance of 35 mph tests.
"We don't think it means a thing," said Ken Brown, a Ford safety specialist, "because it is an experimental program" in which only one car from a line is tested. What is meaningful, he said, is that all cars sold in the United States must meet the government's 30 mph crash tests, which are based on tests of several cars from each line.
Chrysler representative Tom Jakobowsky said there have been safety improvements in some cars since they were tested in the 35 mph experimental crash program. The LeBaron convertible tested, for instance, was a 1983 model, he said. More recent models of the LeBaron and the Dodge convertibles have been upgraded, including a change in the roof latching system, he said.
NHTSA spokeswoman Roberta Wasserman said that the 35 mph test results are intended to help consumers compare the safety of one car model against another and are believed to be accurate within about 200 points. "A HIC of 600 to 800 probably doesn't mean anything because it is within the safe range , whereas a HIC of 1,400 to 1,600 might mean something," Wasserman said. She said that she as a consumer "might wonder" about the 2,644 Chrysler HIC.
However, because of the narrowness of the 35 mph crash testing, Wasserman said, "you can't take any of the results as the word of God."
To true believers, no government test can dampen their love.
What about the safety aspect?
"I belt in," said kindergarten teacher Ostenso.
But what if the convertible rolls over? What about safety?
"Life isn't safe," she said