• Classic Car Stuff

Best Budget Convertibles

Updated: May 21


The sun, at last, has decided to make an appearance. The very bad times, it seems, are behind us. The perfect ingredients, therefore, are in place to buy a convertible.


But there is a but. Energy prices are soaring and we’re experiencing something called ‘the cost of living crisis.’ So when your thought turn to drop top motoring, it’s likely to involve a limited budget.


Worry not. There are many convertibles out there that can still be bought for the equivalent of a few months powering your home at current prices.


The criteria is simple: you should be able to buy a roadworthy example for under £2,000. Here are our favourite.


BMW Z3



Great Driving Days’ hire fleet includes this Z3 2.8


Munich’s first foray into the MX5-wannabe, budget convertible market didn’t please the critics. Early cars lacked power and the styling split opinion.

Thankfully BMW quickly fixed those issues, endowing the Z3 with more power and creating a ‘wide body’ version that looked more purposeful. Result: they sold by the bucketful.


Today Z3s values are beginning to pick up but you can still bag one with a MOT for under £2,000. And you should. With a lot of 3 Series oily bits hidden under that stylish retro bodywork, the Z3 handles well and is surprisingly easy to own thanks to those proven parts and BMW build quality. Of course you really want one of the silky 6 cylinder cars, but if your budget won’t stretch that far, a 4 pot is still an entertaining alternative to a MX5.

Just watch out for rust.

MX5


Photo courtesy of Honest John Classics

The daddy, the car that kick started the drop top sports car renaissance. The diminutive Mazda is as good to drive as its reputation suggests, particularly the early Mk1 and Mk2 models. And if you can overlook its remarkable ability to rust, the bits left after the rust has rusted are very, very reliable.

For some, MX5’s Achilles Heel is its sheer ability. Because it does everything so well it can feel a bit disengaging and lacking in character. But if that doesn’t bother you then any version delivers the sort of undemanding, inexpensive, reliable fun that the MGB provided decades before.

The early pop-headlamp MX5s are the most desirable - and expensive - but later cars are cheaper and do pretty much the same thing. Because these cars are so cheap look for signs of continuous maintenance - and check for rust. MX5s can crumble before your eyes.


Alfa Romeo Spider 916


Photo courtesy of Classic & Sports Car

Just like MG with the B, in the 1960s Alfa Romeo hit the drop top bullseye with the gorgeous Duetto. Styled to resemble a Riva boat - the first cars are now known as ‘boat tails’ the Duetto was the perfect weekend getaway on four wheels.


And just like MG with the B, having run the ball past the competition and into goal, Alfa promptly sat back on its laurels and kept making variations of the same car for the next four decades.


Until the 916 came along. Thanks to clever platform sharing with more humdrum Fiats, Alfa managed to crunch the numbers to make a new Spider work. And it really did.


The new Spider, like its GTV coupe cousin, combined brilliant styling with good engines and a decent chassis set up. There was a lovely clam shell bonnet, with clever fake twin headlights, and even a nod to the Kamm Tail version of the classic Spider in the cut off boot.


Naturally, this being Alfa, the Spider wasn’t built entirely well and the electrics worked on a sort of ‘one on, one off’ shift basis. Which conspired to hamper sales somewhat. Those reasons also explain why you can still bag a classic Italian convertible of the 90s for buttons. £2k will get you a grotty one, closer to £10k or more for the best V6s. The big Busso motors are sonorous but the smaller 2 litre engines suit the car better.


Great Driving Days is adding a Alfa Romeo 916 Spider to its hire fleet during 2022.


Mercedes SLK


Great Driving Days’ Mercedes SLK AMG with manual gearbox

Back in the 90s while Oasis were havin’ it large and Blur snearing about country living, in Germany Mercedes were pondering the MX5. The car’s success coincided with the car firm’s strategy of broadening its market and it saw an opportunity in the MX5.


Mercedes‘ answer was the SLK, a car that was small and cheap by its own standards, quite a lot less so by anyone else’s. The SLK was, as the name suggests, a sort of shrunken version of the big SL tourer. That meant it had the firm’s clever folding hardtop, that turned a coupe into a convertible.


The SLK‘s party trick was customisation. Unlike the one-size-fits all MX5, you could make your new Mercedes your own with a plethora of engine and trim options. Although most SLKs were sold as autos, the car offered a surprisingly sporty drive, being nimble and pointable in a very Mercedes like way.


All of which may make its inclusion on this list a surprise. But the SLK was built at a time when Mercedes paid homage to quality rather than anything more concrete. With its complicated roof, expensive spares and propensity to rust, the SLK can be a risky bet. But, with roadworthy examples well under £2k, best to treat a SLK purchase as a disposable one. Do that and you’ll discover a hidden gem of a car.

Toyota MR2


Photo courtesy of Evo

Before the MX5 there was the original origami-design MR2, a car closely modelled on the brilliant Fiat X1/9 but with one crucial improvement: it was well built.

After the original, Toyota sort of fumbled the ball. When Mazda launched the MX5, Toyota decided to push things upmarket with the bigger and pricier Mk2.


Presumably realising its mistake, 10 years on from the MX5 in 1999 Toyota launched the Mk3, which was as close to being a MX5 clone as it was possible to be. And it really was good, mid engined and brilliant to drive. There were a couple of problems though. Firstly, the engines had a major design fault that gave the car a terrible reputation. And then there were the looks: the MX5 just looked right, the MR2 didn’t seem sure which way it was going.

Those reliability problems - fixed on later cars - plus poor sales compared to the MX5 make the MR2 something of a hidden gem. Those who know them, love them. Prices reflect the conundrum - you can pick up a decent one for a couple of grand. But go for a post 03 car where the engine problems are sorted.

Saab 900NG



Pity the poor Saab 900 NG, so named because it was the ‘new generation’ of the ling lived classic version.


Flush with GM cash and its overflowing parts bin, Saab’s dedicated engineers developed a car that was so far removed from its Cavalier underpinnings that it benefitted from very few economies of scale. And yet all anyone remembers about it is that underneath all that Saabness is a Cavalier.

Which may explain why you can buy a four seater turbocharged Saab convertible for buttons. A few more buttons gets you a full pressure turbo.

And you should. Because the Saab is comfy, very Swedish, quirky and practical. It’s reliable too - the Saab engines, if well maintained, are legendarily long lived. If you can put down the significant scuttle shake to ‘character’ you’ll be able to live with a 900 convertible.

Later cars are badged ‘9-3’ but shouldn’t be confused with the second generation 9-3, where the Saabness was much more light touch.


MGF


There was a time when Britain ruled the small corner of the world devoted to inexpensive convertibles. And king amongst them was the MGB. So in the late 80s it must have hurt when the bods at Longbridge watched Mazda reclaim the crown they’d casually thrown away.

They weren’t slow to respond. The MGF of 1995 took the fight to Mazda with a car that cleverly followed the small convertible tradition but, unlike the Mazda, updated it for a new generation. Where the Mazda was a clever copy of those 1960s cara, the MGF was a brilliant rethink.


Mid engined and neatly styled with echoes of those classic MGs, the F hide its Metro origins well. It was more rounded than the Mazda and comprehensively outsold it in Britain.

There were problems, ones that continue to stymie MGF values. The clever K Series engine ate head gaskets. The body rusted, the trim fell apart and there was a general sense of a car built to approximate standards, rather than anything consistent.

The MX5 also ran rings around the F on the road. Which isn‘t to say the F is bad - it’s just softer and more touring focussed.

The later TF ditches the F’s hydrogas suspension to improve handling. The styling was also improved.


There are a lot of F’s around and they’re just beginning to appreciate. If you want a proper British value convertible, it should top your list.



Volvo C70


Photo courtesy of RAC

Sticking with Sweden, in the mid 90s Volvo decided to meet its local rival head on with the C70 convertible. Based on the boxy 850 saloon, the new car combined Pininfarina styling with TWR engineering and suspension.

It looked good and it drive well. Although, just like the Saab 900, scuttle shake was every owner’s constant companion.

Today, even more so than the 900, the C70 is a car in search of a market. Its brand isn’t the first port of call for classic fans and its imagine is a little iffy, a sort of uncomfortable combination of golf clubs and perfume. If you can overlook that though you’ll have every right to look smug as you drive one of the best and arguably most overlooked four seater convertibles of the 90s.


Peugeot 306


Photo courtesy of DriveMag

Whisper it: the 205 is brilliant but the 306 is much, much better. And that means it’s really very good indeed. It looks good, it handles superbly and it’s remarkably reliable.


Which may all come as a surprise because you can still buy a 306 for the price of a train ticket. You’ll pay a little more for one of the pretty Pininfarina convertibles but they’re still bargains.

The 306 drop top is one of the best looking four seat convertibles of the last 30 years, a clever conversion that creates an elegant and low car. Yes, they rust, yes stuff goes wrong, but you can avoid many of the common problems by buying well.

The big problem with this car is finding one. They are out there but they’re often knackered and unloved. Convertible versions of saloon cars rarely seem to fare well and the 306 is no exception, even though it is eons better than its contemporary rivals.

Find one, buy one, enjoy it.


Great Driving Days’ range of classic convertibles are available to hire from our base on the edge of the Cotswolds. They’re a great way to add a low cost drop top car to your getaway. Find out more CLICK HERE


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