The Best Bargain Convertibles
Winter. At the start its all-wrapped-up, crackling-fired cosiness is a welcome change from the summer. But by around about now we're all ready for some sun again.
And, as March begins, we've got it.
So, as if on cue, at Classic Car Stuff we've been thinking about convertible cars. Specifically the ones that won't break the bank, because in this post-financial meltdown, mid-Brexit, Corona Virus-swirling uncertainty, the less it costs the better it must be.
These are our five top picks for bargain drop top motoring this Spring and Summer. Doubtless we've missed a few. Let us know in the comments.
1. Alfa Spider 916
In the mid 1990s Alfa was experiencing something of a renaissance. Its parent company, Fiat, was an early adopter of the platform-sharing model that every car maker now uses and they quickly saw the potential. Sharing underpinnings with humble Fiats and more exalted Lancias meant Alfa Romeo could economically refresh its entire range.
And it did. One of the best new cars was the Alfa Romeo 916, available as a coupe or a very pretty Spider. The new car was the first all-new drop-top Alfa since the 1960s.
Alfa really went to town on the new Spider. The beautiful body features a clamshell bonnet design, with clever 'peep through' lights and at the back there is a nod to the Kamm Tail style of the original 105-Series Spider. At launch the engines we got in the UK were Ta mix of old and new - the superlative V6 Busso was available as a 3 litre or there was the willing and free-revving Twin Spark 2 litre.
Most Spiders are the 2 litre, which delivers a just-enough 150 bhp but is light so the car handles well.
Forget all the nonsense about Alfa Romeos being unreliable. Yes, they have issues - electrics being a significant one - but a well maintained car will be no worse than any other 25 year old car.
The Spider was available in three distinct Phases - early cars (Phase 1) are identifiable by the slightly rushed interior, with square air vents, Phase 2 cars got a much better interior with round vents and the final car received revised bodywork with a much larger grille.
Good convertibles with decent service history, not too many miles and in presentable condition start at around £1,500.
2. Mazda MX5
The original MX5 of 1989 reinvented the cheap sport car market almost overnight. The idea of a light, nippy two seater convertible wasn't new, but it took Mazda to rethink it. Tradition dictated that such cars came with compromises. They were either not very reliable - like the TR7, a bit difficult to get in and out of - like the MG Midget and Triumph Spitfire - or you got wet when it rained (like the MGB).
The MX5 was brilliant precisely because there really was no downside. It was a Mazda, so it was reliable, and it had big doors to get in and out of.
For our budget we're restricted to the later Mk2 model, the one without the pop up lights. But that's fine, because you get a slightly more grown up car that is just as much fun to drive as the original. And it really is fun: the MX5 is all about nimble handling and pin-sharp steering and just enough power to make any B road a genuine joy. You'll never worry about running out of road in a MX5, and that's what makes it so good.
The Mk2 MX5 was sold in a bewildering variety of standard and special editions. Don't worry about those - your main priority should be finding one with decent service history and good bodywork. Because the original MX5, it turns out, did have an Achilles Heel and it was called Rust. And with the Mk2 Mazda didn't improve things at all - the later cars are as prone to rot as the originals.
Your £2,000 budget will give you a good choice of cars. Buy on bodywork and service history, be less concerned about mileage and the desirable-to-enthusiasts special editions. The MX5 has an excellent Owners Club so getting advice and parts is easy.
3. Saab 900 NG Convertible
Oh dear. When Saab replaced the classic 900 customers were not very happy. In place of that venerable old car's quirks and character was what appeared at first glance to be a Vauxhall Vectra in a party frock.
It wasn't meant to be like this. Saab had been bought by General Motors so that the Swedish firm could take advantage of the economies of scale provided by platform sharing. This would enable Saab to create a new range of cars and enter into a bright new future. It didn't quite work out like that.
In creating the new 'NG' 900 Saab changed the shared components so significantly that there really wasn't much left. This should have been good news for Saab's customers.
But it wasn't.
The new 900 couldn't quite get away from its humble Vectra roots, not helped by the fact that the Vectra platform was, quite frankly, rubbish. The styling was also a bit 'meh', a bland mix of classic 900 styling cues that was a long way short of distinctive. What this means now, 20 years on, is that the 900 is overlooked and unloved.
Which is why the convertible remains such a bargain. The accepted wisdom that the 900 is just an upmarket Vauxhall Vectra is so established that most would-be buyers write the car off. Yet Saab over-engineered the NG 900 so you get a convertible that is very solid and well built with just enough Swedish weirdness - like the central ignition switch - to reassure you that this is no posh Vauxhall.
And then there's the engines. The 900 uses unique Saab engines, which are brilliant. Particularly the loony Aero models with full pressure turbos. Thanks to that iffy chassis you may spend more time wheel spinning than actually reaching the horizon, but who cares. It's a turbocharged Saab for goodness sake.
The convertible 900 is probably the cheapest available way into high performance, drop top motoring with four seats.
For £2,000 you will be looking at the NG 900, but you may manage to get a later 9-3 convertible for this money too. It may be flawed but it is a Saab. And it has a turbo.
The MGF doesn't need much of an introduction. It's become the sort of car that you either love or hate. And I can see both sides of the argument. On the downside, it's not very well built, it's two halves of a Metro stuck together, the interior is as durable as a Love Island star's career trajectory and the engines have a terminal weakness for head gaskets.
But on the upside, it's a MG. It's the last truly British mass market sports car. And it's actually quite good to drive. Where the MX5 can sometimes feel like a hyper puppy, eager to tackle the next bend, the MGF is more subdued, a more relaxed car that is perfect for gently rolling through the summer countryside with the top down.
Like the MX5, buying a MGF for under £2,000 is an easy task. There are hundreds about, although the pool of decent, well maintained cars is admittedly much smaller. And like the Mazda, there are a huge range of special editions, such as the pretty Wedgewood.
Later 'Mk2' cars, distinguishable by their smoked indicators, tend to be better built and have better interiors. And the 'VVC' is the high performance one - although it's still not that quick. The final cars, badged TF, feature revamped bodywork and coil springs in place of the old Hydragas system.
Whichever car you go for, buy on service history and bodywork - MGFs rust badly - and make sure the crucial head gasket has been replaced and uprated.
5. Smart Roadster
In the late 1990s Mercedes not only dropped the ball with the quality of its own cars, it also went a bit mad - for Mercedes - and created the Smart-branded range of small cars.
The oddest of these - and they were all odd - was the Smart Roadster, a small 700cc two-seater coupe-come-convertible that answered the motoring question that nobody was asking. It seemed to be pitched as a sort of updated version of the MG Midget, but smaller and less powerful.
It was quirky and often equipped with a pseudo-automatic gearbox that was as unreliable as it was horrible. It's also not that great to drive, but then neither were most of the British sports cars we now revere. None of that matters now, because the Smart roadster - if you can find one - is about as unusual and distinctive a way to spend a couple of grand as you'll find.
If you can put up with the fact that it isn't quite a convertible (shoot us now) and requires a certain level of unflattering dexterity to get in and out, then you'll discover that the Roadster is just great fun. Low and wide it handles respectably, but never has enough power to get your passenger reaching for the grab handle. It doesn't need it - it's just fun to zip along in.
The Smart is a rare thing but they are about. Prices start at £2,000 so you may have to be a little flexible to get the right one. They are generally reliable, but make sure you join the Owners Club and line up a garage prepared to maintain it.
The car makers of the late 90s and early 00s did seem to love building convertibles, whether they were bespoke models like the MGF or chopped saloons like the Saab 900. So there are plenty more options to consider. But we think these are the best ones. Happy hunting!
Graham Eason, Great Driving Days, 01527 893733