Matters of moment, March 1989

Too soft for soft tops?

Those who purchase cars for the pleasure of driving them are presented with a splendid selection from which to make a difficult choice. But the more rewarding the enjoyment, the greater the purchase price. Buyers now find themselves in a situation in which increasing inflation is being chased by rising interest-rates. If this financial instability continues, it may be that fewer and fewer enthusiasts will be able to afford Ferraris, Maseratis, Lamborghinis and the like, or the Aston Martins, Jaguars and Bentley Turbo-Rs which they should have been buying. Those who enjoy their driving may need to turn to less expensive cars. Though now in danger of extinction, the open sports-car provides fun driving, and could amply compensate for having to forsake exotic-looking super-speed cars which drink fuel and whose performance is not readily usable in this country anyway. So, bring back sports-cars!

Such cars are not necessarily intended for competitive motoring. When they were freely available they were purchased by those who were either too timid, too busy, or did not possess the required skills to go racing or hill-climbing. But with crisp handling and good performance, even the lower-priced sports-cars provided more fun than a conventional saloon. The fresh-air soft-top was an additional bonus.

The unique attraction of this kind of motor car still exists, as evidenced by the long waiting-list for the Morgan Plus 8— not exactly an example of the world’s most sophisticated engineering — at £17,700 a time. Never mind the lack of refinements, Morgans are fun. We think the time may be ripening for more such fun-cars: sports-cars.

Once upon a time even Rolls-Royce recognised their merit — the first 31/2-litre Bentley, “the silent sports-car”, was an open tourer — and the stately Daimler became available in fast, plastic-bodied open two-seater SP250 guise. Since then a surfeit of exellent, but very similar, saloons and coupes has replaced the once frequently encountered soft-top sports models, and now, perhaps in desperation, people are telling us that the Skoda Rapid 136 turns them on…

Are we due for a sports-car renaissance? Lotus and Mazda recognise the appeal of this kind of high-performance fast car, but how long will we have to wait for the new two-seater Elan and the MX-5 roadster, and how much will they cost? Perhaps there is a need for something, in the image of the former Austin-Healey Sprite, MG-B or Sunbeam Alpine, offering driving appeal and impressive performance at not too high a price?

Of course, if you enjoy riding a motorcycle, some of the old fun-factor remains, and certainly, if the Highway Code stipulation that one must overtake slower vehicles only on the offside is ignored, you will be able to make good head-way in the sort of traffic congestion that is paralysing London and other cities. But since crash-helmets were made compulsory even motorcycling has lost some of its appeal.

All credit to Caterham, Morgan, TVR, Panther, Reliant and others who still make openable sports-cars, and to the few companies, such as Ford, Peugeot, Vauxhall and Volkswagen, which offer comparatively inexpensive convertibles. It would be good to see others following this trend. Or have most so-called enthusiasts grown too soft to want them?