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Peter Cheney's wife Marian likes convertibles, but has never seen the point of buying one. She's happy to ride in one, like this 1967 GTO, when she gets the chance. (Peter Cheney/The Globe and Mail/Peter Cheney/The Globe and Mail)
Peter Cheney's wife Marian likes convertibles, but has never seen the point of buying one. She's happy to ride in one, like this 1967 GTO, when she gets the chance. (Peter Cheney/The Globe and Mail/Peter Cheney/The Globe and Mail)

Road Rush

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A few days ago, I did 200 kilometers per hour on the highway. Well, at least that’s what it felt like. The actual speedometer reading was 170 (and it was off by 50 km/h or so after a wheel-swap, so my real speed was a mere 120). But never mind the numbers – the feeling is what counts.

The Tiny Convertible Effect had demonstrated its reality-bending power once again. The smaller the car, and the more open the top, the faster everything feels. And I was at the wheel of the ultimate small convertible: a soap-box-derby-ized Caterham Seven with no doors or side windows. Driving it was like riding on the wing of an airplane, all wind and noise.

I’ve always been amazed at the way a convertible top transforms the driving experience. Without a roof, every car feels faster, and the world seems bigger and more thrilling. It’s a bit of a cheap trick, but it works all too well – although I’ve done almost 300 km/h in a hardtop Porsche, going half that speed in an old Triumph TR6 with the top down actually felt faster.

My first ride in a convertible was in the late 1950s, when my dad took me for a spin in a friend’s Porsche Speedster. (I wasn’t much more than a baby, but I still remember the experience.) In the mid-1960s, I got a ride in an MGB, and I was dumbfounded at how different it was than our family sedan – the night sky hung over us like a vast, star-studded black dome, and wind blasted through the leather-lined cockpit. It was easy to imagine myself in a fighter plane, zooming low over the fields on a strafing run.

I’ve wanted a convertible ever since. And yet I’ve never owned one. I have come close – I was outbid on an MGB back in the 1970s, and I once came within a hairsbreadth of buying an Austin Healey 3000. In 1992, my wife kyboshed my purchase of a Caterham Seven (as she wisely pointed out at the time, we had two kids to raise, no garage, and no house. Oh well).

My wife’s intelligence, common sense and frugality have been major impediments in my long quest to land a car without a roof. Marian actually likes convertibles, but she’s never seen the point of actually buying one. She’s happy to ride in them when she gets a chance – like when my friend Matt got a 1967 GTO convertible this year.

But my wife isn’t the only reason that I still don’t own a convertible. I actually broke down and bought a new sports car last month, but it has a fixed top. I looked hard at several convertibles, but in the end, the hardtop won out for practical reasons. (I go to race tracks a lot, and a car with a roof is safer – and faster, thanks to its superior aerodynamics.)

Like many great human inventions, a convertible car makes absolutely no sense when you analyze it in the cold, hard light of day. Removing a car’s top weakens it structurally and vastly complicates the task of keeping water out. A fabric convertible top can be sliced open by a thief. Folding metal convertible tops are heavy, and take up valuable cargo space. Even with a roll bar, a convertible has less crash protection than a hardtop car. On paper, the convertible is an indefensible device.

But that doesn’t stop us from loving them. James Dean had one. So did Steve McQueen. Convertibles feel fast, and they connect us with the world outside. You get sunburned. You get cold. Your hair gets messed up. This is why I still plan to get a convertible. Preferably a small one.

With a convertible, size matters. And the best ones are tiny – like the original Mazda Miata or the Porsche Boxster Spyder I took to the Montreal Grand Prix a couple of years ago. With the top down and the Spyder’s exhaust singing its pitch-perfect song, the suffocatingly-dull Highway 401 was transformed into a mechanical thrill ride, and rolling through Old Montreal on a hot summer night was nirvana.

But once you’ve started down the path toward an elemental convertible, you might as well go all the way. And that means an Ariel Atom or a Caterham Seven. Personally, I lean toward the Seven, a car I’ve loved for decades. The Seven was originally designed by Lotus founder Colin Chapman back in the 1950s, and has been a cult favourite ever since.

Reader Michael Brake offered me a ride in his Seven a few days ago, and it was a fantastic experience. The Seven was even smaller and lower than I remembered – it fit in the corner of his garage like a toy car, and I could reach out and put my hand on the pavement while sitting in the driver’s seat.

Out on the road, the Seven was a minnow in a school of whales, dwarfed by every other vehicle. But the abiding sensation was openness. The car disappeared beneath me, and the pavement rushed past in a grey blur, just centimetres from my elbow. We zoomed down country roads north of the city, enveloped in a cocoon of wind and speed.

Compared to my own Lotus Evora S, the Seven was slow. Yet it felt faster. Opening it up on the QEW was a textbook illustration of a small convertible’s sensory-inflation capabilities – running with the traffic at 120 to 130 km/h felt like a record-lap at Lemans. My hair whipped in the wind, the exhaust roared in my ears, and the road ahead was a beautiful blur.

The cars around us were huge, and their windows were up. The drivers rode in numbed, climate-controlled silence. They twiddled with their stereos. They sipped coffee. They made business calls. Not us. We were driving a convertible. A small one. Works every time.

Don't forget to check out this week's gallery: In pictures: The art of the convertible

For more from Peter Cheney, go to facebook.com/cheneydrive (No login required!)

Twitter: Peter Cheney@cheneydrive

E-mail: pcheney@globeandmail.com

Globe and Mail Road Rush archive: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/globe-drive/car-life/cheney/

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