Few other cars can rival the sheer joy and excitement of driving a convertible. Chalk it up to the sense of speed and danger of an open cockpit. In fact, cabriolets were the standard model in the early years of the automobile, with hard roofs being the optional extra.
While aerodynamics tells us that a hard top is necessity in breaking land speed records, in the early twentieth century, the opposite was thought to be true. Take a look at the record holders before the war and you’ll see that that many of them took their respective crowns topless. The racing Rolls-Royces and Bentleys all crossed the line, convertible style. Jaguar's iconic XK roadsters proudly bore their top speeds as names. Even Carroll Shelby dared to pit his topless Cobra against Ferrari’s 250 LM down the Mulsanne straight in the 1963 Le Mans, only to realize the poorer aerodynamics of a roadster were limiting its top speed.
It wasn’t long before mass production and economies of scale reversed the order, turning hardtops into mass-production models and relegating convertibles to niche markets. The move only bolstered the cabriolet's popularity, making it the exclusive sporting model of each marque. Since they were impractical to manufacture and produced in limited quantities, only the very best engines, chasses, and interior appointments were fitted to cabriolets, convertibles, and roadsters—making them more desirable and turning them into status symbols of speed and luxury.
THE MERCEDES-BENZ 300SL ROADSTER
In 1952, the original mercedes Benz 300SL race car (W194) scored overall wins at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, in Bern-Bremgarten, in the sports car race of the Eifelrennen at the Nürburgring, and in Mexico’s Carrera Panamericana. It also managed second and fourth places at its first outing, the Mille Miglia in 1952.
New York distributor Max Hoffman suggested to Daimler-Benz AG management in Stuttgart that a street version of the 300SL, tailored to affluent performance enthusiasts in the booming post-war American market, would be a commercial success. The Mercedes-Benz 300 SL “Gullwing” was introduced to the public at the New York Auto Show in 1954.
It was marketed as a two-seat, street-legal supercar, with styling reminiscent of the great 300 SLR racing cars, but adapted for mass production. The “SL” stood for “Sport Leicht” (Sport Light), a nomenclature still used exclusively for Mercedes-Benz’s sports cars.
The lightweight tubular chassis designed for racing required the use of the distinctive gull-wing doors, as part of the chassis passed through what would be the lower half of a standard door. The 300SL’s body was mainly steel, except for the aluminum hood, doors, and trunk lid.
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It was propelled by a 3.0-liter straight-6, with mechanical direct injection, the same as the regular four-door 300 tourer, but with double the power thanks to a Bosch mechanical gasoline direct injection system.
Mercedes-Benz engineers even placed horizontal “eyebrows” over the wheel openings to reduce drag.
Only 3,258 units of the model were built, yet the success of the 300SL marked the beginning of Mercedes-Benz’s now iconic SL sports car line.
Mercedes-Benz would later follow it up with a cabriolet, produced from 1957 to 1963. Though bereft of the iconic gullwing doors, the 300SL is still as stunning, bearing the iconic eyebrows, working side vents, and luxurious appointments.
Owner Ramon S. Ang takes particular pride in the car’s factory-tuned racing performance, just as Max Hoffman said the main appeal of the car would be.
While many examples today are carefully kept in climate-controlled garages and rarely driven, Ang enjoys giving his classic a regular spin. “It still has the original paint from previous owner. I don’t mind some of the paint falling off. I want to show that I still use it,” he says as he vehemently opposes the garage queen treatment these cars typically get.Production: 1957-1963, one of 1,858 roadsters built Body style: 2-door roadster Engine: 2995 cc inline 6 SOHC Transmission: 4-speed manual Max. power 212 hp Max. torque: 202 lb•ft Acceleration (0-100km/h): 10 seconds Top speed: 235 km/h
LAGONDA 3-LITER DROPHEAD COUPE
Though founded in 1906 by American Wilbur Gunn and named after the Lagonda Creek in his hometown of Spring-field Ohio, the Lagonda marque is known for its association with British marques Bentley and Aston Martin.
The company changed hands frequently in between both world wars until it came into the hands of Alan P. Good who convinced W.O. Bentley as well as some ex-Rolls-Royce staff to come on board. Together, they produced some iconic cars that would put Lagonda on the map, like the opulent V12 Rapide.
By 1947, David Brown of Aston Martin acquired the company and set to work bringing Bentley’s prototypes to market. Among them was the straight six-engine Bentley had designed, which would find a home in many future Lagonda and Aston Martin coupés.
The Lagonda 3-liter was one such product of the David Brown/ Aston Martin era. It was built by David Brown’s subsidiary engineering company, Tickford, which pioneered a number of standard features we take for granted today like twin overhead camshafts, coil spring suspension, telescopic steering adjustment, and built-in hydraulic jacks. The luxe interior featured polished walnut for the dashboard and door trims, and leather seats. There are also adjustable armrests on the front doors.
Despite being significantly more expensive than its competitors, Lagonda aspired to Rolls-Royce levels of luxury, with the latter even bidding to acquire the company at one point. Only 270 examples of the 3-liter were produced, all in right-hand drive, making acquiring and driving one in left hand-drive markets all the more challenging.
This example has been left unrestored, with much of the leather and paint still in its original condition. A faint patina is already visible on most of the chrome parts. The car is all-original and driven frequently by Ang.Production: 1953-1958, one of 55 convertibles built Body style: 2-door, 4-seater drophead coupé Engine: 2995 cc inline 6 DOHC Transmission: 4-speed manual Max. power: 140 Bhp
SHELBY COBRA 289 FIA
Easily the most desired of roadsters, the Shelby Cobra was produced by Car-roll Shelby to win Le Mans and put the Chevrolet Corvette to shame. The Cobra was based on AC Cars' Ace roadster, with a transverse-mounted leaf spring suspension system, lightweight aluminum body on a steel frame, and the sheer power of a 4.7-liter Ford V8. The vehicle was de-signed simply to beat Ferraris and win Le Mans yet it also triumphed in the SCCA A-production and the US Road Racing Championship.
The fruitful partnership of Ford and Shelby led to other famous cars like the Cobra Coupe, Ford GT40, Shelby Mustangs, and F-150 Raptor. Nonetheless, few proved to be as intimidating or as jaw-droppingly beautiful as the Shelby Cobra. The car was produced from 1963-1967, though demand for the car continues until today.
To fulfill the clamor, Shelby produces "Continuation Cars," built in the same style with only a few modern upgrades to maintain the vehicle's 6os driving feel. The vehicles even retain the original CSX serial numbers, ensuring that they are authentic Shelby's and not one of the many duplicates and kit cars readily available.
This 289 FIA is the race version of the original 1962 Cobra, which dominated races and was later developed into the Cobra Daytona Coupe which won the World Manufacturer's Championship beating out Ferrari in an FIA-sanctioned competition in 1965. While it bears a modern starting motor, multiple spark distributor, and steel-braided hoses for more efficient engine performance, it still maintains the transverse leaf spring suspension.
In spite of the simple mechanics, Ang says the Cobra is his favorite. "It was the original American muscle car. It's easy to maintain, and enjoyable to race."
Ang likes driving his babies, making full use of the original factory racing package, frequently drifting the vehicle, and performing tire-spinning 180-degree turns.
The vehicle is kept in the racing livery painted on by the previous US owner. It bears Carroll Shelby's signature racing number, 98.Production: 1962-1967, 1980-present Body style: 2-door open top roadster Engine: 4727 cc V8 Transmission: 4-speed manual Max. power 271 hp Max. torque: 314 lb•ft Acceleration (0-100km/h): 5.5 seconds Top speed: 217 km/h
Photographs by Pat Mateo
This story originally appeared on Issue 19, 2015 of Vault.