There is no unwritten rule that claims a convertible needs to be quick, luxurious and expensive.
In simpler times, many car companies marketed their convertible models as the purest form of driving. These cars had an engine, wheels, a body and – if you were lucky – a top but little else.
As we wait for spring to come back, we’re taking a look at the small, affordable roadsters that were immensely popular in America between the 1950s, when the segment boomed, and the 1990s, when the segment collapsed. When they were new, these cars cost less than $25,000 in today's American dollars. Let's take a look at the most famous examples:
Volkswagen Beetle Convertible (1949)
The drop-top version of the Volkswagen Beetle was considered just as odd as its hardtop sibling when it went on sale in 1949. It was slow, noisy and many buyers disapproved of the bulky folding soft top that simply sat on top of the body (directly above the engine) rather than hiding under it.
But while it was never the most popular member of the Beetle family in terms of volume, the convertible amassed a small but loyal following during the 1950s and the 1960s, especially on America’s west coast. It retired in 1979 after outliving the hardtop variant of the venerable Beetle on the US market.
Price in 1949: $1997 (about $21,000 today)
Price in 1979: $5695 (about $20,000 today)
Triumph TR2 (1954)
Introduced in 1953 and first exported to America the following year, the TR2 was Triumph’s long-awaited post-war sports car. It helped the British firm carve out a spot in America’s lucrative (and increasingly crowded) sports car segment. The TR2 wore classic roadster proportions and a soft, rounded design characterized by cut-down doors without exterior handles.
The list of options included a radio, a heater, a tonneau cover and a special suitcase designed to fit snugly in the TR2’s small luggage compartment. Buyers needed to pay $45 (about $421 today) for the suitcase. The TR2 spawned a long lineage. Triumph replaced it with the TR3 in 1956 and released the Michelotti-designed TR4 in 1961. The TR6, TR7 and V8-powered TR8 followed in 1968, 1975 and 1977, respectively.
TR2 price in 1954: $2448 (about $23,000 today)
TR7 price in 1980: $9235 (about $28,000 today)
MG A (1955)
MG entered a prototype named EX.182 in the 1955 edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. It finished 12th overall. In hindsight, it was a preview of a brand-new model named A developed to replace the TF. Sales in Europe began in 1955 and the MG A crossed the Atlantic the following year. At launch, it came with a 1500cc four-cylinder engine that sent 68 hp to the rear wheels through a four-speed manual transmission.
The MG A went on sale right when the popularity of small, affordable roadsters began skyrocketing.
Price in 1956: $2195 (about $20,000 today)
Austin-Healey Sprite (1958)
Austin-Healey made a name for itself on the American market by selling big, powerful convertibles so the original Sprite came as a real surprise. The two-seater was tiny, feather-light and it offered precisely 42.5 hp from a four-cylinder engine in its most basic configuration. Tall headlights that popped out of the front end earned it the nickname bugeye or frogeye. Later variants of the Sprite received a less pronounced front end.
Price in 1958: $1795 (about $17,000 in today)
Volkswagen Karmann-Ghia (1958)
Volkswagen introduced the Karmann-Ghia as a coupe for the 1956 model year and added a convertible to the line-up the following year. Both body styles gave buyers a more stylish alternative to the humble Beetle they shared many mechanical components with.
Period journalists compared the Ghia’s seating position with that of the Porsche 356, a much more expensive model. Others denounced its resemblance to the 1952 Chrysler d’Elegance concept, which was also Ghia’s work.
The Karmann-Ghia remained Volkswagen’s sporty, upscale model until sales ended in 1974. 362,601 coupes and 80,881 convertibles were made.
Price in 1958: $2725 (about $24,000 today)
Price in 1974: $3935 (about $20,000 today)
Renault Caravelle (1960)
Renault pitched the Caravelle as “a dream car come true” when it introduced the model for the 1960 model year. Called Floride in Europe (pictured), the Caravelle was to the Dauphine what the Volkswagen Karmann-Ghia was to the Beetle. It shared most of its mechanical components with its family-friendly sibling (including a 40 hp evolution of the 845cc, four-cylinder engine) but it stood out with a more elegant body and an upscale interior. Unlike the Ghia, however, the Caravelle flopped on the American market and retired in 1965.
Its lackluster career surprised many. According to Renault, nearly 13,000 American buyers placed an order for the Caravelle after the model made its debut at the 1958 Paris auto show. Early hand-raisers weren’t given the model’s specifications, its price or its tentative delivery date.
Price in 1960: $2445 (about $21,000 today)
Sunbeam Alpine (1960)
Sunbeam built the Alpine using components borrowed from the Hillman Minx-based Rapier. The roadster closely followed the styling trends that were prevalent in the US around the turn of the 1960s with styling cues like a wide, low-mounted grille and taillights integrated into tall fins. Early models received a 1500cc, four-cylinder engine that made 83.5 hp.
Price in 1960: $2595 (about $22,000 today)
Chevrolet Corvair Monza (1962)
The Corvair was Chevrolet’s answer to popular imports. Part of the 900-series line-up, the convertible model introduced in 1962 was an attempt to lure buyers away from European drop-tops. Chevrolet turned the performance dial up by introducing an option package named Spyder that added a turbocharged, 150 hp flat-six engine. The Spyder package was offered on coupe and convertible models.
Corvair Monza price in 1962: $2483 (about $21,000 today)
Corvair Monza Spyder price in 1962: $2779 (about $23,000 today)
Datsun Sports (1962)
Though Nissan-owned Datsun began making convertibles during the 1950s, none were sold in significant numbers and they remained as obscure as the brand itself. The Sports series introduced at the 1961 Tokyo auto show finally positioned Datsun as a credible rival to European brands like MG. US sales started in 1962, when the roadster was known as the 1500, and the model launched with a 1500cc, four-cylinder engine tuned to deliver 85 hp.
Like its European rivals, the Sports was small, affordable and driver-friendly. It later received more powerful engines as it paved the way for the famed Datsun Z.
Price in 1962: $1996 (about $16,500 today)
MG Midget (1962)
MG added a smaller, cheaper convertible to its line-up in 1961. Called Midget, it was closely related to the Austin-Healey Sprite II. Its 948cc, four-cylinder engine made 46 hp though MG added a 50 hp unit a few months into the production run.
BMC considered replacing the Midget with a front-wheel drive, Mini-based model but it canceled the project in 1964. The Midget lived much longer than anyone expected but it nonetheless played a significant role in keeping MG’s American sales up during the 1960s and the 1970s. It remained in showrooms nearly a decade longer than the Sprite it was based on.
Price in 1962: $1939 (about $16,000 today)
Price in 1979: $5200 (about $18,800 today)
MG B (1963)
In the early 1960s, the MG A was beginning to show its age and the competition was heating up. MG responded by releasing the B, an all-new model that put on a more modern spin on the concept of an affordable roadster. The B was a little bit smaller than the A and its design loosely borrowed styling cues from the Midget. It was more user-friendly than the A because it had roll-up windows and exterior door handles. US-spec models got a 1798cc four-cylinder engine that made 94 hp and 107 lb ft of torque.
In America, motorists hailed the MG B as the quintessential British roadster throughout the 1960s and the 1970s.
Price in 1963: $2658 (about $22,000 today)
Price in 1980: $7950 (about $24,000 today)
Triumph Spitfire (1963)
Triumph aimed the Spitfire at the MG Midget and the Austin-Healey Sprite. Based on the Herald, it was smaller and cheaper than the TR-badged roadsters and it received a 63 hp engine. Triumph’s formula was successful; the Spitfire outsold the Sprite and the Midget combined.
Demand from American buyers helped keep the Spitfire alive until 1980.
Price in 1963: $2199 (about $18,000 today)
Price in 1980: $7365 (about $22,500 today)
Ford Mustang (1964)
Ford developed the Mustang to compete against the Chevrolet Corvair Monza so the line-up included coupe and convertible variants as soon as the model went on sale. Both body styles came standard with a straight-six engine. The optional V8 put the Mustang Convertible a league above many comparably-priced European imports in terms of performance.
While the Mustang’s introduction drove American buyers into a frenzy, the coupe outsold the convertible by a wide margin. In 1965, Ford sold 409,260 examples of the Mustang hardtop, 77,079 examples of the Mustang fastback and just 73,112 examples of the Mustang convertible.
Price in 1964: $2614 (about $21,000 today)
Price today: $31,895
NSU Spider (1964)
Though Mazda is often hailed as the purveyor of compact, rotary-engined sports cars, NSU introduced a convertible powered by a rear-mounted Wankel engine three years before Cosmo production began in Japan. The NSU Spider was briefly exported to the US alongside the Prinz but it had little going for it. It was a tiny, relatively expensive car powered by unproven technology and made by a brand most people had never heard of.
NSU manufactured about 2375 examples of the Spider between 1964 and 1967 and only 215 of those were fitted with oversized bumpers and sent to America.
Price in 1964: $2998 (about $24,000 in today)
Fiat 850 Spider (1967)
Fiat developed the 600 to provide basic, affordable motoring to as many people as possible. The 850 was born to fulfill the same mission but Fiat decided to expand its reach by adding coupe and convertible variants to the line-up. The Bertone-designed 850 Spider went on sale in 1967 as one of the cheapest drop-tops on the US market. It was also one of the slowest due to its 843cc, 52 hp four-cylinder engine.
Interestingly, early 850 Spiders shared their headlights with the Lamborghini Miura.
Price in 1967: $1998 (about $15,000 today)
Fiat 124 Spider (1968)
Fiat offered affordable roadsters before it released the 124 Spider, including the 1100 TV from the late 1950s, but sales remained relatively low both at home and abroad. The Pininfarina-designed 124 Spider that reached American showrooms in time for the 1968 model year made the name Fiat synonymous with the term affordable roadster for nearly two decades by offering a timeless design and engaging handling.
Fiat stopped making the 124 Spider in 1983 and left the American market that same year. Still sensing a strong demand, Pininfarina resurrected the model for the 1984 and 1985 model years and asked Malcolm Bricklin to help distribute it. Little changed except for its name (it was marketed as the Pininafarina Azzurra) and its (much higher) price.
Price in 1968: $3181 (about $23,000 today)
Price in 1984: $16,995 (about $41,000 today)
Price today: $24,995
Porsche 914 (1970)
New for the 1970 model year, the 914 replaced the four-cylinder-powered 912 as the entry point into the Porsche line-up. It shared no styling cues with the more expensive 911 and instead stood out with a squared-off, low-slung design accented by pop-up lights and an integrated roll bar.
At launch, buyers could choose between a Volkswagen-derived, 85 hp flat-four engine or a much more expensive version which had a Porsche-sourced flat-six with 124 hp on tap. Most buyers ordered the more accessible flat-four so Porsche quickly removed the flat-six from its American catalog.
Four-cylinder price in 1970: $3595 (about $23,000 today)
Six-cylinder price in 1970: $5999 (about $39,000 today)
Fiat X1/9 (1974)
Fiat took the 850 Spider’s replacement in a more dramatic direction. The X1/9 swapped its predecessor’s soft, rounded lines for a wedge-shaped silhouette and it received a targa top instead of a fully retractable soft top for safety reasons. The biggest change was its mechanical layout. While the 850 Spider was rear-engined, the X1/9 used a 128-sourced, four-cylinder engine mounted between the passenger compartment and the rear axle. It consequently delivered sharper handling than the 850 Spider.
Like the 124 Spider, the X1/9 survived Fiat’s collapse in America. Bertone continued building the model and Malcom Bricklin distributed it on the US market. Its price went up as sales went down. 1482 examples of the Bertone X1/9 found a home in America in 1984. That figure dropped to 845 in 1987 and just 325 in 1988.
Price in 1974: $3917 (about $20,000 today)
Price in 1984: $13,990 (about $34,000 today)
Geo Metro Convertible (1990)
From the rocker panels to the belt line, the Geo Metro might give you déjà vu. It was essentially a Suzuki Swift that General Motors re-badged as a Geo in a bid to fend off an assault on its market share in America from its Japanese rivals.
The standard Metro closely resembled the Swift but the top-less model was Geo-specific. Its main selling points were its low price and the excellent fuel economy of its 55 hp, three-cylinder engine.
Price in 1990: $9740 (about $19,000 today)
Yugo Cabrio (1990)
We have the ubiquitous Malcolm Bricklin to thank (or blame) for the Yugo’s short career in America. He masterminded a plan to sell the Zastava Koral in the US as a bargain-priced alternative to Japanese and South Korean imports. Sales started during the 1986 model year and the line-up initially did not include a convertible.
Quality problems and safety concerns decimated the Yugo in America and the firm filed for bankruptcy in 1989. It rose from the dead the following year with a rejuvenated line-up that included a long-promised convertible positioned as its flagship. It looked sportier than the hatchback it was based on but it cost twice as much and it wasn’t enough to make Americans forget their repertoire of Yugo jokes.
Yugo sold 6359 cars in America during 1990. Hemmings reports about 500 convertible models were built and less than 100 of those were shipped to America.
Yugo hatchback price in 1990: $4435 (about $8500 today)
Yugo convertible price in 1990: $8990 (about $17,336 today)
Dodge Shadow (1991)
Dodge contributed to the influx of cheap convertibles in the early 1990s by chopping the top off of the Shadow, a rather uninspiring entry-level model developed to finally replace the Horizon. Introduced in 1991, the Shadow Convertible was available in two trim levels that shared the same 93 hp four-cylinder engine.
The Convertible initially represented a surprisingly large chunk of Shadow sales. In 1991, two-door hatchback, four-door hatchback and convertible sales totaled 28,756, 33,839 and 20,043 examples, respectively. Drop-top sales collapsed to 3185 the following year and rose to 6313 in 1993, the model’s last year on the market.
Price in 1991: $12,995 (about $24,000 today)
Mercury Capri (1991)
Mazda caught rival car-makers off-guard with the MX-5 Miata. Instead of developing a roadster from scratch, Ford placed a Mercury emblem on the Capri manufatured by its Australian division, made several market-specific tweaks and sent it to the US. Believing a front-wheel drive car could credibly compete against a rear-wheel drive roadster was incredibly optimistic. Mercury priced the Capri below the Miata but sales never took off and the model retired after 1994.
In an odd twist of fate, the Capri’s base engine was a 1600cc four-cylinder borrowed from the Mazda parts bin. Early on, the Miata used an evolution of the same engine.
Price in 1991: $12,588 (about $23,000 today)
The ones that didn’t make the cut
Small and nimble doesn’t always mean inexpensive. These convertibles weren’t large or particularly luxurious but they were priced above our $25,000 threshold – sometimes well above.