Unfortunately these days, people tend to use the words convertible, cabriolet, roadster, spider (sometimes spelt as spyder), and drop-top interchangeably to describe an open-top car. However, there are significant differences in these models. While all these terms refer to cars with a removable roof, a convertible or cabriolet (and even a drop-top) is any car that can convert between an open-air mode and an enclosed one. Roadsters, on the other hand are open-top two-seat cars meant to be sporty and fun-to-drive. To put it in a verbal Venn diagram; all roadsters are convertibles but not all convertibles are roadsters. Another signature characteristic of roadsters is the front-engine, rear-wheel drive layout, though Porsche’s Boxster remains a roadster despite its mid-engine, rear-wheel drive layout.
Notice the major differences between the Audi A3 Cabriolet (above) and the Honda S2000 (below). (Image source: Audi press site and author's own)
When the first cars were made by the pioneers of automobiles, they didn’t possess a roof. This changed with the introduction of mass-produced steel bodies in the 1920s and by the mid-1920s cars that could convert from being open to being fully closed were launched. The Golden Age of roadsters is thought to have begun about a decade after World War II. The 1950s and 60s saw a sudden influx of roadsters that are now nothing less than iconic, if not legendary. While the list is far too long for this article (stay tuned to the tribe for more) some of these retro-roadsters include the Fiat 124, Honda’s S500, S600, and S800, Mercedes-Benz SL, Triumph Spitfire, Alfa Romeo Giulietta, MG MGB, and Austin-Healey Sprite/MG Midget.
One of the most iconic affordable roadsters ever made, the Fiat 124 Spider. (Image source: Wikipedia Commons)
However, there was a definite lull in the USA in the number of convertibles around the late 1970s and early 1980s. Stricter safety regulation for cars had something to do with that as those older cabriolets could not ensure the safety of its occupants. Meanwhile, Europe didn’t see a decline in the overall number of roadsters sold, but there wasn’t anything new on the market during that period that was sensational.
The 90s saw a resurgence of the two-seater open-top sports car with the likes of the evergreen Mazda MX-5, BMW Z3, Porsche Boxster, and the Honda S2000. Today, Fiat has a new 124 Spider in its line-up, Honda has a Japan-only S660, while the more premium Jaguar F-Type and Audi TT Roadster (which is a much better looking buy now than it was in the previous generation).
The Mazda MX-5 revitalised the affordable sporty little roadster segment in the 90s. (Image source: Mazda press site)
So why is there such love for roadsters? The sporty looks, the performance on a bargain aspect (similar to hot hatches), the joy of open-top motoring, the feel, and rush that you get when you own one. Sure roadsters may be impractical, but not all decisions in life are logical. Some decisions hold a giant middle finger to the head and are made, especially in particularly juvenile moments, based on what the heart wants.