Wheels: With a Saw and a Big Budget, Owners Transform Cars Into Convertibles

Wheels: With a Saw and a Big Budget, Owners Transform Cars Into Convertibles

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Automakers sold just over 111,000 convertibles in the first 11 months of 2016, according to Edmunds.com, an auto-shopping website. A total for the full year has not yet been compiled. But considering that few convertibles are sold in cold-weather months, the industry is sure to register a steep decline from the 2015 total of almost 134,000.

Fewer than 1 percent of all the new vehicles sold in the American market are convertibles. Back in their heyday, in the ’60s, they made up about 6 percent of the total.

“A lot of people like the idea of a convertible on a sunny day, but for a daily drive, it can be a grind,” said Jessica Caldwell, a senior analyst at Edmunds.com. “They’re just not very practical unless it is your second or third car.”

As sales have declined, automakers have pulled many convertible models, like the Toyota Solara, Pontiac Solstice and Ford Thunderbird, as well as the drop-top versions of the Chrysler Sebring, PT Cruiser, Lexus SC and Mini Cooper. Among those still chugging along: the Ford Mustang, the Chevrolet Camaro and a variety of expensive models from European luxury brands.

Jeff Moran, the owner of Drop Top Customs in High Springs, Fla., said his company converted 60 to 65 cars to convertibles last year.

Credit
Charlotte Kesl for The New York Times

Topless driving, with the sun shining in, retains its powerful allure for some people, though, even as convertibles lose their broader appeal. That is where businesses like Drop Top Customs have stepped in.

After the factory-built roofs are buzzed off, Mr. Moran and his crew install convertible tops of his own design. He also welds additional steel supports to the underbody, to make up for the strength and stiffness that the rigid roof normally provides. Doors, windows, seatbelts and other parts are modified, too. He charges $18,000, and has a backlog of orders.

Last year, Dale Laur, a nurse anesthetist from North Branch, Mich., ordered a 2016 Dodge Challenger with a Hemi V8 engine and a purple finish — “Plum Crazy,” it’s called. He had the car shipped directly from the factory to Drop Top Customs in High Springs, 75 miles southwest of Jacksonville.

“I just love how it feels in a convertible,” Mr. Laur said. “It’s freedom, wind in your hair.”

After the transformation was complete, Mr. Laur flew down to Florida, picked up the car and headed north. On the road and at most every stop, he said, people stared and took pictures of the car. While still on the road, he learned one of the photos had already found its way onto a Detroit muscle car blog.

“The reactions were unbelievable because most people had never seen a Challenger convertible before,” he said. “We’d be riding along the freeway and people were pulling up next to us, waving and taking pictures, thumbs up.”

Ken Kelly, a classic car dealer from Texas, had Drop Top Customs modify a 2013 Challenger SRT8, and people would come up and offer to buy the car. He sold it after about a year, making enough to cover all his costs and then some. He recently bought a Hellcat Challenger, which features a huge 707-horsepower Hemi engine, and has sent it off to Mr. Moran, too.

“I’m pretty sure it will be the only Hellcat Challenger convertible in existence,” Mr. Kelly said. He figures he’ll drive it for a bit and then sell it for a profit.

The work space of Drop Top Customs. It takes about two to three weeks to change a sedan into a convertible.

Credit
Charlotte Kesl for The New York Times

It takes about two to three weeks to change a sedan into a convertible. Before any cutting begins, the car is stripped of its hood, body panels, seats and interior. Next, steel supports, mainly square tubing, are welded to the underbody and behind the wheels. All told, about 200 pounds of steel are added to the car.

Mr. Moran is not an engineer, but he draws on a long previous career as a police officer specializing in accident reconstruction, work that gave him knowledge of how cars are built to withstand crashes.

Once the steel is in place, the cutting begins and the roof is removed. New power windows replace the fixed windows in the rear seat. Small connectors or jigs that will secure the new folding roof are welded to the car’s body, and then the roof itself is welded in place.

Mr. Moran noted that all his components are American made. Glass windows come from Ohio, the tops from the Carolinas, hydraulic cylinders from Kentucky.

Drop Top Customs isn’t the only company filling the desires of people like Mr. Laur. Newport Convertible Engineering in Southern California also creates convertibles. Much of its work involves high-end luxury cars, like Ferraris and Lamborghinis. It has offices in Dubai and Barcelona, Spain, to serve customers in the Middle East and Europe.

“There are wealthy people around the world who have no issue with money, and they will spend whatever it takes to get something that’s truly unique,” said Al Zadeh, who founded Newport Convertible Engineering in 1983.

The company is working on an order for 100 Tesla Model S convertibles from an investor who hopes to turn a profit selling them to rich car enthusiasts in China and elsewhere. This week it also announced a plan to create convertible versions of the Ford F-150 pickup truck.

“We think this is going to be a big hit,” Mr. Zadeh said. “It will sell like hot cakes.”

Ed Pobur, the general manager of a Cadillac dealership in Novi, Mich., thinks there’s still potential for convertible sales. The ATS that Mr. Moran will cut into soon is one of two Mr. Pobur sent to Drop Top Customs to be transformed, and he’s eager to have them in his showroom as spring arrives.

“We’re going to display them on the corner in front of the dealership. We’ll put the top down to show it off,” he said. “And hopefully we’ll be ordering a bunch more.”

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