Best Cars for a Summer Weekend at the Coast

Mr. Dennis Simanaitis once said that a convertible top can excuse a multitude of automotive sins, and we Petrolisti are inclined to agree.

A stowed convertible roof makes any driving experience that much better. Intake and exhaust sounds pipe directly into the interior. The slight backdraft of exhaust engages the smell receptors along with the scent of sunscreen and seafoam. Rays of sun pour in warming you and seagulls can be heard in the distance. These are experiences that can only be had in convertibles, and with icy winter finally far behind, we'd like to present some of our favorite convertibles for a weekend at the beach and just about any budget.

LESS THAN 10K

Winner: Mercedes SL

The R107 was more popular than any SL-Class generation before or since. As such, nice examples can be had for pennies on the Gullwing dollar, with prices falling between $7,000 and $15,000 for low-mileage, well-maintained cars.

Look for a 1972 or early-1973 model if you want to avoid the large rubber bumpers, but if you don’t care, any SL will be a good, reasonably reliable choice. The early 4.5-liter V8 450SL was a well-balanced driving experience, but there was also a somewhat economical 380SL and a mighty 560SL available later in the production cycle.

With a huge trunk, cozy seats, and a choice of three torquey V8s, the R107 SL-Class makes for an amazing road trip vehicle, but honestly, the car is good at just about anything.

ALTERNATES

Fiat 124 Spider 

The Fiat 124 Spider (later Fiat 2000 and Pininfarina 2000) may have trailed the MGB to market by several years, but its 1.4-liter twin-cam motor made as much horsepower as the MGB’s 1.8-liter, and from 1969 on, the Fiat sported five speeds in its transmission to the Brit’s four. It’s a stereotype for a reason: this Italian has soul!

Datsun Fairlady Roadster 

Called the Fairlady in its home market (a lovely name, if you ask us), the Datsun Roadster was first available in the United States in 1963 with a 1.5-liter four producing 85 horses. It’s a bit more primitive than its competition, but it’s a lovely thing to behold and far less common.

LESS THAN 50K

Winner: Ford Mustang

Really, though, you knew a Mustang was going to be on this list.

With a base price just above $2,300, it was an instant success in 1964, racking up nearly half a million sales in its first nine months. (Fun fact: one clever restaurateur in Manhattan claimed that his hotcakes were selling like Mustangs).

The first-generation Mustang’s long hood and short trunk belie its humble origins as the Ford Falcon’s fraternal twin, and it’s available with smooth, if underpowered, inline sixes or a burly V8s, both available with two-, three-, or four-speed transmissions. It’s arguably the most legendary vehicle of the 1960s, and it’s perfect for summer.

The Mustang makes for a lovely cruiser, either in town or on the open road, but a few easy and cheap modifications help it become a bona fide performance vehicle. Sure, they’re common, but for good reason: they’re just so great.

ALTERNATES

Alfa Romeo Spider 

Produced from 1966-1969, the boat-tail Alfa Romeo Spider is simply beautiful. While later Spiders are still attractive and unique with their chopped-off Kamm tails, the first Spiders were the ones that made us go weak in the knees when we saw one for the first time.

Honda S800 

In the 1960s, Honda’s bread and butter were cheap motorcycles and utility vehicles. It had absolutely no business in the sports car market. However, applying lessons learned from motorcycle manufacturing, the S800 came with a zesty, rev-happy 800cc inline-four that delivered 70 horses to the rear wheels, via a chain-drive! How fun!

LESS THAN 150K

Winner: Jaguar XKE Roadster

The XK-E (or E-Type) was styled to look long and low, and you sit nearly on the rear axle. The hood juts out for what seems like miles in front of the driver, and you point this thing more than drive it. It’s an experience you’ll only get in a Jag.

With straight-six engines ranging from 3.8 to 4.2 liters, the E-Type has a top speed of nearly 150 mph, and it accelerates far better than the more expensive Aston Martin DB5. It also handles well, with four-wheel disc brakes and a fully independent suspension, and it has a very serene, smooth ride. If you value mechanical simplicity and reliability, you want to avoid the complicated, heavy V12. The early models are also somewhat more restrained in the styling department, although there’s something to be said for the V12’s brutish good looks, like a vehicular Jason Statham.

ALTERNATES

Fiat Dino Spider 

It’s possible that the only thing keeping this car’s value under $100,000 is the fact that sometime, someone high up on the Fiat ladder decided the car would sell better if it was branded as a Fiat, rather than a Dino. With the same engines as the “true” Dino, this car boasts similar performance and styling that make it a worthy consolation prize for the enthusiast who can’t rally up a few hundred grand for a 246GT.

Mercedes-Benz 280SE convertible 

The 1968-1971 280SE convertible has about forty percent less brightwork than the contemporary Cadillac convertible, yet is every bit as spacious and substantially more competent at high speeds. It features Mercedes’ locomotive-like inline-six motor, making 160 horses that had more than enough giddy-up to move the big convertible down the ‘bahn at triple-digit speeds.

MONEY'S NO OBJECT

Winner: Ferrari Daytona Spyder

There were ten times as many F40s built as Daytona Spyders, and three times as many Enzos. If you want a rare Ferrari, forget about the supercars and look for a droptop Daytona. It’s surprising that more Spyders weren’t built by the factory, though. The Daytona was a relaxed, powerful GT that lent itself to long, sweeping road trips along the Mediterranean coast. Such trips would only be enhanced al fresco, and yet, the Daytona Spyder was little more than a one-off design exercise, with merely 121 built.

If you want a Spyder, you must have an original, not a conversion. Just be prepared to pay through the nose the next time one comes up for sale.

ALTERNATES

BMW 507 

The 507 project was intended to provide customers with a sports car stopgap, something in between the outlandishly expensive Mercedes-Benz 300SL and the cheap, featureless Triumph TR3. But for whatever reason, high production costs doubled the car’s intended list price to a stratospheric $10,000, more than the Gullwing it was supposed to undercut. Only 252 of the beautiful cars were built, every one at great financial loss.

Porsche 356 Speedster 

The Speedster is a happy car. Every last inch of it, from its bright-eyed headlights to its rounded rump, suggests that it just wants to go to the beach and splash around. It isn’t a particularly fast machine, so driver and car must work together to preserve as much forward momentum as possible, but, to paraphrase the saying, it’s probably more fun to drive a Speedster quickly than it is to drive a Miura slowly.

What do you think? Tell us about your favorite convertible, and as always, Drive Tastefully.

Photo Sources: ebay.com, honestjohn.co.uk, oldcarbrochures.comproductioncars.com