The Lure Of The Open Road

25th June 2010

The sun in your eyes… the wind in your hair… Heather Harris lifts the lid on going topless…

Forget boy racers. Forget men with mid-life crises. When it comes to driving with the roof down, it’s a new generation of sunshine seeking seniors that is most likely to be behind the wheel of a convertible, according to a new study by Automobile Association (AA) Insurance. The research, based on data from the AA’s one million car insurance customers, also reveals that although open top car sales have fallen slightly, overall, during the recession, it is women who are now firmly in the convertible driving seat.

In fact they are a third more likely to go topless when the sun’s out than men – in their cars anyway. Richard Stokes who set up the UK Convertible Car Club in 2008 backs up these figures. “We are getting more and more women members and they are just as enthusiastic as the men”.

Ian Crowder, spokesman for the AA, believes that the convertible is the natural progression from the ‘Chelsea Tractor’ in the female motoring world. “ When women no longer need a practical car to ferry their children – plus sports kit and dog – around they celebrate by going totally the other way and choosing something small and sporty!”

One blushing, 50-year-old, female friend agrees, “When the children grew up, I suddenly realised I didn’t need seven seats and a huge boot, and, in fact, the fewer seats I had, the less lifts I’d get roped into doing!”

But what about the British weather? Surely there are only about three hot days a year when any form of topless activity is appealing.

On the contrary, it seems. Ian is quick to point again to the statistics (what is it with men, cars and numbers?) which reveal that when it comes to driving with the roof off the English are in the fast lane, leaving the Italians, Spanish and French in their slip stream.

“In these hotter countries the last thing they want is the sun beating down on their heads,” he explained.

Living in Scotland, 49-year-old Richard Stokes is more at risk of contracting hypothermia than sun stroke during a quick trip to the shops in his MX5 soft top. “But,” he says, “it’s worth it for the feeling of freedom. I used to be a motorcyclist before I became too old and this is the next best thing. It’s more comfortable, you get to listen to music but still have the wind in your hair.”

That may not always be an advantage, as one dedicated convertible driver explained. “When I drove my girlfriend back from our first date, she looked like an alien with hair all over her face and blue legs!”

However, motor manufacturers now recognise both the sartorial and the ergonomic problems, and have begun to make improvements – starting at the bottom – and introducing automatic seat warmers in many of their latest convertible models, thus avoiding the need for tartan rugs over the knees. Side windows can also now be raised, offering a welcome wind break and reducing the chance of ‘flies-on-the-teeth’, a common affliction for the grinning convertible driver.

“All the major manufacturers are developing convertible models with various mod cons. It used to be a niche market but not any more,” Richard explains, adding that he bought his MX5 in 1989 but it is still the most popular convertible ever made.

With these added extras, it’s no wonder that more of the older generation are daring to lift their lids. One 56-year-old grandma told me (in the car park at M&S…), “A year ago the only open topped vehicle I manoeuvred was the supermarket trolley but when my beloved mini broke down I suddenly realised I could replace it with a comfy convertible model and I thought – why not!”

Twelve months on, come hell or high water (well, as long as drowning isn’t an actual possibility) her grandchildren are begging to have the roof down, and she herself is converted to fresh air motoring. “It does feel kind of sexy,” she whispers, “but it’s something I only dare admit to other open toppers”.

Luckily, Richard’s Convertible Car Club offers an outlet for her and her fellow drivers to swap their guilty fantasies of eye-watering, hair-raising experiences in the front seat.

“Unlike other car clubs, mine is open to owners of any make or model,” Richard explains. “It’s just a shame there are no major UK motor manufacturers. We do still get some English-made Morgans and the new Aerial Arrows turn up at our meetings though”.

These events – held ideally on a sunny day – at venues around the UK encourage members to compare not only driving speeds, but the smoothness of the whole ‘roof up and down operation’.

“I still have to climb out and manually take my roof down but with these latest models it’s all done robot-style at the touch of a button,” Richard said wistfully, “…and the roofs are hard so they don’t get slashed and the car stolen”.

This increased security is another reason why female silver surfers are overtaking boy racers when it comes to convertible car sales, although the increased number of topless ladies on our roads has led to one unexpected consequence for the AA.

As my anonymous lady driver admits, “I do keep leaving my handbag on the front seat and forgetting I haven’t got the roof down! I sort of imagine there’s an invisible force field over it…”

One for the manufacturers to work on for next year’s Motor Show perhaps…?
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