How to shop for a drop top

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  • | by Kristian Dando

Crikey! The weather has suddenly taken a turn for the better. When this happens, it usually means that lots of people start to entertain the prospect of buying a convertible.

There’s plenty of selection out there when it comes to 'going topless', with prices to suit most pockets. But when buying a used convertible, only fools rush in. You might want to take a look at’s three-part guide to buying a used car to get yourself familiar with some universal advice which applies whether your car has a retractable roof or not.

Natural selection

Convertible car ownership is a broad church. If you’re free and single, then a roadster might appeal. But if you have the pleasure – or otherwise – of children and dogs then having a two-seater driving machine with all the space and comfort of a festival latrine probably isn’t a good idea. A drop-top version of a saloon or hatchback might be a better bet.

If you’re a fan of a particular make or model of car and are expecting a similar drive from its convertible counterpart then you’re likely to be disappointed. “Driving a convertible is a very different experience, “ says Tim Shallcross, technical director at the Institute of Advanced Motorists. “As the roof of a car provides so much rigidity, convertible cars are prone to something called ‘scuttle shake’. You should have a really thorough test-drive to make sure that you’re comfortable owning one.”

Drop it like it’s hot

Despite technology coming on in leaps and bounds in the past twenty years, soft-tops still have the potential to cause more bother than their permanently-roofed cousins. Your top priority should be the rear window. “This is usually the first thing to deteriorate,” says Shallcross. Check all around the soft-top for chafing or wear too – if there seems to be lots of it, the roof might need replacing."

It might seem like stating the obvious, but subject the roof mechanism to rigorous testing – make sure that it goes up and down smoothly several times before you part with any cash. Some convertible roof mechanisms are more complicated than others. There are some incredibly convoluted hydraulic systems out there, potentially harbouring all sorts of expensive technical gremlins. “When something goes wrong with these then you’re looking at a big bill to repair the problem.” Says Shallcross.

Hard-top roofs are another story altogether – for higher-end cars which feature them, such as the Mercedes SLK it’s not such a problem. However, for mid-market models such as Vauxhall’s Astra Twintop and Volkswagen’s EOS, the hard top is prone to leaking. “It’s very difficult to make a hard-top folding roof, particularly on a budget,” says Shallcross. “Watch out for leaks between the roof and window. In an ideal world, you should take it through a car wash! It can be a very tricky problem to resolve.”

Finally, check the upholstery for signs of water damage, just in case the car has been left out in a thunderstorm. Also have a look for any traces of sand. If it’s been taken to the beach regularly, the grains will get into the machinery, causing more wear and tear than you’d otherwise get. “You want it to be used to cruise around Chelsea rather than taken down to Brighton,” says Shallcross.

Boring practical stuff

If you’re only likely to be using your new convertible on pleasant days during the summer, then save money on your car insurance by opting for a low annual mileage. Be wary of the new continuous insurance enforcement regulation, too – it means that your car has to be insured all the time, unless you’ve registered it as ‘off the road’ with the DVLA. Read more about it here.

Summer loving, had me a blast…

See that great big yellow thing in the sky radiating intense heat? It’s the sun, and because it’s out, plenty of other people have got the same idea as you. As such, sellers can hike their prices. Buying a drop top in the height of summer is probably a daft idea, as you’re effectively paying a fair-weather premium. The best time to buy a convertible car is during the long, harsh winter months. But if the idea of waiting around for the nights to draw in doesn’t appeal, then it’s unlikely that paying a bit extra will deter you. And after all, the British summer is nothing if not a fickle mistress…it’s likely to bucket it down at the drop of a hat. Is that the sound of thunder? Why yes, I think it is…

Our five favourite affordable convertibles

Mazda MX-5

The biggest selling two-seater sports car in history, the MX-5 made its debut in the late 1980s, and has been on sale in one form or another ever since. They’re well-built, in abundant supply, and a hoot to drive. High mileage examples of the first generation car go in the classifieds go as cheaply as just a few hundred pounds, but despite the famous Japanese build quality, they might be more trouble than they’re worth. It might be a better bet to opt for a newer model – an eight year old MX-5 can go for under £7,000.

Lotus Elise

Spoken about in hushed reverence by enthusiasts, the super-lightweight Elise has come to be considered to be one of the best drivers' cars of the past 20 years since going on sale in 1996. Examples of the first generation Elise, produced until 2001 start from around £6-700 for ones with around 60-80,000 miles on the clock. The second generation, which went on sale in 2001, start from around £11,000 from private sellers.

Honda S2000

Its high-revving engine might not be economical, but the S2000 is a blast to drive. It’s also got one of the most idiot-proof retractable roofs ever. Examples with a lot of miles on the clock can be picked up for under £5,000.

Ford StreetKa

Cutesy and distinctive, the Streetka - a convertible version of Ford’s big selling Ka hatchback - might not have pace in abundance, but if affordable, unpretentious posing is what you’re after then you won’t go far wrong with this. Used prices start from around £2,000.

Suzuki Cappuccino

This affably dinky Japanese convertible has become a cult classic. Powered by a turbocharged 657cc three-cylinder engine, it was produced between 1991 and 1997 and has the charisma of a car twice its size. Relatively low-mileage examples go for around £3-4000. With a detachable solid roof, it can also be driven as a coupe.

What are your soft-top favourites? Join the discussion below….