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Coach convertibles are convertibles built by independent shops, or coachbuilders, by converting closed cars into open ones. This practice filled, and to a small extent continues to fill a small void left by the auto industry. The coach convertible trend is most closely associated with the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the American auto industry abandoned the convertible because of low demand and pending federal crash regulations that would make the convertible seem impossible to build.
Sales of convertibles began to decline in the late 1960s and took a sharp downturn by the early 1970s. Chrysler Corp produced its last convertible in 1971, Ford was done by 1973 and GM stopped all convertible production except Cadillac by 1975. By 1976 GM was done as well.
A December 1973 article in Road & Track magazine explains the fall of the convertible in a very data-rich and scientific manner. The article does not blame government mandates or safety concerns for making the convertible too expensive or impossible to continue to build. Rather, it suggests that buyer tastes have changed, making the convertible a less attractive option for new car buyers. Some reasons listed were:
The article showed the slow decline in sales of the convertible from the mid-sixties into the seventies, compared to the hardtops of the same model. Sales were down because few buyers decided a convertible was the right car for them.
The last American convertible to come out of the factory was the 1976 Cadillac Eldorado. It was advertised to be the end of an era, and all indications at the time seemed to corroborate that. Convertibles were not built by mainstream U.S. automobile manufacturers again until 1982. Only a few 2-seat sporty European import convertibles remained for the American market.
American car manufacturers stopped making convertibles in-house in 1976. As fewer and fewer convertibles remained available to U.S. buyers (mid-1970s to mid-1980s), an aftermarket cottage industry grew for new cars to be converted into convertibles because there were still buyers who wanted them. The few European convertibles that were available was not enough to placate demand. Everything from Firebirds to Celicas, Continentals to Cutlass Cieras were modified into convertibles. Tens of thousands of cars were converted by several dozen coachbuilders across the country.
Why were they called coachbuilders? Because it was a big job, and these modern cars did not have enough structural integrity to withstand the loss of the roof structure. The coachbuilder would have to re-engineer the structure of the car, often adding hundreds of pounds of steel, prior to removing the roof and fitting the convertible mechanism. They would then have to make new interior and exterior trim for all the places that they had to cut, and make it look, feel, and drive like it was meant to be a convertible. It would also have to be safe. It was no small task. Coachbuilding was a trade that had been around for centuries. Before there were cars, there were horse-drawn coaches, and they were all made by hand. With the advent of the automobile, the coachbuilders adapted to the changing times, and made bodies for cars. These car bodies were made by hand, out of wood and later steel, and mounted on to the automobile frame. The coachbuilder would be responsible for the interior as well. Eventually car companies started making their own pressed steel bodies. The only remaining market for coachbuilders was the very expensive cars like Duesenburgs, Rolls Royces, and the biggest Packards. This work eventually died down too, but there would always be coachbuilders around. The firm of Mulliner Park Ward, for example, would build Corniche bodies for Rolls Royce and Bentley until 1995. Most modern day coachbuilders are in the business of modifying car bodies. They modify cars into hearses, ambulances, flower cars, stretch limousines, and of course convertibles.
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