March 2002 by John Pearley Huffman
Whacking the roof off a vehicle is easy – all it takes is the will and a cutting torch. Making a decent convertible out of a machine that wasn’t originally designed to be one is a far more daunting task.
Al Zadeh has been guillotining roofs off everything from VWs to Ferraris over the past 20 years at his Newport Convertible Engineering (NCE) shop in Placentia, California. Some of his conversions are naturals (the big Mercedes CL), and some surprisingly attractive (a Chevy Monte Carlo).
Making a convertible of the Chrysler PT Cruiser, which is intrinsically so ill-suited to a conversion. After all, the PT Cruiser is a $17,000 unibody Chrysler with four doors and a rear hatch. The real challenge wasn’t beefing up the Cruiser’s structure – Zadeh has done similar projects dozens of times – it was engineering a top that was aesthetically pleasing.
NCE’s Cruiser is a cohesive design. Top up, the roofline doesn’t rise as dramatically toward the back as on the unaltered Cruiser, and the rear window is more steeply raked, but it’s still a PT. Top down, the car looks like a late-30’s Ford pha¸ton with the B-pillar recalling Franklin Roosevelt’s “Sunshine Special” presidential Lincoln.
The fully lined top is built in-house by NCE by sewing German-made canvas to a steel frame. It’s a hefty piece that must be muscled into place (power operation is a $3,000 option) and clamps to the windshield header with Mazda Miata latches. Top up, visibility is comparable to stock since the plastic rear window is large and nearly undistorted. When down, the top stacks beyond the trailing edge of the sheetmetal. And that stack is tall enough so that the driver might see a light bar coming up from behind in his rearview mirror.
The NCE-added reinforcing structure between the rear wheel wells is coated in fuzzy carpeting. However, the Cruiser’s flat load floor remains, and the foreshortened rear hatch opens hydraulically and shuts solidly. And NCE does warrant its work to match Chrysler’s three-year/36,000-mile coverage that continues to apply to the rest of the vehicle.
NCE reinforces the Cruiser’s structure with box-steel ladderlike structures along each rocker, tied together with welded crossmembers. Curb weight is virtually unchanged. Our 3260-pound test car was 41 pounds lighter than our last PT Cruiser automatic. Therefore, no changes to the suspension or drivetrain are required. With just 150 horsepower available from the DOHC 2.1-liter four and a four-speed automatic shifting, acceleration is modest and almost no different from stock.
Top up, there’s wind noise where the C-pillar and the top join, but it’s otherwise tight. The most noticeable noise is, in fact, the Neon-typical boom from the intake rather than any presumed air leakage, squeaks, or rattles. Cowl shake is at about 1996 Chrysler Sebring levels – the PT is composed over bumps and railroad tracks. Steering response, suspension compliance, and braking all seem unaffected by the conversion.
It’s a novelty like the Wienermobile. It’s a decent aftermarket convertible.
It’s also a novelty that runs $9900 over the unmodified car’s price – about twice what, say, Toyota asks for a convertible Camry Solara over a hardtop version. But whereas Toyota will sell thousands of Solaras, NCE has shipped about 45 PT convertibles as this is written to the 10 or so Chrysler dealers who’ve signed up to get them. And although a Solara gets no attention at all, a convertible PT Cruiser attracts crowds.
Vehicle type: front-engine, front-wheel-drive, 5-passenger, 4-door convertible
Price as tested: $27,490 (base price*: $27,490)
Engine type: DOHC 16-valve 4-in-line, iron block an aluminum head, Chrysler SBEC III engine-control system with port fuel injection
Displacement 148 cu in, 2429cc
Power (SAE net) 150 bhp @ 5500 rpm
Torque (SAE net) 162 lb-ft @ 4000 rpm
Transmission 4-speed automatic with lockup converter
Wheelbase 103.0 in
Length 168.8 in
Curb weight 3260 lb
Zero to 60 mph 10.9 sec
Street start, 5-60 mph 10.8 sec
Standing ¼-mile 18.2 sec @ 75 mph
Braking, 70-0 mph 196 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad 0.77 g
EPA fuel economy, city driving 20 mpg
* base price includes all performance-enchancing options.
January 1999 by Barry Winfield
Four-door convertibles are extinct, right? Wrong.
Newport Convertible Engineering will chop the top off just about anything.
Al Zadeh’s long-running affair with convertibles began nearly 20 years ago. While at the University of Southern California pursuing a Petroleum-engineering degree, Zadeh’s personal cars were always convertibles. Now he runs his own conversion company, Newport Convertible Engineering, in Placentia, California, where he lops the metal tops off anything you care to bring him.
Take this BMW 740iL, for example. It’s a long-wheelbase car with four doors, and the German automaker did not design it to go topless, but neither the car’s Floridian owner nor Al Zadeh let that stop them. And now, $22,000 and innumerable worker-hours later, the Bimmer wears a new toupee – a power top.
Cutting the roof off any sedan severely compromises its rigidity. To brace the 740iL’s unibody, NCE welds a maze of two-by-two-inch square-section hollow tubing underneath the floorpan. Tubes run the length of the rocker sills – laterally from one rocker to the other and diagonally from the ends of the rockers to the center. The reinforcements reduce ground clearance by an inch or so, but they look strong.
Two-by-one-inch tubes extend vertically to the highest point in the cowl structure in front and to the shock towers in the rear, tying these to the underbody frame. Finally, Zadeh adds a “trunk bridge” – a tubular arch running between the mainframe members. It’s visible in the trunk, but it intrudes minimally on luggage space.
Removing the roof produces other problems. The 740iL’s door glass runs in window frames. Cutting the frames off would leave the windows unsupported, but leaving the window frames in their entirety would look extremely dorky. So NCE removes just the upper rail of the front window frame and everything but the B-pillar upright on the rear window frame.
When the doors are shut, with the top either up or down, this arrangement looks okay. Open a front door and you’re treated to the peculiar sight of two frame uprights ending in grommeted stumps. It isn’t particularly stylish.
A “basket handle” hoop runs over the car between the B-pillars, providing a brace for the body, a support for the top, and a handy place to fit a dome light and two map-reading lights. Sawing off the roof (and rear window) also removes the integrated radio antenna, so the BMW now wears a conventional mast antenna mounted in the rear quarter-panel.
Rear-seat space suffers, too, in this conversion. The articulating top structure and the hydraulic rams consume so much space that the outboard bolsters of the bucketed seats are completely removed. Occupants are therefore displaced inboard where they must ride a hump. We think a more artful solution would have been to remove the center armrest and squeeze the two bucket seats together.
With its top up, the BMW has a profile similar to that of the stock sedan, although the C-pillar area is now huge and the plastic rear window is smaller than the original backlight. The windshield header has a one-inch channel to accept the top’s leading edge. It is clipped in place by two overcentering clamps and fits flush. This helps cut noise and top lift, both of which seemed quite tolerable during a brief test drive.
In fact, the BMW retains a lot of the composure and tranquility it had when it wore a steel top. The folded top stacks up about six to eight inches above the trunk, but the snap-on boot covers it tidily. On the move, the car exhibits some cowl shake over bumps, but no more than most factory convertibles do. The only question remaining is how well the car will hold together over time.
Zadeh is confident. He does a lot of conversions- about 65 in ’97, including a Lincoln Mark VIII, a Mercedes S-class and an E-class coupe, and a Lexus LS400. He hoped to finish off ’98 with 100. From body reinforcement through mechanism design and fabrication to canvas top-making tasks, every aspect of the work is handled in-house by Zadeh’s 15-member team.
Our BMW went directly from the showroom to NCE with fewer than100 miles on it. For its owner, that’s almost like buying a new, factory-made convertible. To us, it seems like a remarkable leap of faith.