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.