California company puts safety up front in redesigning ragtops
June 2000 by Joel Zuckerman
Most of us can’t help admiring a convertible. Whether it’s a muscled up Mustang, a sleek Spyder or a pristine Porsche, we all sit up and take notice.
Al Zadeh notices convertibles also, but not for the same reasons the rest of us do. The USC-trained engineer has been fascinated with open-air chariots since he owned a somewhat problematic MGB in his youth. He has spent his working life transforming standard coupes and sedans into custom convertibles, making them safer and more structurally sound in the process.
Zadeh is the founder and president of Newport Convertible Engineering, a quint-essentially California company. For 20 years, Zadeh and his crew of engineers have literally been ripping the roofs off luxury vehicles and replacing them with one-touch, fully powered convertible tops.
“My engineering background allows me to look at a standard sedan, whose structural integrity is directly tied to the roof, and to remove that roof, transforming the vehicle into a one-of-a-kind convertible,” explains Zadeh. “What’s amazing is that not only do we not compromise the safety and integrity of the vehicle structure, we actually enhance it.”
Zadeh cast his critical eye on the aforementioned MGB while still in college. “I wasn’t particularly pleased with the way that car performed as a convertible,” he recalls. “There was too much wind noise, water leakage, and a lack of stability. I came to the realization that there were plenty of improvements that could be made to convertible bodies so they would perform more efficiently, safely, and practically.”
Zadeh employs about 20 junior and senior engineers at to plants in Placentia, CA. The technicians there have experience with many different vehicle types, but the majority of conversions are done on Mercedes-Benz S Class and CL Class four-door coupes. In round figures, these vehicles generally cost about $100,000 new; the custom conversion, which takes anywhere from six to 12 weeks, will add as much as $40,000 to the price.
Zadeh estimates that 80 percent of the autos his company transform are brand new, while 20 percent will have some miles accumulated, but rarely more than 30,000. Besides Mercedes, other popular four-door conversions include the Cadillac STS, Jaguar, Lexus LS and GS400, and the BMW 740IL. Two-door conversions are more common than four-door, and the BMW 840, Acura NSX, Rolls Royce, and Lexus are among the most requested.
Basic conversions begin at $17,500, and even the lower prices include one-touch, full power operation, with remote control capability. Although it would be a stretch to consider it as appealing to a mass audience, Newport Convertible Engineering has also converted approximately 100 brand new Volkswagen Beetles since their reintroduction in 1998. These manually-operated convertible tops add only about $7,000 to the Beetle’s sticker price of up to $23,000, so it’s possible to enjoy a custom Newport conversion for as little as $30,000, assuming one finds the circular shaped Beetle attractive.
Zadeh counts celebrities, political heavyweights, and movie stars among his clientele, but the vehicle can become movie stars in their own right. Several years ago, Paramount Pictures commissioned a conversion of a 1954 DeSoto, which got significant screen time in the comedy I.Q., with Meg Ryan, Tim Robbins, and Walter Matthau as Albert Einstein.
Zadehs business is also international: Jordan’s king Hussein, the Kuwaiti chief of intelligence, and the president of South Korea have all been customers.
While it’s the bells and whistles of the conversion that attract all the interest, the company president remains preoccupied with the nuts and bolts.
“My concern is how to reinforce and restructure the body of the auto after the top is removed,” he explains. “The tortional rigidity and load bearings mustn’t be compromised in the conversion process.”
Zadeh has been adding side impact protection to his vehicles since day one, a practice that safety conscious automakers Saab and Volvo have only introduced in recent years.
“Instead of a car collapsing into a V – with both the front and back end coming together after a powerful collision – our side impact protection distributes the force throughout the entire length of the vehicle’s body, resulting in vastly increased safety for both driver and passengers,” claims Zadeh.
In addition to the unique eye appeal and the safety features, Newport Convertible Engineering continues to attract new business because many people want to provide input the creative process.
“We are considered a boutique shop in the automotive industry, and our customers want vehicles that are totally new and innovative,” Zadeh says. “Many of them have great ideas, but they might be impractical regarding structural integrity, or perhaps compromise their safety. We can help them turn their dreams to reality, and, in the process, provide them with a vehicle that’s safe, stylish, and singular. It’s a great feeling because, in the end, everybody comes out a winner.”