Newport Convertible Engineering founder brings open-air fun to almost anything
BY PATRICK C. PATERNIE AUTOWEEK January 2012
Al Zadeh enrolled in the University of Southern California with the idea of becoming a surgeon, but he never expected that instead of a scalpel and forceps, his instruments would include chop saws and welding torches.
Zadeh is president of Newport Convertible Engineering in Placentia, Calif., a company he founded 28 years ago to design, engineer and build open-air editions of everything from SUVs and limos to sporty hardtops and sedans. His clients include car companies seeking prototypes and concepts, dealers looking to boost sales and individuals wanting to make a fashion statement.
“I have done just about every vehicle from A to Z,” he said.,
Actually, that would start with “Z,” as Nissan’s famous sports car was one of his first conversions. “A” came later, with Aston Martin Vanquish convertible creations, along with Porsche 928 and others. Zadeh’s first big seller was the Nissan 300ZX.
All of this won him the attention of carmakers to meet their convertible needs. Volkswagen had him handle the initial design and engineering of the New Beetle in 1998, and soon after, he worked on the PT Cruiser for Chrysler. Toyota approached him to do a convertible version of the FJ Cruiser a few years ago. He also offered a Camaro convertible a year before Chevrolet did.
On the more fanciful front, Zadeh’s 1990-99 Mercedes-Benz S-class conversions are longtime favorites in Dubai, and his latest best sellers have been ragtop versions of the last-generation Chrysler 300C and the Cadillac CTS. The inspiration for these convertibles was the MG he owned while going to college.
“I wanted to be a doctor, until we went on a field trip to a hospital and I found out I’m not too good with seeing blood,” he said. Zadeh switched to engineering with a concentration to another vital fluid, petroleum. But when the oil business went through a lean period in 1981, he searched for an industry in which his mechanical-engineering studies would come into play. His MG provided a clue.
“I got tired of carrying towels and having wet pants every time I drove my MG in the rain or through the car wash,” he said. “I started thinking about how I could improve the design of the convertible top.”
Zadeh relies on sketches, computer design and Photoshop-altered images to carry out his development – plus the “secret formula” he developed to mount the top mechanism as low as possible and still have it operate smoothly and quickly. “My knowledge base is strong because of all the cars I’ve done over the years. I respect the manufacturer’s original design and try not to deviate from that,” he said.
He strives to increase stiffness without adding excess weight. His recent Jaguar XJ drop-top gains only 40 pounds. He considers that car his greatest challenge because of its unique bonded and riveted aluminum construction. But the operation that really excited him is the convertible surgery he did to the 2011 Chrysler 300, which debuted at SEMA.
NSC in Huntington Beach, Calif., has been chopping the tops of perfectly good cars since 1983. Now, with summer up on the Northern Hemisphere, they’ve taken to chopping the tops off SUVs, too, including the Toyota FJ Cruiser, the Hummer H3 and Hummer H2. The premise of a convertible SUV would raise hundreds of red flags for anyone who has ever heard the phrase “torsional rigidity.” We’ve seen homemade Cabriolets where the windshields cracked after three locks of driving because what is left of therm twists like a pair of plastic salad tongs. But Newport does a solid engineering job on every project, and the SUVs are not exception. With welded-in reinforcement round the window frames and behind the back seats, as well as roll hoops welded into the right places, both FJ, H3, H2 are stiff that you won’t have to worry about anything breaking on them. The unibody FJ felt much stiffer than he H3, but even the H3 seemed sound over speed bumps and across water drains. The power tops are hydraulically tuated via a single button, with the final latch done by hand at the windshield header.
by Mark Vaughn