VW is still not ready to let Bug go topless
The Washington Times
March 5, 1999 by Henny Hemmes
Just a year after its introduction, the new Volkswagen Beetle loosens the tongues. Drive with the public’s favorite car through a busy street, park in front of the post office or cruise on Sunset Boulevard. No doubt you hear a lot of compliments. The Bug is still cool.
But it can even be cooler as Volkswagen itself showed the world a year after the introduction of the Concept 1, the predecessor of the new Beetle, when the German company showed a prototype of the convertible.
You would think that VW already announced their plans to build a topless Beetle. But no: There are no plans for a convertible, according to the official statement. Which, however, is no guarantee that Volkswagen boss Ferdinand Piech did not give his okay and employees are already champing at the bit.
To be honest, I believe it is still a bit early for a factory convertible. As long as the market is still asking for Beetles with a roof, there is no need yet to give it a new impulse by introducing a convertible. In the meantime, the first competitor in the field showed what could be done. Where else than in sunny California?
It really is not very strange that people living in a nice climate set themselves to build convertibles.
One such company is Newport Convertible Engineering in Placentia. I didn’t need guessing where they are located in the small industrial area. A blue Beetle with a soft-top was parked in front of the door.
“We have been building convertibles for more than 15 years now,” says NCE president Al Zadeh. In the workshop are a decapitated Mercedes-Benz, a Chrysler LeBaron and a Lincoln Mark VII. Additionally, four brand new Bugs which all are in various states of construction, are parked nearby.
Chopping off the roof of a car is not difficult. It is much more important to know where and how to reinforce the car for reliable stiffness. Underneath the car there is an X-shaped frame of tubular hollow steel welded to the floor pan. A heavy steel bracket is connecting the rear wheelwells over the tops of the shock absorbers. Doorsills, B-pillars, windows and the windshield frame are reinforced and the hinges of the trunk lid are stronger than the originals.
So when you look into an undressed Beetle and you see all the steel plates, it’s not hard to guess that this car won’t be crushed like a cookie jar in the first small crash.
Of course, the extra safety is not all that counts. It’s especially down to the driving and that has everything to do with the stiffness of the car. Notwithstanding all the reinforcements, I stepped behind the wheel with a considerable amount of reserve.
My first test with a convertible is always the same: I park the car with one front wheel on the sidewalk to see if the door still closes well. Then I do the same with a rear wheel. Clunk, is the solid sound and the door closes as it should. The NCE Beetle has passed its first test.
The open Beetle corners hard and has good stability. There is virtually no rattle or shake. Not from the dashboard, nor from the doors. Even the softtop lies quietly folded behind me. The top isn’t even secured by a boot. The blue one for the test car still had to be finished.
Because the windshield of the new Beetle is so high, there is not much wind on my neck. When the top is closed you do not really have the impression that you are driving a convertible. There still is a lot of space over your head.
The cabrio top is handmade by NCE of heavy German canvas, with a foam inner lining and a headliner. There are different roof styles, with or without rear side windows. For manually operated roof Newport Convertible Engineering charges $9,500. For another $1,500you can have a power roof.
But easy opening and closing of the latches makes that a real luxury.
Since mi-1998 NCE has built more than 30 Beetle Convertibles, of which 15 have been exported. One car was bought by a son of the late King Hussein of Jordan, who gave it to his father as a present when he came to the States for medical treatment.
NCE plans to build 500 to 1,000 convertibles a year and is considering a joint venture with a German company for distribution in Europe.