A new driving force for open-minded UK

This summer will see a surge of activity in the cabriolet sector as car makers capitalise on the Brits’ desire for life on the open road. By John Stones

The vagaries of the traditional British summer can seemingly do little to dampen demand for open-topped cars. Despite the inevitable rain, we buy more cabriolets per head than anywhere else in the world, and manufactures are rolling out a plethora of drop-tops to capitalise on this eccentricity.

While total car sales in the UK have slipped by four per cent compared with last year’s record levels, those of cabriolets have surged ahead. Last year, 68,523 open-topped cars were sold in this country, accounting for 2.7 per cent of the market. But according to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), this year sales have increased strongly, running at five per cent. Some of this will be attributable to the customary pre-summer surge, but a spokeswoman for the SMMT suggests a likely annual total of four per cent.

By comparison, only 15,086 cabriolets were sold in 1992, accounting for less than one per cent of new car sales.

Before the cabriolet renaissance, the choice of drop-tops was largely limited to prestige brands. But now car makers are scrambling into the increasingly congested budget end of the market.

There are 16 open-topped cars retailing at less than £17,000 available or soon to be launched, including Citroën’s recently launched C3 Pluriel and Volkswagen’s Beetle Cabriolet. Next year these will be joined by an open-topped Mini, while Nissan is considering rolling out an open-top Micra and there is speculation that MG Rover could resuscitate the budget Midget roadster brand.

Garel Rhys, of the Institute of Automotive Industry Research at Cardiff Business School, doesn’t believe this will lead to saturation. “If the cars are relatively cheap then there is a market,” he says. He points out that manufacturers are only now returning to a market largely abandoned in the Eighties due to concerns about US safety legislation.

And while the British have preserved a cottage industry for roadsters (TVR, Morgan and Westfield) it was the Japanese, he says, who showed that selling open-topped cars could be successful commercially, primarily with Mazda’s evergreen MX5.

Despite being launched 13 years ago, MX5 sales in the UK are at an all-time high. Rob Lindley, who last week moved from marketing director to dealer operations director for Mazda (MW last week), says that new rivals – such as the Peugeot 206 Coupe Cabriolet, the current best-seller – have not eaten into sales but instead further fuelled interest in the open-topped cars.

Rhys says: “Its not just a case of successful marketing, but bringing back to the British public a product that they have always had a preference for.” Dr Guy Fielding, a psychologist at Oxford University, suggests driving an open-topped car plugs into the national obsession with weather. It also carries strong associations of being on holiday, boosting self-esteem, he says.

Manufacturers and dealers have tended to use the appeal of drop-tops to sell other cars, while ailing brands have used their open-topped cars to rebuild their image. A revitalised Mazda is now being positioned as the sports marque of parent Ford, leveraging the success of the MX5. MG Rover, meanwhile, leans heavily on its MG TF roadster.

The Lucky Star campaign by Campbell Doyle Dye for Mercedes, while nominally promoting the luxurious and expensive SL convertible sports car, was primarily a brand-building exercise using the marque’s most emotive core. Mercedes has the fullest range of open-topped cars, offering two sports cars (SL and SLK) and the four-seater CLK cabriolet, plus the Smart Car sub-brand’s open-topped Roadster and City Cabriolet models.

The SL and SLK pioneered folding-metal topped sports cars ,which overcame many of the historical impracticalities of open air motoring of the past. The feature has been reproduced for the mass market by Peugeot in the 206 CC.

The iconic TT sports car has also been pressed into action by Audi as a brand ambassador in its advertising. But its success (9,000 sold in the UK last year) is spawning imitations. Ford’s StreetKa and Diahatsu’s Copen consciously echo styling cues of the TT, offering a similar fashion statement but at a budget price. TT product manager Calum McKechnie claims imitation is the highest praise and denies suggestions that it could tarnish the TT’s fashion-sensitive appeal.

A new low-power, lower-cost version of the TT is being supported by fashion-style ads in women’s lifestyle magazines. While only 30 per cent of TT buyers are women, Audi hopes this will change. Fifty-five per cent of the cheaper MX5 buyers are women.

The pink pound is another target. Ford sponsored gay icon Kylie Minogue on her European tour last year as part of a strategy to actively market the car to gay men and utilise their traditional status as fashion leaders. It also chose to sponsor Julien McDonald’s shows at London Fashion Week.

But there are signs that the softly-softly approach to selling open-topped cars might be coming to an end. Rather than innovative or subtle marketing, the car industry might have to fall back on its trusted selling techniques in the face of increased competition. In the first salvos, Fiat has relaunched its Barchetta roadster, slashing its price to a bargain £10,995 and Mazda is offering free insurance and special finance options on the MX5. It could be a hot summer ahead.

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