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Topless tale


It was just balmy enough last week for me to drop the tops on both the Ford Thunderbird and the Volkswagen New Beetle convertible. These are two stylish ragtops, neither of which really adds up to a practical year-round car. But for summer fun, fun, fun until daddy takes the keys away, they’re just about ideal. Both have cool images, too.

The T-Bird I’d encountered once before on a memorable Ford-sponsored summer’s drive through suburban Westchester, N.Y. Like everyone else, I loved its retro styling but found it not quite as sporting as I’d hoped. And the interior seemed overly dependent on the corporate parts bin.

Over the course of a week’s test, the $40,000 T-Bird turned out to be quite an enjoyable two-seater. The interior is jazzier than I remembered: Dig those crazy aqua-on-white instruments! And the ivory shift handle! The seats look like they could have come from a soda fountain, but they’re comfortable and supportive in the modern fashion.

The classic ’55-’57 ‘Bird on which the 2003 model is based has an interesting history. Rushed into production to compete with Chevrolet’s Corvette, the original car might have been called "Beaver," "Detroiter" or even, heaven help us, "Hep Cat." Ford stylist Alden "Gib" Giberson was rewarded with a new $95 suit when he came up with "Thunderbird," based on a Native American legend whose flapping wings created the winds and thunder.

To most buyers, it didn’t matter that underneath the pretty skin of the ’55 ‘Bird lurked off-the-rack Ford mechanicals, or that understeering and a loafing V-8 made this "personal" car more suitable for turnpike cruising than winning on a racetrack. The new car follows suit. For most buyers, the fact that it’s quiet at freeway speeds with the top down will be more important than its zero-to-60 times.

In its 48 years, the Thunderbird has evolved from two-seater sports car to sports coupe to luxury barge and, in its newest version penned by J Mays, a rear-drive sports car again, complete with evocative "porthole" top. From its egg-crate grille to its round taillights, this is unmistakably a new-old T-Bird.

The 2003 car comes in four trim levels, all powered by a 3.9-liter, 32-valve V-8 (from the Lincoln LS sedan). It’s not the most sporting engine, but it makes for great cruising. Some 60 percent of the new Bird, including the transmission, comes from other Ford vehicles, but it still adds up to an enjoyable package that, if not quite living up to the high-performance expectations of its exterior styling, provides plenty of entertainment value. The car is fun to drive, and — just as important — it’s fun to be seen in.

Speaking of retro, the New Beetle convertible richly recalls the body-by-Karmann original, down to its glass rear window and thickly padded top (also designed by Karmann, in business since 1901). VW has sold 365,000 New Beetles in the U.S. but, with the novelty wearing off, sales dropped 25 percent in 2002. The convertible’s arrival may reverse the trend.

Mechanicals are stock Beetle, including the 115-horsepower four. As in the T-Bird, folding the top is simplicity itself. Both test cars had power tops, and the driver merely released one catch and pushed a button. Echoing Bugs of old, the top on the $20,450 New Beetle sits proud of the body when folded, requiring a cover. The convertible conversion takes a fair amount of space, so the rear trunk is tiny and back-seat passengers don’t have much leg room. Kids love it back there, though.

After a pretty grim year, one of these convertibles could be just what the doctor ordered for the summer to come.

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