Business of Design

Top designers pick best convertible car designs of all time

Top Auto Designers Pick Their Top Convertibles

Ilya Terentyev | Vetta | Getty Images

The beach. Barbecues. Family get-togethers. All things "summer." And what better way to enjoy the good weather than in a convertible! Dropping the top and hitting the road is a summer "must-do."

To celebrate the season, we asked some of the auto industry's top designers to chime in with their favorite convertibles of all-time:

  • Walter de Silva—head of group design, Volkswagen AG
  • Ralph Gilles—president and CEO, SRT brand and motorsports and senior vice president, product design, Chrysler Group LLC
  • J Mays—group vice president, design and chief creative officer, Ford Motor
  • Adrian van Hooydonk—head of design, BMW Group
  • Ed Welburn—GM vice president, global design

What follows are the cars that at least two of these designers think should make our all-time best convertible design list. Be sure to read all the way to the end to discover their full lists. And be sure to check out our classic car value showdown—sexy curves vs. pure muscle—to learn how design affects classic car values.

(Unless otherwise noted, "Original MSRP" is sourced from "Current value" is based on values as of April 2013.)

By Robert Melstein, CNBC Development Producer
Posted 6 July 2013

Alfa Romeo Duetto Spider

Image source: Alfa Romeo Automobilsmo Storico

Selected by: de Silva, Gilles, Mays, van Hooydonk
Original MSRP: $3,950 (1967 model)
Average current value: $23,288 (1967 model)

This Italian beauty is one of the two convertibles that made four out of our five designers' lists. It's also a pop culture icon, appearing in the 1967 Mike Nichols' classic, "The Graduate." And just as Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft) tried to seduce Ben Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) in the film, the Alfa seduced our all-star design panel. Gilles notes a "fantastically elegant rounded tail that made the vehicle appear even lower and sleeker in the rear view," while van Hooydonk adds "not many words required: simply [Italian design firm] Pininfarina's ." And deSilva calls the car "very romantic." Coo, coo ca-choo Duetto Spider.

Jaguar XKE/E-Type

Image source: Jaguar Land Rover

Selected by: de Silva, Gilles, Mays, van Hooydonk
Original MSRP: $5,595 (1962 model)
Average current value: $80,407 (1962 E-type SI model)

The same four designers who picked the Alfa Romeo Spider also are in agreement about this '60s-era cat (1961 model pictured). They're in some pretty good company. As the story goes, when Enzo Ferrari (yes, as in "that" Ferrari) first saw the Jaguar he said it was the most beautiful automobile he had ever seen. De Silva and van Hooydonk love the "long bonnet." Gilles adds his "heart skips a beat when I see one in person." And how many cars can brag about being in a world-class art museum's collection? Mays notes that an E-type Jag is "a permanent exhibit at the New York Museum of Modern Art—kind of says it all, doesn't it?"

Ferrari Convertibles

Image source: Ferrari North America

Selected by: Gilles, Mays, van Hooyndonk
Ferrari 250 GT Spider California LWB
Original MSRP: $14,000 (1958 model)
Average current value: $4,677,050 (1958 closed headlight model)

Ferrari 250 GT Spider California SWB
Original MSRP: $13,600 (1960 model)
Average current value: $7,665,500 (1960 closed headlight model)

Ferrari 275 GTB/4 NART Spider
Original MSRP: N/A
Average current value: $8,555,500 (1967 model)

A trio of ultra-rare Ferraris make our list. Ford's Mays says his favorite is the California LWB (long wheelbase), built from 1958-1960, one of which sold for a staggering $11.3 million dollars at a Gooding auction in August 2012. No slouch either is the SWB (short wheelbase—pictured here), which replaced the LWB in 1960—one of which brought more than $8 million at an RM Auction in January. Chrysler's Gilles is won over by the SWB's "incredible proportions with its long hood… and a wonderful tapering belt line that marries beautifully into the rear fender." BMW's Van Hooydonk's choice is the NART Spider, "one of the prettiest of all open-top Ferraris." Only 10 were made and American Ferrari dealer Luigi Chinetti personally asked Enzo Ferrari for the thumbs up to build the car for his North American Racing Team (NART). The NART also had a starring role in the original "The Thomas Crown Affair" with Steve McQueen (no stranger to fast cars) and Faye Dunaway. For all these Italian beauties, we simply say: Grazie!

Porsche Convertibles

Image source: 1953-1954 Porsche 550 | Porsche Cars North America

Selected by: Gilles, Mays, van Hooydonk
Porsche 356
Original MSRP: $3,215 (1956 356A Speedster model)
Average current value: $183,015 (1956 356A Speedster model)

Porsche Spyder 550
Original MSRP: N/A
Average current value: $3,685,000 (1955 model sold at Gooding & Co. 2012 auction)

Introduced in 1948, the 356 was actually Porsche's first production car and was available in coupe, cabriolet (aka convertible) and highly collectible "Speedster" versions. Mays and Gilles use words and phrases like "stunning,""purity in design" and "simplicity" to describe it. Inspired by the 356, the 550 (pictured here) was a pure racing machine. Van Hooydonk is a 550 fan, noting it's a "true rebel: always open to the elements …" And "rebel" is an appropriate word because the Porsche 550 is the car that "Rebel Without a Cause" star James Dean tragically crashed and died in in 1955.

Chevrolet Corvette

Image source: General Motors

Selected by: Gilles, Welburn
Original MSRP: $3,465 (1957 model)
Average current value: $61,492 (1957 model with 270 hp engine)

It's probably no surprise that the name "Corvette" appears on our list of best convertible designs of all-time. The real debate could be over which Corvette model years possess the best design elements. Both Gilles and GM's Welburn picked 1950s era 'Vettes. Gilles likes the 1955 for its "unforgettable sculpture and great balance of muscular beauty." These are pretty rare, too: Only 700 were made. Welburn checks the Corvette box with the 1957 (pictured here). He notes that it "was a very pure design statement for the brand." Also of note, 1957 was the first year that fuel injection was an option.

Shelby Cobra

Image Source: Shelby American, Inc.

Selected by: de Silva, Gilles
Original MSRP: $7,495 (1965 model)
Average current value: $1,401,450 (1965 427 Competition model)

When you think "Shelby," the first word that likely comes to mind is "speed." Legendary American race car driver Carroll Shelby teamed up with Britain's AC Cars in 1962 to create Cobra. And did they ever go, go, go. After a few years with a smaller engine, Shelby dropped in a Ford 427 rated at well over 400 horsepower, solidifying the brute power of these mighty machines. Gilles points to the "roadster shape [that] has changed lives and hearts forever. It has remained a benchmark in performance and beauty for nearly five decades." De Silva adds: "the American sports car by excellence—a spider that is all muscles!" NBC "Tonight Show" host (and noted car collector) Jay Leno owns a Cobra 427 replica. Shelby died in 2012, but his company Caroll Shelby International (CSBI) lives on.

Mercedes-Benz "Pagoda"

Image source: Mercedes-Benz

Selected by: Mays, van Hooydonk
Original MSRP: $6,897 (1968 280SL model)
Average current value: $54,452 (1970 280SL model)

Officially, this roadster is known as the Mercedes-Benz W113. And there were three models: the 230SL (1963-1967), the 250SL (1966-1968) and the 280SL (1967-1971—pictured here). So with all of these letters and numbers, how did this Benz (affectionately) come to be known as the Pagoda? Check out the shape of its (optional) concave roof, which reminded people of curved Far East temples. Van Hooydonk calls the car "beautifully balanced and detailed." Ford's Mays singles out the 1966 250SL as his favorite of the three models.

Fiat 124 Sport Spider

Image source: Fiat S.p.A.

Selected by: de Silva, van Hooydonk
Original MSRP: $3,181 (1968 model)
Average current value: $8,410 (1968 model)

Another Italian beauty makes our list. This had a remarkable 18-year run (beginning in 1966), selling 120,000 in the United States (in one form or another), according to Hemmings. Just like the Alfa Romeo that made our list, the 124 was De Silva says the Fiat "took to a higher level the image of the Italian spiders. On top it was very sporty." Van Hooydonk takes his praise ever further, calling it a "classic" and "could have been a Ferrari, in my view." Talk about the ultimate compliment!

Mazda MX-5 Miata

Image Source: Mazda Motor of America, Inc.

Selected by: de Silva, Gilles
Original MSRP: $17,895 (1995 model)
Average current value: $4,327 (1995 model)

It's no secret that the Miata can trace its roots back to cars like the Alfa Romeo Spider and Fiat 124 Spider. First introduced in 1989 (and now in its third generation), this roadster has been smash success. In fact, it's the "best selling two-seater sports car" of all-time, certified by Guinness World Records. De Silva notes that the Miata "became a classic despite being very compact, which is not easy. … The concept evolved so well all along an already long life." Gilles gets right to the point adding, "simplicity and purity at its best."

Aston Martin DB9 Volante

Image source: Aston Martin

Selected by: Gilles, Mays (Editor's Note: Mays helped design this car)
Original MSRP: $168,000 (2004 model)
Average current value: $68,400 (2004 model— "average retail")

Launched in 2004 but with a long lineage, the Volante is a real looker. Packed with a V-12 engine, supple leather and plenty of real wood the car screams British luxury. And this Aston has a license to thrill. You might have heard of a guy who goes by the name of Bond, James Bond. Aston Martins are his ride of choice (though the DB9 Volante hasn't been featured in any 007 films, yet.) Mays' view is that the Volante is"very elegant and perfectly proportioned from every angle" while Gilles gushes that "this Brit is simply stunning... and will be special for years to come." Fun fact: Austin Powers (you know, the Mike Myers character who parodies James Bond) drives a Jaguar E-type. Groovy, baby!

Don't drive off yet ... There's more!

Chris Gramly | E+ | Getty Images

There are so many great convertible designs that we couldn't fit them into just one slideshow. Check out each designer's full list of picks below and be sure to click over to our classic car value showdown—sexy curves vs. pure muscle— to learn how design affects pricing.

Walter de Silva
Full List

Ralph Gilles
Full List

J Mays
Full List

Adrian van Hooydonk
Full List

Ed Welburn
Full List