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Immediately after moving to Los Angeles, where the sun’s always warm and the air’s always chalky, I hunted down a white and clunky used convertible. That summer, 2018, while waiting for traffic lights to change, I’d prop magazines on the steering wheel to distract myself from the smog filtering into my lungs. Reading an interview with the artist Alex Katz—and certainly flattering myself that we shared an incisive cold eye about the empty and mercenary world, probably with a knowing almost-smile on my face—I saw his description of the critical subject in his enormous new paintings: “You know, the blond girl in the red convertible, laughing with unlimited happiness.”
It’s ineluctably gutting to read that you’re a cliché. However, clichés are the least of my aesthetic concerns with the convertible. Uncompromisingly oriented toward good weather, convertibles are optimism. In the year 2020, optimism is embarrassing and breeziness is politically unfashionable. And one could keep breezy optimism a secret, except the convertible doesn’t keep secrets. It’s so open! A convertible is always going to a beach party, adjusting sunglasses while the world is burning. It doesn’t know what movie it’s in, because it’s only in one movie: sanguine road trip. The convertible thinks anything can be a joy ride with the right attitude. It wears a bikini to the DMV.
When I spoke to Patrick Peña, who selects cars for programs on Netflix and HBO, he crystallized my worst fear about convertibles in a word: “flashy.” The convertible is the braggy car of someone arrogant enough to think they’re a protagonist. Peña usually delivers five or six vehicle options per lead character, and half of these options, “minimum,” are convertibles, because an art director is that likely to pick one. When we spoke, Peña had just pared down the cars on Ryan Murphy’s upcoming nostalgia-feast Hollywood, in which four of the six leads have convertibles. But the convertible has too much wind in its hair to have heard that showiness is a grave sin. The convertible doesn’t know that the air in its face is environmentally compromised.
Don’t be fooled that Hollywood’s convertible infatuation is all about style. “It’s also way easy to shoot video crap if the car doesn’t have a roof,” the musician Mac DeMarco told me. There are fewer obstacles blocking the camera. Last year, DeMarco directed Iggy Pop’s “Sonali” music video, which features a gentleman lizard who drives a boxy Mercedes convertible sprouting plush pink fuzz. If a convertible holds any potency now, it’s got to go in costume. DeMarco borrowed the car from his friend, the soft-surrealist artist Ariana Papademetropoulos. And the pastel fur, he told me, “was like a hundred bathroom carpets from Amazon. Initially I was gonna try and attach thousands of hot dogs to the body, but we couldn’t figure out an easy way to do that. Also no roof means less surface area for the shag carpet.”
As I suspected, the have-it-all, up-or-down flexible premise of a convertible comes with sacrifices. For one thing, the design suffers. Patrick George, the longtime editor in chief of the widely beloved website Jalopnik and now the editorial director of The Drive Media, said that when the top is cut off, the weight distribution falters. He told me flatly, “Car purists don’t like convertibles.” Luckily, I don’t like purists, though I often respect their tastes. George reported that Jalopnik’s readership, an active crew, was often enraged by the convertible: such tacky lines. He blamed their bitterness partially on the weather, guessing they were “in winter hell most of their lives.” A car purist who lives around the corner from me in Los Feliz (my friend James, who briefly studied automotive engineering in college and can identify a car from one shot of one headlight in a movie) said, not unkindly, of my Volkswagen EOS: “It’s an afterthought designwise.” I would have described it as possessing an unavoidable mullet quality.
“They’re a nightmare, an absolute nightmare,” says Peña. The four-door convertibles of yore require two people to lift the tops because they’re so heavy. They leak, they’re impossible to seal, rain seeps in when you’re driving down the highway. “If it’s your main car, they’re a pain.”
Showy and incompetent, the convertible has managed to claim an unenviable spot on the axis of taste. In the 1960s, my friend James tells me, the car was incredibly fashionable. The top down was essentially a ventilation solution, as cars weren’t equipped with air conditioning. At the time, engine fumes would also leak into closed cockpits, mixing around to form a smelly, hot soup. Now we have A.C. units, as well as shame about driving. But the convertible insists that innocent pleasure in driving is still possible. We know it’s not, which is maybe why convertibles lost two of their doors. This way, at least if you take more people in the backseat, they need to contort themselves in ignominy to squeeze in.
Still, new models keep coming. When I asked Joshua Burns, Lexus’ official communications liaison, why 2021 will be the first year in seven that the low-key-swank company releases a new convertible model (the LC 500), he couldn’t resist painting a California picture: “It lends itself to the PCH.” If I had a dollar for every time someone justifies a convertible by saying “PCH” I could buy a tank of gas from a boutique station off the Pacific Coast Highway. But more substantively, he guessed: Maybe it’s that these vrooming engines are about to be doomed. “With changes to regulations, there are not going to be a lot of these vehicles produced in the future.”
Right. The convertible is in a desperate grab for a good time, propelled by some out-of-touch denial. Maybe that’s the stupidest thing about a convertible: Its head is in the sand and your head’s also out the window.
This is the concern that’s weighed on my shoulders since mid-childhood: Is it possible to square happiness with grave mistrust? I found an expert on this theme, who is also the resentful owner of a used white convertible in Los Angeles. Ottessa Moshfegh, the novelist of misanthropic polemics like My Year of Rest and Relaxation, found her BMW convertible after totaling her VW Jetta, “which is a fine car, but oppressive in its practicality.” The convertible, she assessed, is like having a vacation attitude about a commute. “What I think when I see someone driving with a top down, is like: What an asshole. Maybe it’s just my cultural background. She is just enjoying herself? While the rest of us are having this shitty time driving?” Moshfegh estimated she hasn’t lowered her car’s top in a year. The trunk needs to be empty for convertible mode, and hers is full of clothes she’s trying to get the local thrift chain Crossroads to buy. “What else do I think of…” she almost trailed off and then said defiantly: “Tan people.”
As with going tanning, there’s so much willful innocence about a convertible: Don’t you know this thing is so bad for us? Why do you get to just enjoy it? So here is a certain type of American baggage: suspicious of too much happiness, battling the orientation toward easygoing fun at all times, resentful about careless acceptance of careless design. Hapless attention-seeking, unlimited happiness no matter what street you’re on. This is the recipe for stupidity. Those are enough ingredients for the soup, even if you took out one.
But, as with so many stupid things, if you don’t think about it, it feels very good. George, who’s also a convertible owner, said that he “wouldn’t call it a stupid pleasure, I’d call it a simple pleasure. As you move at speed, you get a sense of the world around you. You hear things, smell things. You’re just out feeling it, feeling that rush of wind. And life is terrible all the time, everything is always bad. You gotta pick the few nice, good-feeling things in the world.”
I wanted a convertible for the fast wind and a better view of stuff on the sidewalk: a dog’s logic. It feels honest to admit that I don’t operate differently from the dog leaning out of the Subaru next to me, I just have more purchasing power. In a convertible, you’re definitely a dummy and you’re also a creature of sensation, all skin and sensory feedback. The convertible just wants, over all other things, to be more in the world, to be in more of the world. Even if that means being on parade, often by yourself, which is actually very vulnerable. On its path moving through the road, it’s open, curious, receptive, insatiably open.