I should dislike the Volkswagen T-Roc Cabriolet. It should be lumped in with that horrendous Murano thing and the topless Evoque as a prime example of when the car industry loses its marbles – and taste.
But I don’t dislike it. Instead, I woke at 3am thinking positive things about the Volkswagen T-Roc Cabriolet. Because who doesn’t wake up in the small hours thinking about a convertible SUV?
Here’s the thing. The T-Roc Cabriolet shares much in common with the classic Volkswagen Golf Cabriolet, so it might not be the horror story it would first appear. Allow me to explain.
Forty years ago, the convertible faced an uncertain future. In America, where customers were suing manufacturers for failing to protect them in the event of an accident, lowering the roof seemed destined for the high jump.
If steel roofs weren’t strong enough to provide protection in rollover accidents, what hope the convertible of making it into the 1980s?
As a spokesperson for Volkswagen’s legal department said at the time: “In the U.S., we have been forced to the realisation that many American automotive experts feel that the coming years will see the possibility of a general ban on convertibles.
“Supposedly, some manufacturers have put plans for new convertibles on hold until regulations have been clarified. Above all, the implications of so-called product or manufacturer liability play a significant role in these matters.”
For Volkswagen, this presented a problem. Karmann – the huge German coachbuilder – had been pushing for a convertible version of the Golf since 1976, but Volkswagen was reluctant to take the plunge.
The Beetle convertible still sold in strong numbers, particularly in the U.S., where a large proportion of the cars were exported. But with the backdrop of tougher safety standards and increasingly stringent emissions regulations, the Beetle’s future was in doubt.
This was a potential issue for Karmann. If the Beetle was to die, the firm would be left relying on the production of the Volkswagen Scirocco to support its business. Boss Wilhelm Karmann needed to convince Volkswagen that a roof-less Golf was a viable proposition.
Fortunately for Karmann, Volkswagen’s own research showed that there wouldn’t be a blanket ban on convertibles in the U.S., which paved the way for a new project. It was widely known that production of the Beetle convertible would end – it was simply a matter of when.
The last drop-top Beetle rolled off the Karmann assembly line in January 1980. Car number 331,847 set a world record for the production of an open passenger car. A would-be replacement had a tough act to follow.
Volkswagen and Karmann worked together on a car that would meet all requirements. Creating a Golf convertible presented a tougher challenge than the Beetle, not least because the entire rear section would require a complete rebuild.
A roll bar was a necessity – something that was absent from the original Golf convertible prototype of 1976. A Porsche-style ‘Targa’ roof was subsequently rejected.
Although Karmann was reluctant at first, it soon became clear that a roll bar would be the only means of delivering effective rollover protection. What was to become a familiar feature of convertible cars throughout the 1980s was unheard of outside of motorsport. The new Golf convertible was breaking new ground as it lowered its roof.
There were other benefits beyond rollover protection. The roll bar meant that the seat belts could be positioned high enough to deliver effective safety, while the side windows could be guided by the bar. It also provided support for the folding roof and the mounting of a ski rack. How very lifestyle.
Few companies could deliver a folding roof as effectively as Karmann. The multilayer design insulated occupants against the cold in the winter and protection from heat in the summer. Heated safety glass at the rear delivered an unobstructed rear-view, whatever the weather.
Prototypes were sent to Wolfsburg for evaluation before the first Volkswagen Golf Cabriolet rolled off the Karmann assembly line in Osnabrück on 1 September 1978. Production of the hand-built cars was running at three a day, with 95 finished before the end of the year.
Everything was set for the Volkswagen Golf Cabriolet premiere at the 1979 Geneva Motor Show. It was the first time a mass-produced convertible with a roll bar had been seen in public, with some journalists dubbing it the ‘strawberry basket’.
It was a fantastic debut, with journalists, the public and even rival manufacturers joined-up in their appreciation of the new car.
“This car will be an absolute success. You can count on it. And for many years,” proclaimed Werner Breitschwerdt, vice president of research and development at Mercedes-Benz.
None other than Bob Lutz, Ford of Europe’s president, was a fan of the Golf Cabriolet. It wouldn’t be long before Ford was building a rival convertible of its own, with Karmann tasked with lowering the roof of the Escort.
The rest is history. Production of the original Golf Cabriolet outlived the Mk1 Golf, with sales continuing until 1993. By this time, 388,522 units had been produced, making it the most successful convertible of its time.
Forty years after the Golf Cabriolet made its debut in Geneva, production of the T-Roc Cabriolet is underway in Osnabrück. The name above the door might be different – Karmann filed for bankruptcy in April 2009 – but it’s a fitting location for the production of what is now Volkswagen’s only convertible.
It is, if you like, the Volkswagen Golf Cabriolet for a new generation. The Golf hatchback was to the saloon car what the modern SUV is to the family hatchback and estate. Both are examples of cars that established a new world order.
The compact SUV is the modern equivalent of the family hatchback of 40 years ago. It’s the bodystyle that’s in demand – the car your non-car friends want to buy. Building a convertible version of a car in the most popular segment makes just as much sense today as the Golf Cabriolet did 40 years ago.
As much as it pains to be to say it, we need to stop looking at crossovers and SUVs as compromised outsiders, and start accepting them as the blueprint of the modern motor car. You may not want one, but you’ll know at least a dozen people who do. If people keep buying them, the manufacturers will continue to build them.
The roll bar might have been consigned to the history books – the T-Roc Cabriolet features a reinforced windscreen and a rollover system hidden behind the rear seats – but there’s a sense that this new Volkswagen convertible is rolling back the years.
Volkswagen says it takes nine seconds to open the roof in a T-Roc Cabriolet, which is precisely eight seconds longer than the time it took me to decide that I’d prefer the Golf. But the T-Roc Cabrio isn’t aimed at me, and I suspect it’s not for you either.
In the meantime, I’m going back to bed.
Source material: The Karmann Story by Dieter Knust