From the early days through today
- From A to F: great variety of Cabriolet versions in the first half of the 20th century
- Open-top cars of high refinement have always been a part of the model portfolio
The cabriolet celebrates the pleasure of driving perhaps more than any other body shape. Travelling with the top down and the wind swirling around the passengers is locomotion at its freest, an elegant and exclusive privilege. At least this is how people see it since the 1920s. Prior to that, open bodies dominated the entire automotive landscape.
The cabriolet is not as racy as the related sports car, the roadster, but more open and airy than the convertible saloon, whose door frames extend to the roof line. Completely open behind the windscreen and featuring retractable side windows and a passenger compartment that can be protected against the elements by a sturdy folding top, the body variant “cabriolet” has secured itself a prominent place in the family tree of car evolution.
This branch of the motor vehicle family repeatedly has brought forth exceptional cars at Mercedes-Benz: from the early cabriolets of the 1920s through the 170 V Cabriolet B (W 136 series) of 1936 to the finely chiselled fabric-top Cabriolet of the E-Class that went on sale at the end of March 2010.
Like many other body designs, the cabriolet concept harks back to the coach age: a “cabriolet” was a light, open carriage drawn by two horses. This vehicle was reserved mainly for pleasure trips in fine weather. And this is where its name comes from: in French the verb cabrioler means “jumping for joy,” “cutting capers.” But driving with an open top for a guaranteed good mood required no special body shape yet in the early years of the automobile because open automobiles were characteristic of the period between 1886 and 1920.
When closed bodies became established in the first third of the 20th century, in addition to the saloon and coupé with their hard bodies coachbuilders also offered the landaulet – and the cabriolet, whose top could be completely opened. Characteristic of this car type even in the 1920s was a sporty and elegant silhouette, and the possibility of opening the car entirely above the door upper edges. With the top closed, from the side the cabriolet looked like the coupé. And today most cabriolets are based on coupé bodies.
Bridge between touring car and saloon
The automobile, that technical marvel, found to its modern form by 1900, marking the end of the epoch of designs whose appearance even Carl Benz, in 1925, compared with a “coach cut short at the front:” the motor vehicle grew in length, its centre of gravity lowered. As the speed rose, customers called for protection against wind and weather. More protection than that afforded by the soft coach tops of the first automobiles.
The saloon and coupé body shapes, as well as the landaulet, now took their place alongside touring car and phaeton. From the 1920s onward the cabriolet functioned as a bridge between these two interpretations of the automobile: its top could be opened just as wide as that of a touring car. However, its material and the supporting structure were designed so strongly that when the top was up the ride comfort compared with that of a saloon.
Customers of the period could choose from a number of cabriolet models. Vehicle manufacturers and coachbuilders had not yet made acquaintance with the problem that exists nowadays of reinforcing the floor structure for the sake of the body’s rigidity: whereas today’s integral body constructions demand a complex special construction for the cabriolet, up to the Second World War chassis-cum-frames on which, according to taste, different bodies could be mounted were customary. On the other hand, in several model series of Mercedes-Benz the frame sections varied in stability depending on the body to be mounted.
A special form and not a cabriolet in the proper sense is the touring car with add-on top available in the first half of the 1920s from Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft: the six-seater touring car got a superstructure, much like today’s hardtop, that afforded protection from the weather as good as that in a Pullman saloon.
From A to F: the cabriolet alphabet
Cabriolets soon were available in many different models. To bring some transparency into this variety, at Daimler-Benz cabriolets were classified into six common types designated by the letters A to F. The lined, all-weather, fabric folding top stabilised by a linkage is common to all of them; the top is heavier-duty in versions D to F than on models A to C. Into the 1950s it was also customary to support the mechanism of the tops of Mercedes-Benz cabriolets with an externally visible so-called landau linkage.
- Cabriolet A is a two-door, usually two-seater car. Its top reaches to the doors.
- Cabriolet B likewise has two doors, but four seats and side windows for the rear passengers.
- Cabriolet C is similar to Cabriolet B in the layout of its doors and seats, but the rear side windows are missing.
- Cabriolet D is a four-door with four or five seats and a heavier top.
- The very rare Cabriolet E has six seats and the heavier top. Cabriolet F is similar to model E, but additionally has side windows behind the rear doors. Both have four doors.
Seldom does a single model series fully cover the broad range of possible versions, at least not in series production. For instance, the six-seater variants E and F automatically are reserved for the big, prestigious cars. Moreover, the manufacturer strived to keep the number of variants for cars with production bodies manageable. As custom-built products from the factory, and above all as individual bodies fashioned by independent manufacturers, for example Balzer, Castagna, D’Jeteren & Frères, Farina, Geissberger, Hibbard & Darrin, Neuss, Papler, Saoutchik, Tschau and Van den Plas, numerous extraordinary cabriolets were produced as one-offs well into the 1950s.
Open tops carried over into the merger
Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft was already offering the 1924 Mercedes models 15/70/100 hp and 24/100/140 hp as four-seater cabriolets and open touring cars. These cabriolet models continued to be carried as Mercedes-Benz models following the merger with Benz & Cie. to form Daimler-Benz AG in 1926. With their steeply angled windscreens they still lacked the charm of elegant sportiness; only the voluminous folds of the soft top at the rear distinguished them from the coarser touring cars.
However, the cabriolet versions of the 8/38 hp model (W 02) already developed a design idiom of their own. Especially the two-seater Cabriolet A scored high with smart sportiness combined with practicality, that is to say good weather protection. While this model also was available with two doors and four seats, the 12/55 hp model (W 03) and its direct successors were already offered by Mercedes-Benz with three different body styles as cabriolet ex factory. From the more staid but imposing four-door to the comparatively racy two-seater with tightly tailored top, this family of models provided a preview of the whole range of variants with which the cabriolet theme would be interpreted in the years to come.
The legendary models S, SS and SSK are touring sports cars. Mercedes-Benz itself offered the S and SS as a two-door, four-seater Sport-Cabriolet from 1926 to 1934. Were it not for the breathtakingly long bonnet that set this car apart from its contemporaries, from a matter-of-fact standpoint one could speak of a Cabriolet C of this series designed for racing and sporty driving. As of 1928, though, anyone wishing to have a Cabriolet body fitted to the SSK had to turn to one of the fine shops specialising in such coachwork: the Mercedes-Benz model list contained no SSK Cabriolet. Models 15/70/100, 24/100/140 and the K covered the segment of open touring cars.
Cabriolets in all sizes
In the years up to the Second World War, Mercedes-Benz offered cabriolets in practically all model series. The Stuttgart 200 was available in versions A, B and C; the Stuttgart 260, additionally as a Cabriolet D. The Mannheim model could be had as a Cabriolet C and D; the two-seater Cabriolet A with its particularly sporty design was offered as a “Sport-Cabriolet.” In his brand history, Mercedes-Benz chronicler Werner Oswald emphasises the great importance of the dynamic aesthetics of these vehicles versus the actual performance: “These cars were not at all particularly fast or powerful, and getting in when the top was closed called for acrobatic agility. But the lines were so stunningly beautiful that many people were willing to dispense with other things for their sake.”
Even the model 770 “Grand Mercedes” (W 07), prestige cars were available as Cabriolet B, C, D and F; in addition, there were special bodies like the two-seater Cabriolet from Auer. In the W 150 series, the second version of the 770, from 1938 on Mercedes-Benz limited its offer to the absolute prestige variants in the shape of Cabriolet D and F. At a list price of 47,500 Reichsmark the latter was the most expensive version of the W 150. Only a single specimen of a Cabriolet B of series W 150 is known.
Diesel cars with fresh air supply
But the cabriolets from Mercedes-Benz differed not only as to the bodies in the 1930s. Distinctions were made between the cars with the folding tops under the bonnet as well. Since adopting the new body of the Mercedes-Benz 230 in 1937, model 260 D (W 138) was available not only as Saloon and Pullman-Landaulet, but as Cabriolet B and Cabriolet D too.
The 380 model gives an impression of how the body versions were distributed within a model series: from 1932 to 1934, 54 Cabriolet B, 44 Cabriolet C and 16 Cabriolet A were bodied by Mercedes-Benz in Sindelfingen. This compares with only eleven open touring cars, seven roadsters and six saloons of the same model.