I remember the day I became a sports car nut. A man in my neighborhood owned a Jaguar XK 120. It was Olde English white with wire wheels and had a red leather interior. My father always drove Chevys. This was about as far a way from a traditional American sedan as it was possible to get. One day, this neighbr took me for a ride in his Jaguar. My head hasn’t really been on straight ever since.
I still remember sitting in the passenger seat. I wasn’t tall enough to see out the windshield, but the top was down, the sun was warm, and there were puffy white clouds in the blue sky overhead. I remember the smell of hot oil wafting back from the engine and mixing with the aroma of warm leather. To this day, I can still hear the bark of that straight 6 engine rumbling in my ears. It was as close to a magic carpet ride as I have ever experienced.
When he brought me home, I started gushing to my parents about this incredible convertible. He smiled and said, “This isn’t a convertible, son. This is a roadster.” My father made the mistake of asking what the difference was. “A convertible has a top you occasionally put down when the weather is ideal. A roadster has a top you only put up when the weather is awful,” he said. That made perfect sense to me. I made up my mind that one day I would own a roadster.
Over the years, I have owned several sports cars — all of them roadsters. I started with a rusted out ’56 MGA that I never did get back into road worthy condition. That was followed by a ’74 MGB that stayed in the family for 20 years. It became my daughter’s go to college car. I tweaked and prodded it into as-new condition, then parked it on the sidewalk outside her high school on her graduation day with a big red bow around it. When she finished her valedictory speech, that was her reward. Her classmates were wicked jealous! You could see it in their eyes. They wished they had gotten a sports car for graduation, too.
12 years ago, I latched on to a lightly used ’94 Mazda Miata. It has taken me to Nova Scotia and back and to NASA track days at Watkins Glen, Lime Rock, and Thompson Speedway. In all that time, it has hardly ever been driven with the top up. The car is completely stock except for an Ansa cat-back exhaust system. When I am driving, I don’t look at the speedometer or the tach. I like to listen to the sound of the engine instead.
There is a young man in my neighborhood who helps my wife and me out with chores around the house. He has worked for us nearly 5 years, most recently helping me build a carport. We had some unusually warm days in November. We finished one phase of the construction project early one day and I asked him if he would like a ride in the Miata. He’s a bit of car nut himself, with a used Subaru Legacy turbo that he has modified as part of his training at the local technical college. I didn’t have to ask him twice.
I live on a lake that is about 3 miles long. There is a very twisty two lane country road that goes all the way around. Traffic is usually light and police presence nonexistent. We put the top down and set off to circumnavigate the lake.
They say a good driver never makes his passenger nervous. I started off slowly enough, getting a feel for just how confident my young friend felt with me driving. As we went along, I pushed harder and harder on the throttle, letting the revs climb close to redline. The curves began sliding swiftly astern.
There is one place where the road takes a sharp right turn. As we approached, I jumped hard on the brakes as I shifted down from 4th to 3rd to 2nd, then punched the throttle at the apex. The rear stepped out slightly and I reined it back in with a touch of countersteer. My friend had a grin the size of Jupiter on his face. It was a beautiful day, with puffy white clouds swirling by overhead, just like they were the day I got to ride in that XX 120 years ago.
We got back to my house, switched off, and started to put the top up. “I gotta get a convertible!” my young friend said. “No, you need to get yourself a roadster,” I told him. Then I explained the difference, just as it had been explained to me.
A few weeks later, he sent me a text. He was looking at used Miatas and wanted my advice. I like to think that years from now, long after I have shuffled off this mortal coil, he will be taking another young man, maybe his own son, for a ride down a country lane in a roadster with the top down, the sound of the exhaust tickling their ear drums, and puffy white clouds rushing by overhead.
Some people look forward to the coming age of self driving cars. That may prove to be a wonderful thing, but I am doing my best to pass on the art of driving to the next generation. I look forward to the time when I can teach my own grandkids the difference between a convertible and a roadster. No matter how technologically advanced cars may become, I hope there will always be a place in this world for roadsters!
Photo credit: Jaguars For Sale .com