“The current exhibit at the Audrain Automobile Museum on Bellevue Avenue, tells the history of convertibles from 1930 to the modern day. From the museum’s 1930 Pierce-Arrow to its 2013 Bugatti Veyron, the evolution is apparent. A sign accompanying the collection of classic convertibles sets the scene:”
NEWPORT — From the curatorial point of view, the goal of any museum exhibit is to accumulate and display a collection of objects to tell a story.
“Drop Dead Drop Tops,” the current exhibit at the Audrain Automobile Museum on Bellevue Avenue, tells the history of convertibles from 1930 to the modern day.
From the museum’s 1930 Pierce-Arrow to its 2013 Bugatti Veyron, the evolution is apparent. A sign accompanying the collection of classic convertibles sets the scene:
“Cruising with the top down is an American summer tradition. Whether it’s enjoying a lazy drive on Ocean Avenue or exploring Little Compton, warm weather and convertibles go together like ice tea and lemonade.”
The story starts with the 1930 Pierce-Arrow Model A, the make’s most expensive and luxurious model. The red two-seater with two tires mounted on each side, topped by attached mirrors, was produced when competition between luxury automakers was at its peak.
The vehicle is displayed alongside a 1936 Auburn Boattail Speedster, an iconic car produced during the Great Depression. The vehicle doesn’t need to be driven to be valued. Its design allows it to stand like a sculpture.
David de Muzio, the museum’s executive director, said he’s sure both cars could have been seen in Newport back in the day.
“They’re cars you drive and buy to enjoy,” he said. “You’re meant to be seen in them.”
Three poster-size, 1935 magazine advertisements for the Speedster are displayed at the museum. One, from Esquire magazine, features a group of women admiring the car, which is parked with a man waving at them in the background. Another ad from Fortune magazine shows the women posing in a circle around the car.
“When others honk raucously and race past, you are not disturbed if you sit behind the wheel of the new Supercharged Auburn,” reads the accompanying text.
The cars represent the culture of consumerism and luxury at the time. But the heyday of convertibles was post-World War II, in the 1950s and 1960s, when they made up about 6 percent of total car sales. Today, less than 2 percent of motor vehicles on the road are convertibles.
As the 1950s brought the growth of suburbs and freeways, automobiles became a necessity for many Americans. The 1959 Nash Metropolitan convertible displayed at the museum, for example, was marketed as a personal car for suburban women to drive while conducting their errands. The car’s small size and its blue-and-white paint job make it appear almost cartoon-like today.
As the years passed, convertibles became faster, more aerodynamic and slicker. Their roofs became more practical and less likely to leak and malfunction.
A yellow 2013 Ferrari 458 Spyder, visible through the museum’s windows, features an aluminum retractable hardtop that weighs less than a soft roof and can be opened in 14 seconds. De Muzio said he believes the car will serve as the model for future convertibles.
That Ferrari is displayed next to a 2013 Bugatti Veyron, which once set a record for the fastest speed by a convertible at 248 mph, de Muzio said.
The cars developed in America during the 1930s, when there were more than 100 manufacturers in the U.S., offered more choices with more models before all the American manufacturers were consolidated into three companies, he said.
“This is a good spring exhibition,” de Muzio said. “There has to be a car that anyone can relate to here.”
Saturday was the first day the exhibit was open to the public. It will be displayed through mid-June.
The next exhibit, which will be the museum’s eighth, is planned to open in July. It will highlight the fastest cars in the museum’s collection of 200, de Muzio said.