Custom business booms as automakers' convertible offerings dwindle.

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Jeff Moran fired up an electric Sawzall cutting tool not long ago and sheared off the roof of a new Dodge Challenger sedan. Next he’s going to decapitate another car, probably a Cadillac ATS.

At first glance it might seem a crazy idea, but to Moran it’s a growing business. His company, Drop Top Customs, in High Springs, Fla., specializes in extreme automotive makeovers — mainly of turning cars like the Challenger and the ATS into convertibles.

“We did 60, 65 cars last year, and we’ll probably do twice that this year,” Moran says during a break from vehicular surgery. “I think we’re coming into a nice upswing again.”

The rising demand at Drop Top Customs is a stark contrast to the overall convertibles business. Car sales in general are slumping, as Americans flock to roomy models like SUVs that are more suited to family life and active living. And convertible sales are in a tailspin.

Automakers sold just more than 111,000 convertibles in the first 11 months of 2016, according to Edmunds.com, an auto-shopping website. A total for the full year has not yet been compiled. But considering that few convertibles are sold in cold-weather months, the industry is sure to register a steep decline from the 2015 total of almost 134,000.

Fewer than 1 percent of all the new vehicles sold in the U.S. market are convertibles. Back in their heyday, in the 1960s, they made up about 6 percent of the total.

“A lot of people like the idea of a convertible on a sunny day, but for a daily drive, it can be a grind,” says Jessica Caldwell, a senior analyst at Edmunds.com. “They’re just not very practical unless it is your second or third car.”

As sales have declined, automakers have pulled many convertible models, like the Toyota Solara, Pontiac Solstice and Ford Thunderbird, as well as the drop-top versions of the Chrysler Sebring, PT Cruiser, Lexus SC and Mini Cooper. Among those still chugging along: the Ford Mustang, the Chevrolet Camaro and a variety of expensive models from European luxury brands.

Topless driving, with the sun shining in, remains a powerful allure for some people, though, even as convertibles lose their broader appeal. That is where businesses like Drop Top Customs have stepped in.

After the factory-built roofs are buzzed off, Moran and his crew install convertible tops of his own design.

He also welds additional steel supports to the underbody, to make up for the strength and stiffness that the rigid roof normally provides.

Doors, windows, seat belts and other parts are modified, too. He charges $18,000, and has a backlog of orders.

Last year, Dale Laur, a nurse anesthetist from North Branch, Mich., ordered a 2016 Dodge Challenger with a Hemi V-8 engine and a purple finish — “Plum Crazy,” it’s called. He had the car shipped directly from the factory to Drop Top Customs in High Springs, 75 miles southwest of Jacksonville.

“I just love how it feels in a convertible,” Laur said. “It’s freedom, wind in your hair.”

After the transformation was complete, Laur flew down to Florida, picked up the car and headed north.

On the road and at most every stop, he said, people stared and took pictures of the car. While still on the road, he learned one of the photos had found its way onto a Detroit muscle car blog.

“The reactions were unbelievable because most people had never seen a Challenger convertible before,” he said. “We’d be riding along the freeway and people were pulling up next to us, waving and taking pictures, thumbs up.”

Ken Kelly, a classic car dealer from Texas, had Drop Top Customs modify a 2013 Challenger SRT8, and people would come up and offer to buy the car. He sold it after about a year, making enough to cover all his costs and then some. He recently bought a Hellcat Challenger, which features a huge 707-horsepower Hemi engine, and has sent it to Moran, too.

“I’m pretty sure it will be the only Hellcat Challenger convertible in existence,” Kelly said. He figures he’ll drive it for a bit and then sell it for a profit.
It takes about two to three weeks to change a sedan into a convertible. Before any cutting begins, the car is stripped of its hood, body panels, seats and interior. Next, steel supports, mainly square tubing, are welded to the underbody and behind the wheels. All told, about 200 pounds of steel are added to the car.

Ed Pobur, general manager of a Cadillac dealership in Novi, Mich., thinks there’s still potential for convertible sales. The ATS that Moran will cut into soon is one of two Pobur sent to Drop Top Customs to be transformed, and he’s eager to have them in his showroom as spring arrives.

“We’re going to display them on the corner in front of the dealership. We’ll put the top down to show it off,” he said. “And hopefully we’ll be ordering a bunch more.”