Skip to main content

Are you looking to splurge on your next car? Maybe you’ve got your eye on that convertible you’ve always wanted. But as you’ve been looking online, you’ve come across a slew of terms — convertible, cabriolet, roadster, speedster, spider, Targa. You’re not quite sure what they all mean. All you’re really sure of is you want to cruise down the highway with your hair blowing in the wind and that for the amount of money you’re ready to plunk down, you don’t want to make a mistake.

Here’s a quick guide on what each word really means.

Convertibles and cabriolets

A 1990 Porsche 964 Carrera 2 Cabriolet sports car on a mountain in South Africa in 2018
1990 Porsche 964 Carrera 2 Cabriolet | Kian Eriksen/Total 911 Magazine/Future via Getty Images

A convertible is a passenger car with a removable roof, in contrast to a coupe, which does not. Convertibles can be categorized as retractable (roofs that can be folded down automatically) or detachable (roofs must be removed manually). They can also be categorized as soft-top (fabricated from cloth, canvas, vinyl, or PVC) or hardtop (made of metal or plastic).

Typically, convertibles are two-door cars, though there have been a few four-doors. Historically, convertibles have been less structurally rigid than coupes, so automakers had to modify aspects of their design so that they could be driven safely. However, today’s convertibles are as safe as non-convertibles.

The word “cabriolet” originally referred to a French horse-drawn carriage with a folding hood. It was subsequently used to describe convertible automobiles. Thus, “cabriolet” and “convertible” can be used interchangeably, Car Buzz reports.

Roadsters, speedsters, and spiders

The term “roadster” was first used in the United States in the 1800s to describe horses good for traveling. By the early 20th century, a roadster had come to describe an open car, typically one seating two. The open two-seat design was common to early race cars. In fact, early race cars usually also sported minimal bodywork (or, in some cases, no bodywork). This kind of car would have a seat mounted on an open chassis, along with a gas tank and spare tires. This body style came to be referred to as a speedster.

By the latter half of the 20th century, roadsters came to be referred to as any sporty two-seat vehicle. Popular consumer models in the 1970s were outfitted as convertibles. The term “roadster” was also used to describe a specific model of racing car, one with its driveshaft and engine offset from the center of the body.

Roadsters are also known as spiders (alternatively spelled “spyders”). According to Gran Turismo, there are two theories about how this name became prominent. Like the term “cabriolet,” the term “spider” stems from the horse-drawn carriage era. Some open carriages had both small bodies and huge wheels with thin spokes. The spokes resembled spiders’ legs, hence the name “spider.”

The second theory involves an Italian automotive writer who, in the 1950s, eyed a roofless Porsche 550 speeder at a New York auto show. In a call back to his colleagues in Italy, he told them the car was called a speedster. However, in Italian, the written form of the word “speedster” is “spider.”

The Targa top

A Porsche 911 Targa 4 GTS convertible in April 2017 in Westerland, Germany
Porsche 911 Targa 4 GTS | Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images For Porsche

You might have also seen the phrase “Targa top” or “Targa” for short. A Targa top is a type of removable roof with a roll bar behind the front seats. The roll bar exists to protect drivers if an accident occurs in which the car overturns. It was a prominent design feature in the ’60s and ’70s when auto manufacturers feared federal authorities would ban the sale of convertibles given safety concerns.

The Targa top was first manufactured on the 1965 Porsche 911 Targa and is still a trademark of the brand. You might find older Targa-top convertibles with retractable glass roofs or motorized roof panels. Newer models include 180-degree rotating roofs, such as the one on the 2010 Renault Wind.

Targa tops are no longer as common as they once were, especially as automotive engineers learned new design and manufacturing techniques to strengthen the structure of convertibles and roadsters, alleviating safety concerns. Still, you can find them on modern Porsche Targa models and a few other cars, such as the Chevrolet Corvette coupe.


Why Your Convertible Sports Car Needs a Roll Bar