Topless in the Tropics


It was 1972, and I had all my stuff, what there was of it, in the back of the smallest U-Haul truck I could find—and there was still plenty of room left over, even bare spots where the floor showed through. But that was OK, because the truck was towing a car, too, and there were the southern Appalachians to cross on the way to South Florida. The road trip from Central Illinois to Coconut Grove took (if I remember correctly) three days, and somewhere in there I managed to rip the front bumper off the car—I discovered this when I noticed my little red Sunbeam Alpine in the mirror. It was trying to swing out and pass me. Oops.


That Sunbeam, underpowered and on its last legs, with a leaky top that didn't quite fit right, was more fun than I deserved during my first semester as a graduate student at the University of Miami. When it died, I wasn't surprised, but I never replaced it—for the next eight years, all through graduate school and an extended post-doctoral appointment, I lived down there with a bicycle instead, the ultimate in top-down transportation.


Some 23 years later in Miami, Claire and I rented a convertible—an obscenely yellow Ford Mustang, as I recall—when we were in town for a conference of some kind, and after the conference was over, we drove from Miami to Key West for a week's vacation. The power lines crackled in the salt air, something that you'd miss in an enclosed, air-conditioned sedan. And we had to stay alert for the possibility of pelicans dive-bombing us with unpleasant surprises. But it was just beautiful—the string of little islands stitched together by bridge after bridge was the perfect transition from the city to the village. Despite the sunscreen we slathered on, we were quite baked on arrival at the southern most point in the continental US.


Still, rain showers and sunburn notwithstanding, I think that convertibles are the car of choice for South Florida. So when I learned that we'd be moving there for my new job, well, my all-wheel drive Subaru with the engine block heater and battery warmer, the snow tires and the ski rack, and the high-elevation turbocharger just didn't seem appropriate. Someone in New Mexico would be able to make far better use of it than I. Besides, with its racing suspension and rumbling, free-flow exhaust, the STi just wasn't the thing for the 2200 miles of highway between Santa Fe and Boca Raton.


That raises the question: Is it appropriate for a university associate vice-president to be tooling around in a two-seat roadster?


No, wait. There's a better question: Do I care?


That being rhetorical, a even better question might be: How light can we travel? These little cars don't have what you think of as a big trunk, not even the Honda. The classic roadsters, such as the MGs, often included trunk racks that could carry an extra suitcase, but that's just not kosher any more—the aerodynamics of high-speed motoring just don't work that way. Pack light and tight, became our motto.


And off we went...