What is the difference between a convertible and a cabriolet? The truth is, very little. The words generally have the same meaning but come from rather different routes. Whereas Roadster is a more specific term (generally referring to a small, lightweight two seater sports car) Convertible or Cabriolet is used in more general terms for a car with a removable roof.
Purists may claim that both phrases only refer to cars with four seats that originate from fixed roof cars however there have been so many exceptions to this rule that they seem better suited as general terms.
Cabriolet on the other hand is a French word first used in the 18th century originally referring to a light horse-drawn carriage. A Cabriolet would have two wheels and a folding fabric hood that could be pulled up to protect two occupants (one being the driver) from the weather. It would be pulled by a single horse. The name is thought to derive from cabriole (a French term for a dance-like high kicking classical horse movement) because of the vehicle’s light, bouncing motion.
Since the advent of the automobile the words convertible and cabriolet have become interchangeable. Manufacturers in America have generally kept to using ‘convertible’ while European brands (French in particular) often prefer to use ‘cabriolet’. Contradicting examples can be found in German brands where BMW use Convertible while Audi prefer Cabriolet. Brands such as Jaguar and Mercedes have been known to use both terms for their cars.
Interestingly before the automobile was invented Cabriolet’s were often used as taxis’ for hire and the word was was often shortened to ‘Cab’ thus being the source of the phrase ‘taxi cab’ or ‘hackney cab’. When referring to convertible cars, Cabriolet is more likely to be shortened to ‘Cabrio’.
The word Convertible seems to have more recent origins and is only used for motor cars. The phrase simply means ‘to-convert’ referring to the fact that the car can be converted from a vehicle with a roof to one without. Today both words are widely used with ‘Convertible’ being the more popular by a small margin.
The name Roadster also dates back to the early days of motoring when it was used to describe a stripped-down two-seater style of coachwork mostly used for racing. The phrase became commonly used for simple lightweight sports cars without a fixed roof. Some roadsters have convertible tops while others have no weather protection at all. Roadster is also closely related to the term ‘Speedster’. If there is any difference between the two then a Speedster is more likely to have a smaller cut-down windscreen.