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What is a Cabriolet?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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A cabriolet is a type of lightweight, two-wheeled carriage that is drawn by one or more horses, depending on the design. The term "cabriolet" also was adopted to describe a make of 20th-century automobile that was designed to be lightweight and easy to drive. A true horse-drawn cabriolet is not a terribly uncommon sight in areas with large horse populations, because the carriage handles well, looks elegant and is suitable for a wide range of weather conditions. Some carriage operators use restored Victorian cabriolets for a touch of authenticity.

This term comes from the French word cabrioler, which means “to prance" or "to caper," which is a reference to the way the carriage lightly skim across the ground. The basic groundwork for the cabriolet was laid in the late 1700s. At that time, lightweight carriages for hire in urban areas became a growing necessity because fewer people had horses.

Its Basic Design

The classic cabriolet design includes a forward-facing seat set on two wheels. In most cases, a box or side step is provided for the driver, although in some cases, a cabriolet could be driven by someone seated in the carriage. It is intended to accommodate two people comfortably and can be pulled by a single horse, although a pair might be used to make a cabriolet look more showy. A collapsible hood completes the design, allowing passengers to enjoy nice weather or to shelter themselves from rain and cold.

Vehicles For Hire

This design was perfected in France in the early 1800s to address the need for a lightweight carriage that could easily navigate crowded streets. Many livery stables took up the design because people renting a horse and carriage could easily handle a cabriolet. Cabriolets also were used as hired vehicles like taxis. In fact, the term “cab” for a taxi is a shortening of “cabriolet,” which shows how ubiquitous this carriage was as a for-hire vehicle.

Durable and Easy to Handle

The basic design of the two-wheeled carriage also included a sound suspension that could handle reasonably rough roads. Most builders created lightweight, very basic cabriolets that were not terribly fancy or formal, although the design could be made more fancy for upper-class drivers. Many people learned to drive a horse using a cabriolet, because the carriages handled very well and were often pulled by steady, patient horses that were accustomed to a wide range of drivers.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By alterm — On Jan 20, 2008

I bought a 2001 VW Cabriolet, but it didn't have an owner's manual. Now, I am having a problem with the radio: it says "SAFE," but won't play music either radio, tape or CD. What happened?


Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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