This covering was originally designed to give the appearance of a convertible to models with a fixed roof, but eventually it evolved into a styling statement in its own right. Vinyl roofs were most popular in the American market, and they are considered one of the period hallmarks of 1970s Detroit cars. Vinyl roofs were also very popular on European- (especially UK-) and Japanese-built cars during the 1970s, and tended to be applied to sporting or luxury trim versions of standard saloon (sedan) models
The first use of this technique goes back to the 1920s, when leather, canvas and vinyl were sometimes used along with landau bars, to give a fairly accurate reproduction of a horse-drawn carriage's movable top. An early example of this was the 1928 - 1929 Ford Model "A" Special Coupe, that featured a roof completely covered with a vinyl-like material. This Model "A" Special Coupe's vinyl roof had two exposed seams on the back corners, with a lateral seam on the top covered with a narrow trim strip; landau bars were not provided on this model. The technique fell out of favor in the 1930s and 1940s, when smoother, "envelope" bodies began to be fashionable; for these designs, the look of the modern, integrated metal roof was important.
Lincoln used the convertible look on some of its Cosmopolitan coupes in the 1950s, as did the Kaiser firm on its Manhattan sedans, although the material was still canvas. In the very late-1950s, Chrysler's Imperial made a limited use of true vinyl on some models. Probably the first modern vinyl roof as it would later be accepted, though, was the 1956 Cadillac Eldorado Seville that came standard with a roof covered in an early vinyl material called "Vicodec" with two parallel seams running the length of the roof. Ford followed a few years later with a vinyl roof option on the 1962 Ford Thunderbird, a car which also re-introduced landau bars as a styling touch. The vinyl covering proved popular, and some form of vinyl trim would be seen on Thunderbird roofs for the next two decades.
Other manufacturers noticed immediately that the new look could be profitable – it did not cost very much to add, but many buyers willingly paid a premium for it. Vinyl appeared on some coupe models in GM's 1962 full-size line. Chrysler made a vinyl roof available on the Dodge Dart. Ford soon offered it on the first Mustang as well. By mid-decade, four-doors as well as coupes could be topped with a number of colorful vinyls.
From that point on, vinyl proliferated rapidly and became very common in most car classes by the late-1960s, even appearing on some station wagons. Vinyls were produced that mimicked other materials such as (ironically) canvas, and even alligator or snake hide. Chrysler briefly produced some patterns, with paisley or floral designs – this was called the "Mod Top" option. The Mercury Cougar briefly offered a houndstooth pattern. There was even an aftermarket spray-on product that claimed to add that factory vinyl look. By 1972, even the humble Ford Pinto sported a vinyl roof option, and a Ford sales brochure of the time conceded that vinyl was mostly for looks.
At about that same time, the modern opera window first appeared, and it went so well with a vinyl surround that the two together became emblematic of American body design in the 1970s. During this period, vinyl with padding under it was sometimes used, allowing the top to somewhat mimic the feel as well as the look of a genuine convertible.
European and Japanese manufacturers were not immune to this trend. Chrysler used it on upmarket models of its Hunter and Avenger saloons; Ford had vinyl roofs on Escorts, Cortinas, Taunuses, and Granadas into the early 1980s. British Leyland had vinyl roofs on the last Wolseley and top-end Princess models, and optional for all other models. Toyota adopted vinyl roofs for its Corona sedans in the mid-1970s, and they could be found on Nissan Laurels and Cedrics.
Vinyl continued to appear in many car lines through the 1980s, but the coming of the "aero look," first introduced to the U.S. market by the 1983 Thunderbird, tended to militate against both opera windows and vinyl roofs, as their more formal style did not go well with the sleek profile designers were beginning to emphasize. During this final phase, canvas-look tops, often called cabriolet roofs, with simulated convertible top bows under the fabric, gained some popularity. The availability of all vinyl styles dwindled in the 1990s, until the 2002 Lincoln Continental offered one of the last factory applied versions.
Hearse and limousine bodies almost universally still have vinyl tops. Not only are they part of the expected style of those vehicles, but they have a practical advantage in covering up the welded body seams that result when standard sedans are stretched to greater length. Aftermarket customizers also continue to install vinyl roofs of various types. These are usually seen on Cadillacs and Lincolns, but can be fitted to virtually any kind of car.
Four styles of vinyl roof evolved during the 1960s and 1970s, with a couple of variants:
- Full - this is the most commonly seen style, in which the vinyl simply covers the whole top of the car, including the C pillars. The windshield pillars may or may not be covered. If a center sedan pillar exists, it is usually not covered, but exceptions to this rule were made. This is the type that was almost always used on four-door models.
- Halo - this type is similar to the above, but the vinyl stops just short of the tops of the side windows and windshield, allowing a "halo" of painted sheet metal to appear between the vinyl and the glass area.
- Canopy - in this style, the vinyl covering is applied only to the front half or two thirds of the roof, usually ending at the trailing edge of the rear side windows. The windshield pillars are very commonly covered in this style, but the C pillars never are.
- Landau - this is almost the opposite of the canopy, as the vinyl covers the rear quarter or third of the roof, including the C pillars, coming as far forward as the trailing edge of either the rear or front side window. In common parlance, this was often called the "half roof," although logically that term could apply to the canopy as well.
The above styles were all used by more than one manufacturer. Two others were unique to one company or nearly so:
- Ford in the late 1970s installed both the "landau and canopy" styles on one vehicle. On vinyl-equipped 1977-79 Thunderbirds, two separate vinyl areas existed, one starting at the base of the windshield pillars and extending back to the trailing edge of the front side windows, and another starting at the base of the rear window and coming forward as far as the leading edge of the rear side window. These were separated by a targa band of sheet metal in the middle of the roof, which swept down at the sides to form a thick sedan-like pillar on the sides. The opera window was mounted in this pillar and was surrounded by sheet metal, not touching either vinyl area. Three pieces of glass were mounted on each side of these cars; the Fairmont Futura had a very similar style, differing only in not using the center opera window. A comparable two-piece roof covering was available on the AMC Pacer that emphasized the bump in the roof that accommodated the roll bar over the passenger compartment.
- Chrysler had a design for its large and intermediate coupes in the mid to late 70s that was often called "up and over." These cars all had opera windows, and the vinyl extended to only a couple of inches behind the opera window rather than all the way to the rear window as with a full vinyl treatment. The line of the vinyl then turned upward to run over the top of the car, leaving a margin of sheet metal almost like a roll bar sticking up at the very back of the roof. No one else used this style.
See also: Car body styles
Issues for collectors
Vinyl roofs are found on many cars built from the 1960s to 1980s. Vinyl surfaces are not as durable as sheet metal and are prone to sun damage, so can fade, crack, or become ragged. The trim around the top can trap moisture in and cause rust, and this can percolate under the vinyl, where rusting even to the point of metal perforation can occur. The only exceptions would likely be cars from a dry climate which were well maintained and kept garaged. Replacement of a vinyl top can be costly, even leaving aside repair of any rust damage. For unusual vinyl grains and patterns, an exact replacement could be impossible to find.
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