Tuesday, February 16, 2016

A short history of vinyl automotive tops

Why do hearses have padded vinyl tops and landau bars?

Over the weekend, the author caught a few seconds of the video of the hearse that carried the remains of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia as it left a resort in rural Texas enroute to the funeral home. The silver hearse appeared to be a recent vintage Cadillac complete with a matching padded vinyl top and landau bars, which brought a question to mind – why do hearses typically have padded vinyl tops and fake landau bars? This question led the author to research the history of vinyl tops on automobiles.
Drawing of a landau carriage
Stylistically early automobiles were little more than self-propelled versions of horse-drawn carriages, and two styles of carriages featured retractable canvas (or leather) tops- the landau which usually had front and rear facing seats with a fully retractable top, and landaulet, which the canvas top covered only the rear passenger section. Both types of carriage shared one immediately visible feature, the large s-shaped scroll hinge, or landau bar, to support the folding top.

Rear-facing front seats do not work for a passenger car for obvious reasons, so landau style automobiles typically featured two rows of forward facing seats. As a less costly version of the landau, the phaeton body style offered a canvas top with no side curtains or windows.   As automotive production increased, steel replaced wood in the manufacturer of bodies, and fully retractable top automobiles became known as a convertible or landau. The landaulet top style faded from popular use during the 1920’s, although it is still in occasional use on custom-built official state cars used by dignitaries.   
1928 Ford Model A Sport Coupe
In 1928 Ford introduced the Model A which included a top of the line version of the two-door coupe known as the 40- A Sport Coupe which appeared to have a convertible top, but was in fact a fixed coupe with a canvas top and landau bars. Ford also offered its model 60-A, the leatherback Fordor (four-door sedan) beginning in late 1928 which used an artificial leather roof trim that mimicked a landau top but omitted landau bars.

The faux landau tops fell out of favor as cars became more streamlined and flowing in appearance and less like carriages, but meanwhile builders of American automobile hearses began to install non-functional landau bars on the rear of hearses. This is thought to be a nod to early horse-drawn carriages although the author has been unable to find any instances of landaulet tops used on horse-drawn hearses. Over the years the landau bars became as ingrained in the public’s mind as a symbol of a funeral car so most hearse manufacturers still tack on stylized S-shaped scrolls as traditional.
1951 Kaiser Virginian

In 1951, the second series of Kaiser-Frazer cars began to offer padded tops on their Manhattan, Dragon, Virginian sedans, but while Kaiser-Frazer sales were low, the “Big Three” took notice.
1951 Lincoln Lido
Ford’s Lincoln-Mercury Division offered the Cosmopolitan Capri and Lincoln Lido models in 1951 with optional vinyl tops, but these did not prove popular and were soon dropped. In 1956, the Cadillac Eldorado Seville came with a “Vicodec” top which wasn’t vinyl but a water-resistant nylon fabric similar to convertible top material.

In 1962, Ford Motor Company offered a vinyl roof option on the Thunderbird with landau bars, and the other Detroit automakers took notice, and soon all the automakers in the 1960’s and 1970’s had vinyl roof options on most of their models. Buyers were willing to pay extra for the vinyl top which cost little to install and added profit to the manufacturer’s bottom line.   
Chrysler Mod Top

Mercury Cougar houndstooth
During the mid-70’s Chrysler offered “Mod Tops” on Dodges and Plymouth with a paisley or floral design, and in 1970 Mercury offered a houndstooth pattern top option on the Cougar.  In addition to different simulated grain choices, there were many styles of vinyl tops offered by the Detroit automakers often in concert with that other 1970’s fad, opera windows.
Camaro halo top
The vinyl top style was designed to enhance the car’s lines and included the full top (from drip rail to drip rail), halo (with an inch or so of paint showing above the doors and windshield), canopy (front half), landau (back half) just to name a few.  For 1975, Cadillac introduced the padded vinyl top which further mimicked the look of a convertible top, and all the other car manufacturers quickly added padding to their option list. Somehow the smooth padded vinyl top became de rigueur for hearses.

The big problem was what was going on underneath that vinyl tops – RUST, particularly with cars that sat outside because the vinyl was not waterproof which allowed moisture to become trapped between the vinyl top and the roof of the car to attack the steel.  Oftentimes restorers of cars with vinyl tops find the roof panel of the car severely rusted once the old top is peeled away.  

The paisley pattern for a 1970 Plymouth Gran Coupe

The author’s observation as a young man in the 1970’s was that your father was either a “vinyl top guy” or “non vinyl top guy.” In addition to just looking good, vinyl top advocates claimed that it kept the interior of the car cooler and quieter. The author’s father always owned vinyl topped cars which included a 1970 Plymouth Fury Gran Coupe with a full paisley top (explained as a mistake because the car was bought at night), and a 1974 Ford Pinto with a landau vinyl top. The last vinyl-topped car the author recalls that his family owned was a halo-style 1979 Dodge Magnum.

Vinyl tops became rarer through the 1990’s as passenger cars became more rounded and aerodynamic, and Lincoln is credited with offering the last factory vinyl top in 2002. Although the manufacturers no longer offer vinyl tops, there appears to be a healthy aftermarket for vinyl tops added to contemporary cars, as apparently a vinyl top remains a status symbol for those who can afford a car so equipped.  Many limousines utilize a vinyl roof, probably because the vinyl top covers up less than perfect metalwork beneath; perhaps this is also why most hearses still have vinyl tops.  

Perhaps someday, “retro” vinyl tops will come back into vogue for the mass passenger car audience.