If one accessory defined the Brougham Era, it has to be the vinyl roof. Sure, you can have your opera windows, your tufted velour, and your fold down armrests, but from the start to the end, no self-respecting luxury coupe or sedan would be seen wearing a bare metal roof. As late as 1978, over 98% of Cadillacs were so equipped. After a simple beginning, vinyl roof designs went exponential – landaus, wrap overs, halos, and textures and colors of all kinds. So who did it best – and who didn’t?
The vinyl, or covered roof actually has a long history, dating back to horse drawn carriages. Covered roofs were a feature of many coach built and classic cars up right up to WWII, and even made appearances in popular brands, perhaps the earliest being the Model A Sport Coupe – which also shares the honor of introducing that other Brougham-era icon, fake landau bars.
Of course, these roofs weren’t actually vinyl. Some were leather, while others were treated canvas like that used on convertible tops. But like their polyvinyl chloride descendants, they added a sense of convertible sportiness and color contrast to a plain coupe or sedan.
After the war, the covered/vinyl roof made an abortive takeoff. The 1949 Kaiser Virginian “hardtop” featured a nylon roof covering with simulated top bows, a feature GM would return to in 1962, and in 1950 Ford and Chrysler joined the show. The former, caught without hardtops, dressed up top-end Fords, Mercurys, and Lincolns with similar roofs, while the first modern Chrysler Imperial was simply a New Yorker 4 door sedan with a better interior and a “Haartz” top. Haartz, btw, was a long, and still existing supplier of convertible and covered tops.
But the real breakthrough came when Carleton Spencer, K-F’s brilliant interior stylist and color coordinator, put a padded, vinyl roof on the new 1951 Kaiser to create the Kaiser Dragon, in a series of color combinations. Combined with “Dragon Vinyl” upholstery, this was a real proto-Brougham, and a precursor of many attempts to identify vinyl as something other than leather for legal reasons. Morrokide anybody?
But from there the trail went cold for several years, as designers mined jet-age influences, and outside of the occasional formal limousine, covered tops had no place in a world of thin roof pillars and tail fins. But with the turn to traditionalism in the early sixties, the vinyl rof came back with a vengance, first as an option on those faux-convertible GM 2-door hardtops. At first, your choices were a bit Ford-like: Any color you want, as long as it’s black or white, and full vinyl only.
Of course, the designers weren’t content to remain conservative, and soon all types of vinyl tops were available. Starting with the 63 New Yorker Salon, Chrysler had a penchant for partial vinyl roofs, covering the front of the roof, or the back, or just the C-Pillar. Ford gave us the opera window, GM, the padded vinyl top.
As well as morphing from from black and white to every color in nature, plus a few that weren’t. Not to mention patterns – paisleys, Mod Tops, and even houndstooth. Or Landaus of every stripe.
So who did it best? And worst? I have my picks. Looking forward to yours.