Automotive History: The History of the Vinyl Roof, Part 1 – Origins

We curbivores have a love-hate relationship with vinyl roofs – based on article comments, it seems to be mostly hate because as they invariable tear and age, water can get trapped underneath the vinyl, which can rapidly cause the metal roof underneath to deteriorate and rust away. Furthermore, the entire premise of a vinyl top is predicated on a deceit: To make a fixed roof car look like something it is not – a convertible. Still, no matter how you feel about them, it is hard to imagine the Brougham Epoch playing out without its signature vinyl roof.

Vinyl tops burst onto the scene seemingly out of nowhere in the mid-’60s before peaking in popularity in the 1970s, only fade away again in the ’80s and ’90s. So where exactly did they come from?

1940’s and 1950’s – Several False Starts

1949 Kaiser Virginian

1949 Kaiser Virginian

The original idea behind vinyl roofs was to give fixed-roof cars some of the flair and appeal of their convertible counterparts – it was never about function. The earliest modern (post-war) example of this was the 1949 Kaiser Virginian, a fixed-roof version of the Kaiser Manhattan four-door convertible. At first glance, the Virginian really does look like the Manhattan convertible – the only real tell that that it is not a convertible is the large tree-piece glass rear window. Technically, the Virginian’s roof was covered not with vinyl, but rather with nylon fabric (the same material as the convertible), but this is close enough that most consider it to be the first appearance of the modern vinyl roof.

 

1951 Ford Crestliner

1951 Ford Crestliner

There were several other failed attempts to make vinyl roofs a “thing” before the concept finally took hold in the 1960s. In 1950, the Ford lineup was lacking a two-door hardtop model that both GM and Chrysler were then offering. In an effort to sprinkle some convertible excitement on their fixed-roof models, Ford made a vinyl roof available on the Ford Crestliner, Mercury Monterey, and Lincoln Lido models starting in 1950. Sales were sluggish, and Ford discontinued the vinyl roof models after 1951, the same year Ford introduced their own hardtop models.

 

1951 Kaiser Golden Dragon Vinyl Roof

1951 Kaiser Golden Dragon Vinyl Roof

Kaiser, like all the independent automakers, had to find niches in order to avoid potentially deadly direct competition with the Big 3 automakers. One angle that Kaiser took was appealing to style-conscious buyers with their upgraded interior materials and daring exterior styling. In 1951, Kaiser released their Dragon model which featured an alligator skin patterned interior and vinyl roof. The Kaiser Dragons are actually fascinating cars that I have covered in more depth here.

1953 Kaiser Dragon Bambu Roof

1953 Kaiser Dragon Bambu Roof

The Dragon took a break in 1952, but came back in 1953 for one final year with an even wilder “Bambu” roof.

1956 Cadillac Eldorado Seville

1956 Cadillac Eldorado Seville

Things would actually go quiet on the vinyl roof front for the next several years, with no American automakers offering vinyl tops after the 1953 Kaiser Dragon until 1956. Next up with a vinyl top would be Cadillac, who in 1956 released the Cadillac Eldorado Seville with a “Vicodec” top. Despite the fancy name, Vicodec was just diamond point convertible fabric, applied over the steel roof with some thin padding to give the hardtop Eldorado the appearance of the convertible model. The Eldorado Seville (and its vinyl roof) continued to be produced until 1960, never selling in significant numbers. Except for the Fleetwood 75 limo, the vinyl roof would then take a brief hiatus at Cadillac (and every other automaker).

Honorable Mention – 1959 Imperial Silvercrest Landau Roof and 1959 Desoto Adventurer Sportsman Hardtop

 

1959 Imperial Crown Silvercrest Landau Roof

1959 Imperial Crown Silvercrest Landau Roof

Some sources include 1959 Imperial and 1959 Desoto Adventurer Sportsman Hardtop on the list of early vinyl tops. In actuality, this was a textured black paint designed to look like leather, on a landau top on the Imperial, and on the entire roof in the case of the Desoto. The Imperial also represents one of the earliest modern appearances of a landau roof, a style that would become much more popular in the ’70s and ’80s, as we shall see. While not actually made of vinyl, the intent was the same (to simulate leather), so it is worth including in this list.

1962 Ford Falcon and Thunderbird

All of these previously aborted attempts at vinyl tops were niche vehicles with limited appeal. 1962 would mark the next attempt to popularize vinyl roofs, and this time they stuck. While GM equipped a few low-volume specialty models with vinyl roofs starting in 1962 (like the Buick Wildcat and Oldsmobile F-85 Cutlass), it was Ford that brought vinyl tops to the masses.

1962 Ford Falcon Futura

1962 Ford Falcon Futura

In 1962, Ford released two vehicles with an optional vinyl roof: The Falcon Futura, and the Thunderbird Landau. And while I’m sure a few people might have sprung for a tarted-up Falcon, the real star of the show in 1962 was the T-Bird.

1962 Ford Thunderbird Landau

1962 Ford Thunderbird Landau

The Thunderbird Landau featured a deeply grained vinyl (for a more leather-like appearance) with felt padding underneath to complete the convertible effect. And if that weren’t enough, an S-bar was placed on each side to complete the look. To me, the S-bars are a bit much – sort of like putting ice cream on your cake, but it is definitely a memorable look, one that would remain a Thunderbird signature until 1973.

While production data for the 1962 Thunderbird Landau is not available, in 1963, the following year, 25% of fixed-roof Thunderbirds were sold with a vinyl roof. That number would quickly rise to more than half by 1966, and other manufacturers were quick to take notice. Vinyl quickly spread like an earworm.

An Emerging Trend

Chrysler would enter the vinyl top fray in 1963 with a new range-topping New Yorker Salon model with a “canopy” partial vinyl top, a look that would soon spread across the Chrysler lineup.

1963 Chrysler Turbine Car

1963 Chrysler Turbine Car

And of course, Chrysler’s Turbine Car, unveiled in 1963, was also festooned with the newly fashionable vinyl roof.

1964 Buick Skylark

1964 Buick Skylark “Halo” vinyl roof

Buick also started offering nylon fabric tops Skylark in 1963. The 1964 “halo” style roof is particularly handsome, in my opinion, especially in the color scheme in the brochure.

Surprisingly, luxury makers were somewhat slow to adopt the vinyl roof. Starting in 1963, Cadillac once again started offering vinyl roofs, although it was on a very limited basis (it was not mentioned in any of the brochures or pricelists). The Vinyl top would become a regular production option for the Series 62 starting in 1964. Imperial would start offering vinyl roofs in 1964, while Lincoln would not besmirch its Continental with a vinyl roof until 1965.

1964 Studebaker Gran Turismo Hawk

1964 Studebaker Gran Turismo Hawk

By 1964, Ford was all in on vinyl tops, with them being available almost their entire product line: The option was available on the Falcon, Fairlane, Galaxie, Thunderbird, and even the 1964 ½ Mustang. Even Studebaker was offering a half-vinyl roof in 1964. GM was still limiting vinyl tops to specialty models, but that would soon change.

1965 Chevrolet Caprice

1965 Chevrolet Caprice

By 1965, every Big-3 brand was offering at least one model with a vinyl roof option, with one lone, notable holdout: Chevrolet. Chevy wouldn’t offer their first vinyl roof until midway through the 1965 model year, as an option on the Impala SS and new Caprice models.

The (presumably vinyl-covered) floodgates had been opened. In four short model years, vinyl tops had gone from curiosity to near-ubiquity.

Having been thus commoditized, what new ways would manufacturers look to distinguish their vinyl roof offerings in an increasingly crowded vinyl roof marketplace? Different colors, textures, patterns, and shapes? Yes, yes, yes, and hell yes! Click here for part two as vinyl tops get pushed to excess and eventually fall out of favor.

Related Reading

Vintage Ad: 1951 Ford Crestliner – If You Don’t Have A Hardtop, Fake It