In parts 1 and 2 of this series, we traced the origins and peak of the American vinyl roof. Like all fads, what goes up must come down, and the vinyl roof was no exception, which began to fall out of favor by the early 1980s. European-inspired aerodynamic design, led by the 1983 Ford Thunderbird, marked the beginning of the end of the trend that, ironically, the Thunderbird had launched two decades before.
Let’s track the decline, starting with Ford Motor Company.
Not surprisingly, Ford was the first of the big 3 to abandon the vinyl roof, as they were the first to embrace aero design with cars like the 1983 Thunderbird and 1986 Taurus (neither of which were ever available with a vinyl roof). The last Ford to leave the factory with a vinyl roof was the 1991 LTD Crown Victoria (which incidentally was the last Ford to be called LTD). Likewise, the last Mercury with a vinyl roof was the 1991 Grand Marquis.
Lincoln last offered a factory vinyl roof option in 1992. Vinyl had already become quite passe at this point – all the cars pictured in the brochure featured steel roofs. The only mention of vinyl was a single small inset photo, shown above. To be sure, plenty of Panther platform cars were equipped with vinyl roofs after this point, but these would have been installed by the owner or dealer – none would leave the factory so equipped.
Next up: Chrysler. You would think that the company that Lee Iacocca (re)built would be one of the last to sell vinyl roofs, and you would be right. Chrysler’s last vinyl roofed car was the 1994 LeBaron. Iacocca retired in 1992, making the AA body LeBaron the last Chrysler to have any of Iacocca’s direct influence.
Moving on to GM: GM’s divisions would phase out vinyl roofs roughly in increasing order of the age of their average buyer, surely not a coincidence. Pontiac, GM’s excitement division, was the first car division to abandon the vinyl roof. 1986 would be the last time a vinyl roofed car appear in a Pontiac brochure, with the Bonneville Brougham. The 1987 Grand Prix (the final year for the G-body version) was available with a vinyl landau roof, although all the examples pictured in the brochure featured a steel roof.
1987 would be the last year Oldsmobile featured a vinyl roof in any of their brochures, in their efforts to become GM’s import intender brand. However, vinyl would still be available as a factory option on the Eighty-Eight Royale and Ninety-Eight through 1990.
Chevrolet’s last factory vinyl roof would also be sold in 1990 with the final “square body” Caprice. The “whale body” Caprice, debuting in 1991, was only sold with a steel roof.
1992 would be the last time any vinyl roofs would appear in a Buick brochure (on the Riviera and Roadmaster). The Riviera would still offer a vinyl roof option until 1993, while one would optional on the Roadmaster until 1996, but they would never appear in any brochure wearing a “hat” after 1992.
Cadillac would also offer a vinyl roof until 1996 on their Roadmaster sibling, the Cadillac Fleetwood. This makes 1996 Buick Roadmaster and Cadillac Fleetwood the last mass-produced cars to be equipped with a vinyl roof from the factory (although dealers would continue to offer to install vinyl roofs for decades to come). Unlike Buick, Cadillac proudly pictured the vinyl roof option in their brochures until the very end, as shown above.
And while this might be the end of the vinyl roof era as far as manufacturers were concerned, the aftermarket is always ready to step in where manufacturers won’t. Modern aftermarket vinyl roofs almost always take the form of simulated convertible tops, complete with fake ribbing, fake seams, and fake snaps for a non-existent convertible boot. And while these fake convertible tops may not be to everyone’s liking, I will grant them one thing: They are true to the original concept of the vinyl roof dating back to the 1940s and 1950s – to give a fixed roof car the appearance of a convertible model, a thread that Detroit had lost by the mid-60s.
For serving no useful function, vinyl roofs had a surprisingly long run from the early 1960s into the mid-1990s. While researching this piece, I found several sources claiming that manufacturers had a significant financial incentive to push vinyl tops on buyers for so many years: Vinyl roofs are one of the few options that cost manufacturers almost nothing (and in fact may even have a negative cost, as we shall see), meaning that virtually every dollar they bring in is pure profit.
The reasoning is that cars with vinyl roofs do not require as much surface preparation and finishing of the seams and welds underneath, which saves time and money during assembly. Indeed, the Wikipedia article on the Lincoln Mark Continental III specifically mentions this, but in true Wikipedia fashion, provides no source or evidence to support this claim. I have no way to prove or disprove this (few people outside of Ford’s cost accounting department probably would), so I will leave this theory to the commenters here to discuss.