Curbside Tech: History of the Sliding Sunroof and Moonroof, Part 1 – Rise and Shine

The sliding sunroof/moonroof was a seldom-seen feature on cars when I was growing up in the 70s, and second only to air conditioning in terms of the amount of awe and wonder it would generate in me. With the simple push of a button (or occasionally the turn of a crank), you could slide open a steel (or occasionally glass) panel in the roof to let in sunlight and fresh air. Amazing! You get most of the benefits of a convertible, with none of the drawbacks associated with a fabric roof (noise, wear, leaks, and poor security).

Let’s take a look at the history of this device, which extends back much farther than you would likely suspect.

The Pytchley Sliding Roof

Early Pytchley Sliding Roof

Pytchley Sliding Roof

The first sunroof appeared not too long after the appearance of the first closed-bodied cars, and in a country not known for its abundant sunshine. In 1925, Noel Mobbs of London was the first to commercialize (and patent) the sliding roof panel using the trade name of “Pytchley.” Early models more closely resembled a sliding hatch than a modern sunroof (as can be seen in the photo above), although later iterations were improved to be flush with the roof when closed.

 

By 1927, Pytchley had their first customer, Daimler. Interestingly, this Pytchley ad lists Standard, Chrysler, and Sunbeam as customers as well, although in my research I was unable to find any evidence that any of these companies ever sold a car equipped with a Pytchley roof.

 

1932 Morris Minor Sliding Head Saloon

1932 Morris Minor Sliding Head Saloon

In 1932, Morris started licensing the Pytchley mechanism for “sliding head” models of their Minor, Major, and Ten models. Other English manufacturers soon joined in offering the Pytchley roof, with Austin also offering it in 1932 and then followed Wolsoley in 1935.

1939 Vauxhall Features (including Sunshine Roof)

One manufacturer who opted not to pay license fees to Pytchley was Vauxhall, who introduced their own “Sunshine Roof” in 1937. Vauxhall made numerous design improvements over the Pytchley design, notably that the sliding panel now slid under the roof instead of over it. These differences weren’t enough to stop Pytchley from suing Vauxhall, and on April 8, 1941, British courts agreed ordered Vauxhall to pay damages.

The sliding roof would remain a pre-war British curiosity, as no companies outside the UK produced any vehicles using the Pytchley mechanism that I could find. Pytchley Autocar Company does not appear to have survived World War II. In any case, their numerous sunroof patents began expiring in 1941, which would have greatly limited their ability to earn revenue from licensing.

1937 Nash

Many online sources credit Nash as being the first to introduce a modern sunroof in 1937, based largely on the single photograph above, which is an internet falsehood that I would like to put to rest. For starters, the claim is false prima facie as the Pytchley roof predates the Nash by more than a decade. Furthermore, Other than the single photo above, there is no evidence of Nash actually producing or selling any cars so equipped. The feature is not mentioned in any brochures or period ads, and Google searches for any 1937 Nash equipped with one come up empty.

The experts I consulted at the Nash Car Club of America (NCCA), one of whom owns a 1937 Nash, were unfamiliar with Nash ever offering a sunroof option. The photo above is obviously professionally lit and staged, and judging by the sloppy metalwork it is clearly a one-off, likely created by a third party for publicity purposes – What we would today call a concept car.

1939-40 GM Sunshine Turret Top

1939 Buick sedan with Sunshine Turret Top

From 1939 to 1940, Buick, Oldsmobile, Cadillac, and LaSalle offered a sliding panel roof called the Sunshine Turret Top, perhaps the most cumbersome name ever to grace a sunroof. While it was created in response to the rising popularity of sunroofs in Great Britain at the time, it was not a licensed Pytchley design. Rather, it was developed and patented in-house by Ternstedt Manufacturing Company, a subsidiary of GM’s Fisher Body division. Available only as a special order, they only sold in the hundreds and are exceedingly rare today.

Golde Schiebedächer

The Golde family of Germany has a long history of automotive tops. Traugott Golde, born in 1845 in the central German state of Thuringia, was a blacksmith by trade, and a coachbuilder who founded his eponymous company to make folding carriage tops in 1872. The automobile gave Traugott Golde a whole new market for its folding tops, like the one pictured above. After his death in 1905, Traugott’s sons Richard and Alfred took over the business (while keeping the Traugott Golde name in the company). In 1910, Traugott Golde (the company) founded the “Golde Patent Top Manufacturing Company” in New York to make use of their US patents, where they started making their patent canopy roof for US consumption. This exposure to the United States would come in handy later, as we shall see.

Golde supposedly even independently invented a sliding panel sunroof in 1927, around the same time as Pytchley. However, unlike Pytchley, Golde was unable to convince any manufacturers to equip this feature in their cars at the time (although Golde sold a few as aftermarket items).

After World War II, the Traugott Golde offices and plant in Thuringia ended up in the Soviet occupation zone of Germany (in what would eventually become East Germany), so the Golde family relocated to Frankfurt and formed a new company dedicated to making sunroofs and sliding canvas roofs. The official name of the company is Hans Traugott Golde & Co. GmbH, but virtually everyone refers to it simply as Golde Schiebedächer (literally translated as “Golde sliding roofs”).

Golde did bring one key innovation to the sunroof space: While the Pytchley roof was literally just a steel panel that one had to slide by hand, Golde added a cable drive mechanism that could be operated by either a hand crank or an electric motor, either one of which required less arm strength than muscling a steel panel around.

Golde found a much more receptive audience with OEMs after the war than before. By the mid-1950s, Golde was supplying factory sunroofs to Porsche, Volkswagen, and BMW. Mercedes-Benz was notably not a customer, but some Golde sunroofs still found their way to period Mercedes cars via the aftermarket. Today, Porsche 356 and VW Type 1 models factory equipped with a Golde sunroof are highly prized and sought after.

Studebaker Sky Top

For a second time, Golde set up shop in the United States to expand its reach. This time around their target audience included manufacturers, so Golde opened an office in Detroit.  By 1960 Golde had lined up two big OEM customers: First was Studebaker, to whom Golde sold their sliding fabric roof, which Studebaker would offer as a “Sky Top” option until 1963.

 

 

But more pertinent for this piece, Golde convinced Ford to offer a sliding panel sunroof option on the 1960 Thunderbird, making it the first post-war US car to be so equipped from the factory. Ford heavily promoted the sunroof, featuring it in TV commercials, print ads, and giving it prominent placement in the brochure. Ford set up a dedicated section of the plant for sunroof installation, which was a time-consuming and expensive process. The sunroof models also required numerous unique trim pieces, such as the headliner and a wind deflector mounted to the windshield header, which further increased costs.

Ford ended up selling only 2,536 sunroof-equipped Thunderbirds in 1960, about half of what they were expecting. Part of the blame can be attributed to the high cost of the option ($212.40 in 1960, about $2,000 in 2021). Making matters worse, most of the sunroof cars were further optioned up with expensive options like air conditioning, power windows, and upgraded engines, if the serving examples I found on Google are any indication.

For all that money, the sunroof panel you received was not actuated with an electric motor or even a hand crank. Rather, one had to strongarm the panel open and closed, as shown in the video above. As previously mentioned, Golde already had the technology for crank- and electric-powered sunroofs, so I’m not sure why Ford opted not to use these. I’m guessing Ford went with the simple sliding panel for cost reasons. As a result of the poor sales, the sunroof would be a one-year-only option, with Ford dropping the option in 1961.

So is this pleasure, business, or both?

With only limited success selling to automakers, Golde closed their Detroit office in 1962 to focus on selling directly to consumers. Based on the ad above, Golde apparently had a view of Americans that was simultaneously highly stereotypical and yet strangely on the nose at the same time.

 

Golde Tilt and Slide Sunroof

Golde Tilt and Slide Sunroof

The never-ending treadmill of patent expiration is a constant threat to any manufacturing business, to which Golde responded by continuing to innovate. In 1973, Golde debuted the world’s first tilting and sliding sunroof, which started appearing in select Mercedes-Benz models shortly thereafter.

Also in 1973, Golde GmbH was acquired by Rockwell International as part of a large wave of acquisitions of European automotive suppliers in the 1970s. Rockwell spun off their automotive holdings in 1991 to form Meritor Automotive. After numerous additional mergers and divestitures, as of 2019 the European automotive conglomerate CIE Automotive now owns the sunroof business that can trace its lineage back to Traugott Golde.

Next up in part 2, I’ll take a look at the company that largely defined the modern sunroof, American Sunroof Corp (ASC).