Curbside Tech: History of the Sliding Sunroof and Moonroof, Part 2 – A New Moon(roof)

In Part One, we covered the early Pytchley and Golde sunroofs. Neither of these looks exactly like what you get when you order a sunroof in a car today. For the final chapter in the sunroof, we need to look at the company that ushered in the modern era of sunroofs and moonroofs, and became virtually synonymous with the technology: American Sunroof Company, or ASC for short.

Heinz Prechter in 1968

Heinz Prechter in 1968

Our story begins with Heinz Christian Prechter, born in Germany during World War II on January 19, 1942. Prechter had an interest in cars and demonstrated a mechanical aptitude from an early age. Following graduation from vocational school, Prechter was accepted into the mechanical engineering program at the Ohm Polytechnic Engineering School in Nuremberg. One of Prechter’s classmates was Hans-Dieter Golde, a member of the Golde Schiebedächer family, and the two quickly became friends. Prechter undoubtedly gleaned a lot about the sunroof business from his association with the Golde family.

Early ASC Advertisement

In 1963, Prechter came to San Francisco where he attended San Francisco State University as a foreign exchange student. Using his connections with the Golde family, Prechter obtained a west coast distributorship for Golde Sunroofs. He then convinced the owner of a local auto shop to offer sales and installation of imported Golde sunroof kits, and the two created a partnership named American Sunroof Company. Not content to resell Golde sunroofs, ASC was soon building and installing sunroofs of Prechter’s own design.

George Barris custom 1965 Buick Wildcat Mystique

By 1965, ASC had moved to Los Angeles, where it was renting garage space from George Barris, installing sunroofs for stars and celebrities in L.A. Early ASC customers included Frank Sinatra and Steve McQueen. Several of Barris’ period concept cars featured ASC sunroofs, like the 1965 Buick Wildcat-based Mystique, pictured above. Using his connections at Ford, Barris facilitated an introduction between ASC and Ford Motor Company, with each company hoping to succeed with factory sunroofs where the 1960 Thunderbird had failed.

Once again, the Ford Thunderbird would be the guinea pig, in the form of the forthcoming fifth-generation model launching in the 1967 model year, which would be the first Thunderbird without a convertible option. The upcoming Mustang-based 1967 Mercury Cougar was chosen to receive an ASC sunroof option as well.

To better ensure success, several things would be different this time around. For starters, the sunroof would now be electrically powered, significantly increasing its appeal over the manually sliding affair in the 1960 T-Bird. More importantly, the installation would be done in ASC’s facility, and not on Ford’s assembly line, the expense of which would be baked into the per-unit cost ASC charged Ford, minimizing any financial risk to Ford. Lastly, both the Thunderbird and Cougar were designed from the beginning around the sunroof option, allowing Ford to maximize part commonality between sunroof and non-sunroof models. This is the reason why Thunderbirds and Cougars of this vintage don’t have dome lights: Whether your car had a sunroof or not, your interior lighting was installed in the doors (and optionally in the C-pillar), and not in the roof.

While the sunroof was introduced in 1967, it would not become a regular production option until 1968 on the Cougar, and 1969 on the Thunderbird (and sibling Lincoln Continental Mark III). Only 200 1967 Cougars and five “Apollo” 1967 Thunderbirds (specially built for Abercrombie & Fitch) were equipped with sunroofs.

Despite their best efforts at cost control, the sunroof was still a pricey option: $375 on the 1968 Cougar (not including the mandatory Oxford vinyl roof), or about $3,000 in 2021, and about 50% more than the 1960 Thunderbird sunroof (adjusted for inflation). Only 591 “factory” installed sunroof-equipped Cougars were sold in 1968 (plus another 431 Dan Gurney models modified by ASC). In fairness, the option was not heavily advertised in 1968, not appearing in any brochure, only in a handful of ads.

But to their credit, Ford stuck to their guns, and even doubled down, advertising the sunroof option on the 1969 Thunderbird even more heavily than in 1960, having it appear on the cover of the brochure and in virtually every ad. Despite the low take rate, Ford still deemed the 1969 sunroof a success due to more realistic sales expectations, the low-risk installation model with ASC, and pricing that guaranteed profitability even at low sales volumes ($453.30, $3,372 adjusted).

Unlike in 1960, the time was right for the sunroof by the late ’60s. By 1969 The Personal Luxury Coupe (PLC) was in full ascendency, which was fertile ground for indulgences like a power sunroof. Air conditioning was on the rise, and simultaneously convertibles were on the decline, leaving the sunroof as the only open-air option for many cars.

ASC’s arrangement with Ford was non-exclusive, and other manufacturers were quick to take notice. Cadillac offered a sunroof as a late-1969 option in the Eldorado, and heavily promoted it in 1970. Dodge also offered an ASC sunroof as a factory option in the Charger starting in 1969.

 

1970 Dodge Charger with ASC Sunroof

While they started out in luxury cars, power sunroofs soon trickled down to lesser cars, much like air conditioning did a few years earlier. ASC’s low-risk “we’ll install it in our facility” approach made sunroofs quick to be adopted by other manufacturers and brands. By 1971, you could get a power sliding sunroof in the Buick Riviera, as well as every Chrysler and Imperial model except the Town and Country wagon.

 

1972 Ford LTD with ASC Sunroof Option

By 1972, you could get a power sunroof on the Pontiac Grand Prix, Mercury Monterey and Marquis, and even a “lowly” Ford LTD.

1974 Dodge Dart with manual crank sunroof

1974 Dodge Dart with manual crank sunroof

By 1973, Chrysler was looking to further expand the sales (and profits) of its sunroof offerings.  Chrysler felt confident enough in the viability of the sunroof option that it decided it was no longer worth the extra expense of shipping completed vehicles to ASC and back for sunroof installation. ASC developed a modular sunroof kit for Chrysler that could be installed right on Chrysler’s assembly line, powered either by an electric motor or a manual crank. The manual crank option, coupled with the elimination of the extra transit, allowed Chrysler to knock $200 off the sunroof option price (about $1,200 in 2021), cheap enough to offer on Dodge and Plymouth B- and A-body cars. Chrysler sunroof sales exploded from 4x to 8x (depending on the model). Now that there was proven demand, other automakers eventually followed suit, bringing their sunroof installation back in-house.

 

The next major advancement occurred in 1973, and in retrospect, it seems so obvious that I’m surprised no one thought of it sooner. While sliding roof panels have traditionally been made of steel with fabric underneath, there is no reason that they couldn’t have been made of any other material, such as glass. This is exactly what ASC did for the 1973 Lincoln Continental Mark IV, which featured a sliding glass roof panel. Ford executive John Atkinson is credited with coining the name “moonroof” for this new type of sliding panel roof. The ASC moonroof featured dark, silver-tinted glass and a sliding sunshade for when it was desired to block out all sunlight.

Of course, Cadillac was not going to cede any ground to Lincoln in the PLC arms race, so by 1975, they had their own sliding glass panel roof, to which they gave the equally spaced-out name of Astroroof. The name didn’t stick, and since Ford does not seem to have trademarked the term “moonroof,” it soon became the generic name for a sliding glass panel roof. By 1977, Chrysler was offering a sliding glass roof as well, alas without a space-age name. The sliding glass moonroof soon became commonplace, to the point where sliding metal sunroofs are seldom seen today.

 

2000 Audi A2 with multiple movable panel moonroof.

The last major innovation in sunroof technology is the multi-panel “panoramic” roof that has now become ubiquitous. The 2000 Audi A2 is generally credited with being the first car to be so equipped.

Sunroof sales have increased steadily ever since, to the point where they are now available in virtually every car, truck, SUV, and minivan. In 2017, the most recent year I could find statistics for, 40% of new vehicles sold in the US were equipped with a sunroof of some sort.