It feels as 70s as Kevin Keegan’s perm, Ziggy Stardust and the Space Hopper, and yet the vinyl roof has a history dating back to the 1920s. It’s hated and loved in equal measure, but like the removable stereo and the ‘his and hers’ sunstrip, this little touch of luxury has been consigned to the history books.
The vinyl roof was introduced to provide the look of a convertible to cars with a fixed roof, but would later evolve into a standalone styling extra. As Wikipedia helpfully points out, the first use goes back to the 1920s “when leather and canvas were sometimes used along with landau bars, to give a fairly accurate reproduction of a horse-drawn carriage’s movable top.”
But as tastes changed, the vinyl roof fell out of fashion and wouldn’t appear again until the 1950s, when the likes of Lincoln, Chrysler and Kaiser began teasing Americans with the lure of vinyl. With a nation decidedly unconvinced, it was left to Ford to push home the true appeal of a covered roof.
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Thunderbirds are go
In 1955, Ford had created a so-called ‘Personal Luxury Car’ segment with the Thunderbird – a car majoring on style and luxury, rather than performance and handling. If any car was able to provide a suitable platform for the second coming of the vinyl roof, it was the T-bird.
Step forward the 1962 model, which offered more than 100 improvements compared to the previous Thunderbird, along with the option of a vinyl-covered hardtop coupe. It even re-introduced landau bars as a styling touch – a feature not seen since the 1920s.
Suddenly, the vinyl roof developed ideas above its station (certainly above a car’s roofline). No longer positioned as styling garnish, the vinyl roof was now a must-have option for the style-conscious and drivers of good taste. As least that’s what the manufacturers wanted us to believe.
Ford claims the Thunderbird “reached its pinnacle as a personal luxury car” with the 1975 model, offering features such as concealed windscreen wipers, an opera window, solid-state ignition, electric windows, automatic seat-back release, white-wall tyres and – you’ve guessed it – a dense-grain vinyl roof.
Tick the ‘Silver Luxury Group’ option box and “discriminating owners” could enjoy “exterior accoutrements” such as a padded Silver Odense grain half-vinyl roof, or a full-vinyl roof when combined with an electrically-operated glass moonroof. Opt for the ‘Copper Luxury Group’ and the vinyl roof was finished in a shade of copper. Americans had never had it so good.
Rags to riches
For carmakers the vinyl roof was a shortcut to riches, while image-conscious motorists revelled in perceived class and sophistication. A vinyl roof marked you out as a discerning driver. Everyone’s a winner with a vinyl roof, as Errol Brown very nearly sang.
Unsurprisingly, a vinyl roof was an original factory option for early Mustangs, available in black or white for 65-66 models. As reported by Mustang360º, “the grained tops added a distinctive, contrasting appearance to hardtop models”.
It’s no secret that Ford wanted the Mustang to appeal to women, with Joe Oros – the man tasked with overseeing the design of the original Mustang – telling the Washington Post, “I told the team that I wanted the car to appeal to women, but I wanted men to desire it, too.”
Because ladies love vinyl
Not to be outdone, Chrysler set its sights firmly on the female market with the 1969 Plymouth Barracuda. “Introducing the car you wear,” said the press advert, as the company tried to convince us that we needed a car with a flora vinyl top.
“Look what Plymouth is up to now,” cried the adman. “Pop prints, mod tops. You name it. Even if you can’t name it, you can have it. Who needs it? Anybody with a penchant for the different.” And you thought personalisation was a modern development.
“We’ve been designing cars with gals in mind for years. Maybe that’s why we have the biggest selection of interiors we’ve ever had.” Because ‘gals’ weren’t interested in performance and handling, obviously. These were different times, lad, as highlighted by this advertisement for the Dodge Challenger.
The vinyl roof grew in popularity throughout the 1970s. Dodge offered the 1973 Charger with a selection of roof styles, including a coupe with landau top and hardtop with halo roof. This latter option differed from a full vinyl cover by way of a gap between the roof and the windows, creating a ‘halo’ effect.
Ford promoted the 1971 Mercury Cougar with a memorable press photo depicting a lady holding a leash attached to a growling cougar perched atop a black vinyl roof. Three different cougars in one image. Or something.
Vinyl spins into Europe
Meanwhile, European motorists were all too keen to revel in vinyl roof goodness. Unsurprisingly, carmakers with a mothership on the other side of the pond were early adopters, with Opel taking a lead from General Motors.
From the humble Kadett to the mighty Diplomat, the vinyl roof was an option for the German motorist looking to keep up with the Müllers. Even the sporty Manta could be equipped with a layer of vinyl, proving that no segment was safe from a covered roof.
In Britain, a vinyl roof was up there with a colour television and an avocado green bathroom suite when it came to marking you out as a cut above the rest. Roll up outside a Berni Inn in a car with a vinyl roof and you’d be elevated to a status befitting somebody who stuck a ring of pineapple on a gammon steak.
Take the Mk1 Vauxhall Cavalier. As Honest John puts it, “It was the 2000 GLS that was the absolute pick of the range, its status marked out by its Rostyle wheels and black vinyl roof. Status symbols that, in themselves, gave it car park kudos”. Quite.
Arch-rivals Ford added a vinyl roof option to the likes of the Cortina, Granada and Capri, while even the humble Fiesta and Escort could be treated to a black – or very 70s brown – roof. The most famous Ford with a vinyl roof? Arguably Terry McCann’s Mk2 Capri from Minder.
Never one to miss out on a good party, bosses at British Leyland lavished a number of its popular models with a vinyl dressing, including the Triumph Dolomite Sprint, Austin Princess and Morris Marina.
A number of Allegros rolled out of Longbridge with a black roof, including the 1500 Special and 1750 Sport Special. As the Allegro reached its twilight years, and in a possible act of desperation, BL introduced the ‘Hi-Style’ category – a range of dealer-fit options, including a vinyl roof. In 1979, even a basic 1.1 could indulge in a vinyl roof and exhaust tailpipe finisher, as the Allegro clinged on for grim life.
Who said vinyl was dead?
It was the same for the vinyl roof, which was falling out of fashion as buyers embraced a new wave of hatchbacks and a general change in tastes. Volvo had tried to tempt the Americans with its Swedish-Italian 262C, complete with jaw-droppingly low, vinyl-enriched roofline.
Early cars were resplendent in silver, contrasted with a black vinyl roof, but other colours were soon added. Volvo even saw fit to remove the vinyl, as the world came to terms with a future without the majesty of a vinyl-covered roof. Sad times.
Some carmakers soldiered on, most notably Lincoln with the Continental and Town Car, but the vinyl roof barely made it beyond the turn of the millennium. Not that anybody told owners of the Chrysler 300C.
In 2004, USA Today reported that Chrysler dealers were being inundated with requests to install 1970s-style roofs on their modern motors. It’s fair to say that Chrysler officials were less than impressed.
“I’ve likened the car to Arnold Schwarzenegger in a black tuxedo,” said Trevor Creed, Chrysler’s design chief. “That’s what it looks like now. But when they (add vinyl roofs), it makes it look like Arnold is having a bad hair day.”
Undeterred, many Chrysler 300C owners pressed ahead with their plans, with one installation company claiming they had done $100,000 in business in a little over a month. Nice work if you can get it.
Today, the covered roof is kept alive by hearses and limos, with vinyl seen as a practical means of covering welded body seams.
There’s been a murder, Lewis
Curiously, it was left to Rolls-Royce to keep the legend alive when it was asked to build a one-off Wraith inspired by the Jaguar MkII driven by Inspector Morse. When Morse wasn’t downing a quick pint or listening to opera, he was often seen on the streets of Oxford behind the wheel of his iconic two-tone Jag.
Sadly, rather than go all out with a proper vinyl roof, Rolls-Royce chose to mimic the MkII with a layer of black paint. Hashtag missed opportunity.
Oh sure, aftermarket vinyl roofs are available, but the results are – how can we put this – mixed. Just look at what some folk have done to the poor, defenceless Toyota Camry. You have been warned.
It just goes to prove that some things are best left in the past. But should the vinyl roof be filed under ‘class’ or ‘crass’? Let us know. In the meantime, check out our gallery of 20 cars that rocked the vinyl roof look.
Sources not linked to above:
Rover P6 1963 – 1967, James Taylor
Motor, w/e 18 January 1975
Austin Allegro: An Enthusiast’s Guide, Ben Wanklyn