Convertible Top Replacement - Top Swap
Learn the ins and outs of replacing a convertible top
From the September, 2012 issue of Mopar Muscle
By Dave Young
Photography by Dave Young
It takes a certain type of enthusiast, and certain climate conditions, to enjoy a convertible. Since we live in Florida, it just makes sense that we have at least one Mopar with a top that drops, and we satisfy our need for open air, sunlight, and starlight with our '69 Chrysler Newport. Owning a convertible, however, demands that a certain amount of maintenance be performed, as convertible tops will generally only last five to ten years before becoming sun-faded, brittle, and prone to leaks. Our Chrysler had been sitting in a barn for many years before we got it, and while the top appeared to be intact, close inspection revealed dry-rotted canvas, a discolored plastic rear window, and a top that cracked and literally fell apart at the seams each time we put it up or down. Our Chrysler was long overdue for a new top if we were going to enjoy the car, so we decided it was time to replace the top, hydraulic cylinders, and hoses, and upgrade to a new glass rear window.
Replacing a convertible top is somewhat of an art, and before a new top is installed on a convertible, there are some related areas of the car that need to be inspected and addressed. By design, convertible tops don't so much waterproof the car as they direct the water to a place where it can drain off the vehicle without causing damage, wet floors, or wet passengers. As rainwater flows across the top, it ends up at the rear area of the top where it meets the sheetmetal of the rear quarter-panels and Dutchman panel.
While most of the water in this area is shed off the car, a certain amount is expected to leak down the top and into the car, where a sheetmetal rain gutter of sorts directs the water to the inside of the quarter-panel in front of the wheels, where it can exit through the drain holes in the lower quarter-panel. Like most convertibles this age, the rain channel of our Newport was rusted through in some areas, so we took our car to JD's Paint and Body Shop for some metal repairs before we even considered installing the new top.
Replacing the top without addressing the rusty rain gutter will just result in leaks that can damage the car's floors and carpet, so this is an important first step in top replacement. Another important step is to make sure the top's frame is in good condition, as well as the metal around where the top meets the car's body. We weren't ready to put a paintjob on our car yet, but we did have a significant amount of rust at the top of the quarter-panels and Dutchman panel of our Newport. Since we didn't want to risk performing metal repairs in this area with the new top in place (welding could cause burn holes and other damage to the top and rear window) we decided to address these issues and have the top frame painted while our car was at JD's Paint and Body shop having the rain gutter repaired.
With our metal work performed and the patched areas treated and primed, we were now ready to order our new convertible top, pads, rear window, lines, and new hydraulic cylinders from Hydro-E-Lectric. Instead of just replacing the top with a similar canvas top and plastic rear window, we thought an upgrade for our Chrysler would be nice. Fortunately, Hydro-E-Lectric offers a premium vinyl top for most Mopar applications, as well as a rear window made of glass.
|Convertible top with glass rear window and pads||$399|
|Hydraulic hose set||$100|
|Hydraulic Cylinders||$139 each|
Convertible tops aren't designed...
Convertible tops aren't designed to last forever. Our '69 Newport convertible was long overdue for a top replacement, so we ordered a new top from Hydro-E-Lectric and followed along as the professionals at Anthony's Custom Restyling installed it.
1 We're not sure how old...
1 We're not sure how old the convertible top is on our Newport, but one thing is certain: With cracks, rips, dry rot, and a yellowed rear window, it needed to be replaced.
2 Below the area where the...
2 Below the area where the top attaches to the body, there is a rain channel that directs water to the drain holes in the quarter-panels. If this area is rusty, like ours, water will leak into the car's trunk and floorboards where it will cause rust and ruin the carpet.
3 The only way to properly...
3 The only way to properly repair rusted metal is to cut out the affected area and weld new metal in. We won't be painting our car yet, but we don't want to risk cutting and welding in this area with the new top installed so we're performing these repairs now.
4 New metal was also formed...
4 New metal was also formed and welded into our car's rain channel wherever needed. We also treated these areas with POR-15 rust inhibitor, and painted the rain channel for extra protection.
5 With our metal repairs...
5 With our metal repairs complete, we rolled the Newport into the paint booth to refinish the top frame in matte black. This will not only prevent the metal from rusting, but will also make the new top look that much better.
The premium vinyl top should last longer in our Florida climate, which is hot and sunny most of the year, with afternoon rain showers nearly every day during the summer. Additionally, the glass rear window won't discolor like a plastic one, which is not only more aesthetically appealing, but safer as well since we'll actually be able to see out of it when the top is in the up position. This is also a good time to check the window seals around the perimeter of the side windows, and replace the seals if necessary. Our seals were still pliable and soft, so we chose not to replace them at this time.
Once our new parts from Hydro-E-Lectric arrived, we installed the hydraulic cylinders and new hydraulic lines ourselves, and then took our car, top, pads, and rear window to nearby Anthony's Custom Restyling II in Tampa, Florida, to have the parts properly installed. We know you're likely asking why we don't perform the work ourselves like most technical projects here at Mopar Muscle, and there are a couple of distinct reasons. Installing a convertible top is one of those procedures that combines skill with a certain amount of experience, and since we don't perform the procedure often enough, we decided that trusting the experts at a professional interior and upholstery shop like Anthony's would better ensure a quality job.
Additionally, a shop like Anthony's has the specialty tools, like pneumatic staplers, and special glue guns (a paint gun with a special nozzle), as well as new tack strips and hardware in case they need to be replaced, like the tack strip on the rear bow of our Newport. There's also an amount of trial and error necessary to get the top installed in a symmetrical manner without wrinkles. Steve at Anthony's reduced the number of times our top had to be re-positioned and re-stapled, thanks to his eye for detail and plentiful experience installing tops. Since it's easy to screw up a new top and render it unusable with a misplaced staple or two, we considered the expense of having Anthony's install the top money well spent, especially since we plan to enjoy driving this car for many years to come.
6a This is also a good time...
6a This is also a good time to replace the hydraulic lines and cylinders, if your convertible top is the power type. To prime the pump after installing the new parts, you just fill the reservoir, actuate the motor to extend and retract the cylinders, then fill and repeat a couple of times.
6b A 12-volt electric motor...
6b A 12-volt electric motor spins a hydraulic pump when you push the button. Up spins the pump one way and directs pressurized fluid to one side of the cylinder, and down spins the pump the other way and directs fluid to the other side of the cylinder.
7 The convertible top rides...
7 The convertible top rides on pads that cushion the top and prevent it from riding on the metal of the frame. These pads consist of a piece of vinyl, which is stapled to the rear bows and screwed to the front bow, and foam, which is glued in place before the sides of the pad are folded over and stapled.
8 The rear window section...
8 The rear window section is installed next. Before it can be attached, it must be centered on the top frame. The top edge is stapled to the tack strip on the top rear bow, and there are multiple tack strips where it attaches to the body. Getting the window positioned correctly involves a bit of trial and error, but the center marks that Hydro-E-Lectric puts on the vinyl made the job easier.
9 It's a good idea to take...
9 It's a good idea to take the new top out of the box and let it relax a bit before installing it to get rid of any wrinkles. We took our car in on a Friday afternoon and had the glass and pads installed, and let the top lay over the frame over the weekend. You can do it quicker than that; just place the top on the car and park it in the sun for a while. The heat will soften the material and make it more pliable.
10 After positioning the...
10 After positioning the new top, it is temporarily glued to the front bow, and then stapled to the rear bow. With proper measuring and trial and error, the top can be centered and squared so that it rides properly on the pads and bows.
11 The C-pillar sides of...
11 The C-pillar sides of the top are next to be stretched into place, and it's often necessary to pull staples and re-staple the top to the tack strips to get all the wrinkles out.
12 After securing the front...
12 After securing the front of the top to the forward bow, the final step is to staple the top to the rear bow and install the cover strip and ends.
13 Now that the new top is...
13 Now that the new top is installed, how can you make it last as long as possible? Regular cleaning of your vinyl top is as easy as washing your car. Wash the top just as you would the rest of the vehicle, but avoid cleaners that say they improve gloss. They are good for the paint, but unnecessary for the top. If your vinyl top is particularly dirty, you can use an all-purpose cleaner to break up the grease and film. Use a brush to gently scrub the vinyl, and then rinse thoroughly. After you've cleaned the vinyl, use a vinyl protectant to preserve the color and texture. Your vinyl top will last longer if you protect it from the start. There's not much you can do to reverse damage once it's already been done. Proper vinyl care is as simple as weekly washes, and monthly cleanings with a vinyl top cleaner and protectant.