Bring Back T-Tops!

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Some things – bell bottom corduroys, for instance – will never make a comeback. Well, hopefully. But I’d really like to see a new car with T-tops again.Mustang T tops

Remember T-tops?

The ’68 Corvette was the first production car to offer them (though the idea had been patented in 1951 by Gordon Buehrig, automotive god/he-who-designed the ’35 Auburn Speedster and Cord 810, among other beautiful things) and by the late ’70s – by which time convertibles had all-but-ceased-to-exist – they had become a popular way to experience the wind in your hair.

They weren’t flimsy and easily damaged – stained/torn – like convertible soft-tops. And they weren’t heavy and unwieldy, like a removable hard top. (This was before the invention/widespread availability of the folding retractable hardtop – which eliminated the need for a block and tackle or at least, two strong men plus somewhere to put the damned thing once you got it off the car.)'Caddy T-tops

You enjoyed the open-air experience when the weather was nice and you were so inclined. The rest of the time, you had the physical security against the elements (and the maggots) of a hardtop.

Well,  except when it rained.

Then, those T-tops tended to leak.

This was true especially if you had a car with after-the-fact T-tops. That is, tops not engineered into the car by the guys who designed the car and incorporated into the car’s structure during its assembly at the factory – but installed as an afterthought,  after the car was built, sometimes by the dealership, sometimes by a custom shop.

Often, with a Sawzall – rudely and quickly.Hurst tops

Even if the cuts were precise – and the rubber gaskets fit ok – the lack of bracing in what was left of the roof often lead to flexing and this, in turn, lead to leaking.

The effect was magnified by the loosey-goosey body tolerances and usually frameless door glass cars of that era – like my long-gone 1978 Camaro – had. They didn’t seal that well when the car was new, and as the car aged – and the gaskets shrank and the heavy doors began to sag on their soft bronze-shimmed hinges – a common problem back then – drips, then rivulets, of water would find their way inside.

The carpets soon got soggy – then became moldy. You could almost always tell a T-topped car by the smell.

Floorpans would rust from the inside out, too.sail panel pic

Stress cracks were also a big problem.

Back in the day, a car like my ’78 Camaro had a separate roof section that was welded to the A pillars up front and then to the sail panels at the back. The weld was covered with body putty, sanded and painted.

No problem – provided the structure wasn’t weakened by removing a two-thirds of the structure (the roof sections on either side cut away to make room for the glass tops).

Or at least, if the roof structure removed was made up for by adding bracing in key points – as was done with the factory T-Tops (such as the popular GM/Fisher tops used in late ’70s and ‘early ’80s Camaros and Firebirds).Fisher tops

But if the car had dealer-installed/aftermarket T-Tops (such as the also-popular Hurst T-tops commonly found on the same-era Camaros and Firebirds, as well as other cars from that period) you ended up with a structurally sketchy roof that flexed as the car moved, inevitably leading to horizontal hairline fissures right along the joint where the roof and sail panels met up.

Also squeaks and rattles – which by the late 1990s were becoming as unacceptable in new cars as fanny pats at the office.

Now you know why T-tops went away.

The last new cars to offer them were the ’02 Camaro and the ’90s-era Toyota MR2, dearly departed.

But, they could make a comeback.MR2 T Top

Just as modern diesel engines are light-years evolved from the stinky/smoky/slow-movers of the ’70s and ’80s, there’s no reason that modern cars couldn’t have leak (and rattle) free T-tops – and without compromising the structural integrity of the car’s roof.

Or maybe not.

Dealing with leaks, squeaks and rattles is almost certainly doable. But getting a T-topped car through the gantlet of current (and projected future) government rollover/roof-crush standards would probably be a toughie. Side-impact standards might even come into play given that the glass roof sections cannot be engineered to absorb impact. Being rigid – glass – they shatter or pop out or something else unacceptable.

Unless, of course, they were not made out of glass.

Various clear composites that look like glass could be a solution. They might be lighter, too.

A car like the current Scion FR-S coupe – or the new Camaro, for that matter – would look mighty fine with T-tops.new Camaro T top

Or at least, I think they would.

Of course, I once wore bell-bottom cords – and owned a T-topped “Smokey & The Bandit” Trans-Am.

Your mileage may vary.

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33 COMMENTS

  1. The only car I owned with a hole in the roof was the 02 Grand Am that I was happy to get rid of. The moonroof never leaked but it was also about the most useless option on the car. Can’t be used if it is raining or snowing (common occurrences in western Pennsylvania and Colorado) but open it up on a sunny day and you get baked. Also took out about 2 inches of headroom with the cover and mechanicals.

    The say the European country with the most convertibles is Great Britain. Also the country with the most rainy days. Are the British just optimistic or suckers for a sales pitch?

    • I dislike convertibles. The material always fades, rips – and they are a PITAS to keep clean. They’ve much improved the physical integrity of soft tops, but the problems just mentioned linger. T-tops were notoriously leaky and squeaky, but they were pretty cool, too. When off, you had a car that felt like a convertible. But when back on the car, it felt like a hardtop coupe again.

      • I’ve been quiet on this, but this comment got me thinking. I don’t think T-tops will be coming back.

        The outside structure needed for current regs will probably prevent it.
        I have this option on my newer mustang:
        http://www.cartype.com/pics/8098/full/ford_mustang_gt500_coupe_glass-roof_11.jpg

        Fixed glass roof. It’s nice. But what I see in the future is something like that but it opens or is removable. That is something like a T-top, more of a square top. Something that keeps the square structure of the roof together. Like an old Model A roof…
        http://image.hotrod.com/f/hotroddeluxe/1409_1928_ford_model_a_family_ties/70008077/1928-ford-model-a-roof-detail.jpg

        Unless of course, and there must be, some out for convertibles that can be applied to T-top cars. But well that gets into the government realm of things.. surprised roll bars for ‘verts aren’t required yet.

        • BrentP, you’ll recall the Porsche with the auto roll bar. Since I don’t like convertibles I just couldn’t get into it but the idea was a good one if you just had to go topless. No rollover protection is one of the things I have against going topless. Many of my heroes of the 50’s and 60’s racing world were early demisers for no other reason. Didn’t make sense to me as a kid since rollover protection was easily done. I guess a safety belt and a rollover bar above you helmet back then was too much wussy for them. I had a headache rack save my life in a rollover.

          • I think maybe you’re being a bit harsh here, Eightsouthman: “I guess a safety belt and a rollover bar above you helmet back then was too much wussy for them. ”

            Imho, it was about not wanting to live forever. Just a guess.

            I mean, I look at some of the Very old people around me now and I half want to take up skydiving and swimming with Great Whites.

          • helot, you race some of the most powerful cars on earth in conditions that are fairly dicey to begin with(I have no problem with that, have always done it myself). But the gain in HP during the mid-50’s and into the 60’s with their tiny tires that are maypops at best is sorta insane when you reach speeds that were not significantly bested for another couple decades……and you do it in an open top, made to race only car? Hell, even the bootleggers that raced for real every day and raced for sport on the week-ends had roll bars and those weren’t even open top cars. So many racers were killed in the early 60’s the sport was nearly killed off. And so many of those guys died simply because the car overturned. I see it as a bit different than you or I driving down the road in a factory auto not racing. And I’d support you if you wanted to race without any safety equipment as I grew up doing only their wasn’t generally a paycheck or trophy involved but often spectators. But I didn’t do it in open cars and don’t pretend that it was anywhere near safe but I did wear a seatbelt if one were available.

            In my part of the woods kids generally started driving when they were about 12 and got their licenses at 14, unless your parents got you a hardship license before that age. Kids getting killed in roll-overs back then was fairly common. When you’re 20 years old and drive like the road is your racetrack, you could be called a daredevil and be hard pressed to rebute that. When you’re 12-14 though, everybody’s a daredevil. Hell, we were bullet-proof, super-people until we got killed. We’d race dirt roads with a horse trailer behind or farm tractos down steep hills in Georgia Overdrive. If it moved, we raced it….and I knew a lot of kids that got killed. You’d think grown-ups with fancy race cars, money no object, would have enough sense to belt in and have roll-over protection.

            • Most (IIRC, all) new convertibles come with some sort of pop-up (or integrated into the seatbacks) rollbar. I’m not sure offhand whether this is mandatory… but probably is.

          • Dear helot,

            Thanks!

            The roll bar came in very handy when I rolled the car over at turn 5 during time trials at Willow Springs Raceway in the California desert.

          • Eightsouthman wrote, “Hell, we were bullet-proof, super-people until we got killed.”

            Yup, we’re on the same page… almost, “but I did wear a seatbelt if one were available.”

            Fuck that. Again, Do you wanna live forever>?
            Especially with the damned aches and pains that come with old age? I mean…
            Sure, the grandpaw or grandmaw of twelve billy goats might want to stick around for reasons of pride and joy,… and that’s why they take the bus, but damn, at some point…

            @Bevim, RE: “when I rolled the car over at turn 5 during time trials at Willow Springs Raceway in the California desert.”

            Whoa, that’s fuckin’ cool too. Wow. Living on The Edge!

            Anyway, it’s obvious that horseback riding needs to be outlawed.
            …And, bicycles, too! …Anything without a full roll cage, not a bar mind you, a Full Roll Cage! And marshmellow Stay Puff Michelin Man airbags. With bubble wrap suits. … And, Silly Putty bumpers… and…

            Another forgotten man, live until you die:
            Robert Craig “Evel” Knievel

          • Dear helot,

            Needless to say, I became an even bigger believer in roll bars and five point racing harnesses after “living on the edge” as you put it!

            LOL.

          • Yeah, I used to think full on roll bars were The Way to go, … back when I wanted to live forever and thought I would Never die. A.k.a. 22 years old.

            [In the background, an eighties song is playing, “Red Line”…. Sure wish I had a link for it]

            Anyway, if you wanna get those extras, I sure don’t blame ya. After all, a successful life is living to see your great great grandchildren being born. …Oh wait, maybe that Zen bit is about having your children die After you? I always get that mixed up.

            “five point racing harnesses” Ya! I was big on those too once,… and then, I got old.

            Fuck that, kick out the windows, put in some netting to keep the dirt out of your face, remove the interior panels to save weight and put the pedal to The Metal!
            It’s every Clover’s nightmare…. Only, we’re Not speed freaking Demons hellbent on running over children. Yeesh, That’s fucking crazy. There ain’t no babies out wandering around in a Baja desert or on the plains of a farm in the middle of nowhere’s-ville. And especially on a racetrack or down a hyway in the middle of a desert in West Teas where the only obsticle is a buzzard that doesn’t get outta the way fast enough.

  2. Dear Eric,

    This is not about T Tops per se, but related.

    I’ve long thought that any car without a top automatically acquired a little extra panache, even a beater.

    I recall some Hollywood “slob comedy” in which the protagonist took a Sawsall to a full-sized beater and came up with a colorful convertible to tool around town with, ghetto mod style.

    I’ve long thought that if one could beef up the chassis with some welded steel tubing at the window sill level or just below it, one could prevent such a car from folding in two at the middle.

    One might even have to weld the doors shut a la General Lee on “Dukes of Hazzard.” But with no top, one could simply clamber right over the door without having to duck one’s head.

    Here’s a Skoda sedan that’s been given this treatment.
    http://farm1.static.flickr.com/29/61913118_f4e50cba7d_m.jpg
    Actually a fairly clean job.

    I think in the case of a beater that one doesn’t care too much about, something like this might be worth it. One could get a few years of enjoyment from it and walk away when the time comes.

    • Bevin – when I lived in the Dallas area back in the 80’s, I heard about a ‘Fat Roller Skate’ with a sun roof. The guy had taken a sheet of polycarbonate, laid it across the top, and parked it in the sun until the PC (a good use of the term) took the shape of the roof. He then trimmed it as desired and took the Sawzall to the roof.
      I don’t know how he fastened it down when it was on the car, but it couldn’t have been too diff, and fit well, with enough overlap that it didn’t leak.

  3. yup, they were great. I owned several Nissan Z’s from 300ZX to 300ZX twin turbo’s. you maintained the lines and performance of the coupe but still had open top fun. They never leaked over several models. I really think GM could make them an option and make a profit.

  4. Eric,

    I think you’re starting to sound like one of those crazy old people who reminisce about the good-ole days. T-Tops were crap even in the mid-90’s MR-2’s. They should be taken out deep into the woods and shot behind the ear. Haha.

    • The good ‘ole days had their charms, Pedro!

      T-Tops could be fun; I know – I owned two T-Topped cars. Yeah, they leaked. So what! My old two-stroke triple leaks, too. And smokes. But it makes me smile – unlike the new stuff, which has all the personality of a vending machine.

  5. I love T-tops. Have one on my 1994 Firebird Formula that I still own after 20 years.

    But you are right, they do leak sometimes.

    Mine only if the car is standing still in a heavy rain storm. The car is now a days garaged when I am not driving it. (I do drive it usually daily, have over 408,000 on the odometer.)

    the most important thing to help stop leaks is to make sure that when replacing weather striping to FOLLOW THE SHOP MANUAL. Goes for third generation too. IF they say use RTV sealant, USE IT where the manual says so. (especially third gens F-Body’s).

    • Hi Stephen,

      I’ve owned two second gen. F cars with T-tops; one with the Hurst tops another with the Fisher tops. The Fisher tops were much better, fit and finish-wise. But they both leaked. Still, I loved ’em and hope to have another T-topped Camaro again someday!

  6. Great idea about bringing back the T-Tops! For maximum style points, also trim the roof exterior in contrasting color vinyl, plus Landau Bars with Opera Lights on the C Pillars. Then add a set of artificial wire wheel hubcaps….and VOILA! The epitome of automotive high fashion. 😉

    • Har, har, Mike!

      Some cars look great with T-tops, or at least, they looked great to me. The 1980 Z-28 I once owned, for example.

      And hey, opera lights on the C pillars don’t necessarily look bad, either… if the car in question is a ’78 Sedan de Ville!

      • My grandpa had a “Desert Bronze ’78 Sedan De Ville…with a Saddle Tan vinyl roof, opera lights and fake wire wheel covers. It also had an aftermarket moonroof…those leaked a lot too! The factory version was sooooo much better ’cause it wasn’t a Sawzall and RTV job.

        • Those were great cars!

          Because they were luxurious – no “sporty” pretense. Those wonderful three-across tufted velour bench seats… column shifter, speedo and a few idiot lights. That soft/floaty ride… one-finger power steering… and the torque of that 8 liter V-8 at your beck and call.

          I’ve driven ’em all – literally.

          And you know what? The only modern car that rides/feels like that ’78 de Ville is a new Bentley Arnage…

          • eric, we had a ’71 and a ’72 98, both of which were great cars. The ’72 had much better brakes and handled better, even better seats, but that ’71 would pull a ’14’ Uhaul trailer loaded down like it was nothing with that HD 455 high compression engine. I actually liked the ’72 better, more room, better handling and better brakes with a more sophisticated cruise control(imagine, setting a cruise control on 120 with a big trailer behind anything now). You could butt it up to nearly anything stuck and push it out. No matter the circumstance, when you put your foot in it, things happened….rapidly…..either car, both cars. We had a ’70 225 too and it would tear a new one on any surface with no notice to you inside with the windows up. That was the ultimate Buick 455 too and while not quite as strong as the Olds, it was a quiet monster.

  7. Meh, never cared much for T tops. Like Eric said, squeaks, leaks, and rattles plus the sun beating through the glass at inopportune times turned me off.
    My 87 IROC T tops never leaked but it had the most god-awful chassis flex until I framed it up. The drivetrain wasn’t exactly stock but still; unibody = bad, T top + unibody = all the structural integrity of wet tissue paper.

    • Yup!

      And try it with a semi-unitized body, like my ’78 Camaro had! The engine and front suspension were cradled on a bolt-on subframe that extended to about where the A pillar/windshield base was located – and it acted like a giant hinge when the car was subjected to loading… the third gen cars were at least real unibodies!

      • eric, I recall when the ’68 ‘Vette came out with T-tops. They were wonderful, esp. in w. tx. where it rarely rained. And when it did it was so violent a little leak was almost welcome to cool you off. As an aside to T-tops and rain, I can recall when most people in the path of a tornado would get in the car and drive really fast at a 90 degree angle to it’s path. Beat hell out of sittin in a cellar. But T-tops were fun and letting the girls sit on the back of the ‘Vette while you were on another level to them was great fun for all. Oh, mang, getting to the end of the speedo with them off was just a blast, quite literally. And when you finally stopped, you’d find your car was clean as a whistle, no paper, plastic, cans or loose clothing. I really like the Porsche Targa, looks and otherwise. I don’t know what type of cover they had but the look of the car was awesome.

        The old ‘Vette tops stored under the rear deck if that’s what you wanted. We generally put them somewhere besides the car and it was just that much lighter.

        Now summer days in W. Tx. were a dang good time to have them installed(and the a/c on) but just wait till the sun went down. There was never a modern auto style more conducive to throwing beer bottles than a T-top car.

        • Forgot to say those ‘Vettes had removable back windows too. The girls could sit on the deck and hold on to the back of the t, shiny hiney for everyone to see as they could be above it all, big smiles and all…and it was legal too, no laws for riding on, not in. Nice view from inside too. Oh girls, one last round down the drag and then a trip to the lake? There’s that nice shady cove and of course you can take your tops off. Here, have a margarita…..wooo……wooo….hell, what’s a ‘Vette for anyway? Oh, go fast, handle well….yeah, that too.

  8. hahaha, i finally got the parts needed to get my SC’ed MR2 back on the road and i was going to enjoying my t-tops this morning no matter how chilly it was (t-tops off and windows down but the heater on for my legs and hands).

    http://thestrangestbrew.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/t-tops-with-dew.jpg

    i’ve always liked t-tops but i grew up with them, my pop’s 89 mr2 had/has them (and i was in that car for 10’s of thousands of miles), my 91 turbo had them and my current 89 has them too. i was extremely disappointed when the mr2 spyder came out and was a miata/cheap boxster hybrid.
    they almost always leaked a little and they were never as rigid as the hardtop variants but targa tops were always huge and took up too much space.

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