This how-to article hits the highlights of installing a convertible top kit. Installation instructions will vary by type of car and top. Different manuals and manufactdurers use different names for similar parts. We recommend obtaining as much information as possible before attempting this job.
If your convertible needs a new top, you can do one of three things: (1) pay a shop up to $1,500 to install a top; (2) use the sagging old top as a pattern to try to make a new one and pray; (3) go the smart way and get a ready-cut kit to install yourself.
Most folks have never installed a convertible top, but kits make the job simple. By using quality kits, asking questions and reading a good manual, you can do this job. We’ve spoken to many hobbyists who did it with good results.
Top kits appear in magazine ads, mail-order catalogs or on the Internet. Get a top for the year and model of your car. Pick your favorite color. Decide whether you want single-, double-, or triple-texture fabric. Double-texture is best for do-it-yourselfers. It’s thin enough to work with and thick enough to last. Also, new pads are recommended if the old top has the “starved-cow” look. Pads hold the frame in proper position and protect the top from damage due to wind buffeting and repeated ups and downs.
A new curtain window and backlight are not included in many kits. Check to see if you need them. You may need new cables, tacking strip, hardware, wire and a front roll. You will need an upholstery stapler, stainless steel staples, cement, trim adhesive, razor blades and a yardstick for the job.
Installation techniques vary by car and installer, so always use more than one how-to guide. The Web has many good sites on putting in a new top; just type “convertible top installation” into a search engine. Eastwood (www.eastwood.com) sells a how-to video by movie-car customizer Eddie Paul.
Start by removing moldings from the rear of the body well. Cover the deck lid, and then remove the fasteners. Store them in baggies with notes written on a piece of paper (so you remember what is what and where everything goes) and mark where screws and moldings hit the old top.
Lift the top and remove the roll strip at the front. Take out all staples and screws. Save screws and other hardware. Remove rubber weatherstripping from side rails, the glued-on quarter window flaps and one end of each cable. If the top is attached to the middle bows, remove the attaching screws and listing bars.
Latch the top to the windshield header. Remove the wire-on (welt) from the rear bow. Remove all staples so they don’t poke into your new top. Remove or pull back the well cover to get at fasteners below it. On some cars, removing the fasteners loosens a removable metal tacking rail. Other cars use cardboard or plastic tacking strips that bolt onto the outer edge of the body well.
Regardless of the tacking system, you should loosen everything enough to allow removal of the old top. All staples that hold the bottom rear edge of the top to the tacking strip must be removed. If the tacking strip is damaged, you will have to “piece in” new sections or replace it.
If you are installing new pads without spacer sticks, remove one pad and use your yardstick to measure bow-height. Lay your yardstick on the window and measure from the center of the rear bow to center of the tacking strip. You should be able to check the measurement with the top maker. Staple your first new pad to the roof bows. It will hold the frame in alignment as you install the second pad.
Remove the rear curtain. Mark the center of the rear bow. The new curtain will have a notch to line up with your mark. Staple the curtain to the bow from the center, pulling wrinkles as you move towards the edges. Unlatch the top and prop it up. Fasten the bottom of the curtain and window to the tacking strip with the tacking rail or other retainer. Close and latch the front and make adjustments.
Before installing the new top, lay it on a clean floor under the old top. Transfer reference marks like bolt holes and tacking strip locations to the new top. Now put the new top over the old one and compare reference marks. If you see differences, use half the distance between the two marks as your reference.
Position the top over the framework until it sits right. Secure the top to the No. 2 and No. 3 roof bows with listings. Raise the top off the windshield header and attach all cables. Center the top valance over the No. 4 bow and staple it on, working from the center out. Pull out fullness and wrinkles. Using screws and contact cement, fasten the quarter flaps in position. Re-install weatherstripping along the side rails, using screws and trim adhesive to hold it in place.
Latch the top to the windshield and pull the fabric gently over the No. 1 bow. Use a pencil to mark its position. Raise the top and pull the fabric a quarter inch past the reference mark. Secure it to the bow with screws, staples and glue. At each step, make sure to check for proper top appearance and operation. Next, install the roll at the front that overlaps the windshield header.
With top latched, staple the new fabric to the tacking strip. Start at the front of the tacking strip and move to the rear. Use only a few staples so you can make pulls and adjustments as you move around the curved sections. Try to eliminate wrinkles. Avoid excessive stretching. Keep the top material flat.
Install the wire-on over the staples holding the top to the No. 4 bow. Install end caps on the wire-on. Use a silicone sealer for waterproofing. Make holes for the belt molding studs in the bottom edges of the top and backlight and line them up with the holes in the tacking strip. Install fasteners on the studs where they protrude inside the body well. Then re-install fasteners that hold the well cover in position. Leave the top up for several days to allow it to set.
We installed a Kee Auto Top kit obtained from J.C. Whitney. However, make sure to review the features of each top maker before buying one. A certain top may be best for your car.
Kee Auto Top Manufacturing Co.: www.keeautotop.com
A.A. Best Co.: www.aabestco.com
Electron Top Manufacturing Co.: www.electrontop.com
Robbins Auto Tops: www.convertibletops.com
John “Gunner” Gunnell is the automotive books editor at Krause Publications in Iola , Wis. , and former editor of Old Cars Weekly and Old Cars Price Guide.