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The Strange History of the Vinyl Roof

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author photo by Eric Brandt June 2017

Every generation has its own idea of luxury. In today's automotive climate, luxury is defined by technology that connects us to the world, effortless performance, sleek designs and sometimes even massaging seats. For a good couple of decades, however, one thing that used to define luxury and class on an automobile was a vinyl roof.

Vinyl roofs started out early in automotive history, going as far back as the 1920s. They started as a necessity because, well, cars needed roofs to keep the rain off of the occupants. Vinyl was used to replicate the appearance of a movable top, similar to one on a horse carriage. The look fell out of style in the 1930s when everyone decided that steel made a better roof material than vinyl.

But the vinyl roof made a strong comeback, starting with the 1956 Cadillac Eldorado. The Eldorado coupe was available as either a Seville, which was the hardtop, or the Biarritz, which was the convertible. In order to give their plebeian Seville customers a taste of what Biarritz life was like, Cadillac started using a vinyl material called Vicodec on the roof, in order to make the Seville look like a convertible. The Chrysler Imperial and the Ford Thunderbird followed suit, and soon the vinyl roof was a distinguishing sign of a car with elegance.

That's right, it all started as a ploy to make people think you drive a convertible, but you don't feel like putting the top down -- which is why some cars with vinyl roofs have button snaps on the bottom. In the old days, you needed to snap down your convertible top for a nice, clean look when driving topless. On a non-convertible car with a vinyl roof, the button snaps are just there to look cool.

Throughout the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, car makers got a little creative with the vinyl roof. Chrysler was especially adventurous with this design element. They had a canopy-style vinyl roof on some muscle cars, which covered just the very top of the car between the A and C pillars, giving it a sort of t-top look.

Then you've got what's called the landau roof, the automotive equivalent of a Snapchat filter. A landau vinyl roof just covers the back of the cabin -- and it can turn any car into a luxury car in the same way the right filter can turn any Snapchatter into a model. Pop a landau vinyl roof on any existing car platform, and boom! Instant luxury car! Look at the Chrysler New Yorker of the 1980s. It was just a K car, but with chrome trim, hideaway headlights, leather seats and -- of course -- a landau vinyl roof. Suddenly, what was basically a Plymouth Reliant was a prestigious luxury car.

All of this explains why vinyl roofs look so weird on modern cars. I'll never forget the first time I saw a 2014 Chevy Impala in person -- the first year for the current generation. It had a powder-blue paint job and a landau cloth roof of the same color. "Wow," I thought, "that car sure looked good in pictures, but it looks really ugly in real life." Of course, I was wrong to think this, because the new Chevy sedan looks fantastic except for the first one I saw. This must be an extremely rare, custom aftermarket feature, because I can't even find a picture of one online.

That roof looked weird on the new Impala because, like most sedans today, the Impala wasn't designed to have a convertible variant. The same applies to any other modern sedan such as a Buick LaCrosse or a Chrysler 300 with a vinyl roof. It's a design element that's supposed to make a car look like a convertible on a car that looks nothing like a convertible.

What do you think? Is the vinyl roof worth saving, or is it best left in the past?

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This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
The Strange History of the Vinyl Roof - Autotrader