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Install A New Convertible Top At Home

Torn top got you down? Cheer up when we show you how to . . .

By Jefferson Bryant, Photography by Jefferson Bryant

Replacing a convertible top is not overly complicated, but it isn't easy either. It takes a professional 7-8 hours to correctly install and align a top, and that isn't taking into consideration the possible need for the restoration or maintenance of the top frame.

But we think you can do this yourself armed with a few tips, the right tools, and a good set of instructions. You should be able to install a top at home with a couple of buddies in a weekend. To get the insider tricks, we took our project '71 Buick GS convertible to Gary Lette of Redline Auto Sports in Wilson, Oklahoma, so he could give us a hand and make sure it looked good.

Any top project should begin with an assessment of what parts are needed. Some cars originally came with a vinyl rear window (in upholstery-shop lingo, rear curtain), some came with glass, and some glass-windowed cars often received vinyl replacements after the glass broke. Glass is better but more fragile. Plastic has a tendency to yellow over time. If you are buying your parts from a restoration house such as Year One, ask the staff to recommend the correct style and material. We ended up using the glass replacement back window that came with the top for '68-'72 GM A-bodies. If your A-body is a '64-'67 model, the glass is zipped in; for '68-'72 it is sewn in. In addition to our replacement top, we also picked up a top-pad kit that protects the top from being pinched in the folding mechanism.

Virtually every convertible top is installed in the same fashion. The top is stapled to the frame via tack strips. Depending on the age of the vehicle, the tack strip will be either pressed cardboard ('60s and '70s vehicles) or vinyl rubber (modern convertibles). The replacement solution is vinyl rubber-better because cardboard holds water and the top frame is metal. Owing to this, the rear bow on our '71 Buick GS had several sections of heavy rust. While our piece was savable, it was very close to needing replacement. The old cardboard is very difficult to remove and can take hours, so be prepared.

The well liner and water trough sustain a lot of abuse over the years, especially on a leaky top. The water trough is made of thin plastic, and the small tabs are easily broken. Most classic convertibles are missing the troughs altogether. After-market versions are usually made of fiberglass with tough metal mounting tabs. The well liner is your trunk's last line of defense against moisture. This piece of vinyl separates the trunk from the interior of the vehicle, often retaining water for days after a storm. Subjected to water and the sun's harsh UV rays, the material eventually breaks down. Replacing this liner usually requires removing the rear window at the lower bow.

If your top is power-operated, the cylinders and pump could probably use some service. If there is a film of hydraulic fluid under the rear seat, then you likely have a leaky cylinder. An O-ring will sometimes fix the problem, as older cylinders were sealed with a simple felt disc. One of our cylinders had a bent rod, so replacement was the only option. At $125 each they are not cheap, but the ability to hit a switch is nice. The pumps are rebuildable in most cases. Kits should be available for most pumps at your local hydraulic supply or electrical motor rebuild shop.

The weatherstripping has to come off to complete the installation of the top, so you might as well replace it. The key here is to use a quality kit like the one we chose from SoffSeal. Unlike cheap kits that don't have pre-drilled holes and OE-type materials, the complete kit from SoffSeal fits as well as or better than the original and should last as long as the new top.

The major tools needed to complete the installation are an air compressor, a good-quality staple gun, and we suggest professional-quality glue from any upholstery supply shop, sprayed from an inexpensive primer gun with a large fluid tip.

By Jefferson Bryant
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