Installing a convertible top is not the type of project that you just decide to tackle on a whim; this is a serious task that takes a lot of time and effort. Duct tape and hand-stitched repairs only last so long, and they really don’t look good. Don’t expect your first top install to be perfect, it won’t be. We have had experts install tops that didn’t come out right. For the first-timer, you will want to take your time and plan it out. To make it easier, we went through the process on a 1964 Buick Skylark and noted a few tips and tricks that the pros use.
The number one tip for any convertible top is the top itself. You need to choose a quality brand from a reputable dealer. There are many top manufacturers, but they are not always good quality. We sourced our top from Year One, which always uses quality stuff. Expect to pay 600-1000 for the top and rear window (they are not always together, so make sure you ask). Some of the better brands are Electron, Robbins and Kee. Another issue is the rear curtain, otherwise known as the rear window. There are two main types, glass and clear vinyl. Both are available for many cars, but the factory used one or the other. For example, 1968-1972 GM A-bodies all had glass rear curtains, but the 1964-1967 models used plastic windows, some had zippers, some did not. You need to research your particular model to know what it is supposed to have. The clear vinyl windows yellow and crack over time, but they also don’t break like the glass windows can.
Installing the top takes time, effort, and some tools. The main tools you need are an air-powered finish-staple gun (use short 3\16” or 1\8” staples!) and an air glue-gun. You can use a cheap siphon-feed gun for the glue, which you can purchase at just about any upholstery shop. You can buy a gallon of glue, but unless you are going to do a lot of upholstery, it will just go bad after 6 months and it is expensive. Other than that, basic hand tools like screwdrivers, a straight pick (for finding trim holes) and some good scissors are all you need.
Another helpful tool that you might want to check out is the installer book for convertible tops. You will likely have to check with your local upholstery supply house to find one (maybe you can get a copy of the page you need), but this will have all of the pertinent specs for installing the top, such as trim locations and measurements. Some cars have a floating rear bow, which is the last bow at the back of the top that rests under the rear deck. This is either a solid, non-moving piece that bolts down, or it floats. Before you remove anything, you need to measure this (at least three times in as many places) and mark the body where it rests. Once you lose this measurement, you have to have the above book to find that spec.
Expect to spend at least one whole day, probably two if it is your first, on the installation. Take your time and don’t get rushed, it will show. You will likely have to adjust and re-staple along the way, so only use a few staples until you know how it all fits together, then you can make your final assembly. If you are patient and pay attention, your new top will look great.
01. Before doing anything to the car, the new top needs to be stretched out. Sitting folded in a box puts a lot of creases and wrinkles in the top. The best time to do this is on a warm day, cold vinyl is hard to work with. We used some bungees and clamps to get the top back to the approximate shape.
02. Inside the shop, the rear curtain was laid out on the assembly table. Some curtains have zippers, so the correct orientation is important.
03. Another key feature for a new top is the weatherstripping. While your stripping may be good, replacing it will give you a tighter top-to-body fit, which is always better than loose and leaky.
04. One of the most often overlooked areas is the top frame itself. Pooling water and debris can eat away at the basis for your top, which is not good at all. The top frame on this Skylark was in decent shape, but we had to clean up some scale and replace the tack strips.
05. The lower top bow was removed from the car and the well liner stapled in place. As long as it is centered, it will work well. The rear curtain needs to be lightly stapled in place, centered as well.
06. Before the rear curtain was installed, the height of the rear top bow is measured. This can move around, so it needs to be set at the proper distance, otherwise, the top will be either too tight or too loose. This is usually done before the top is removed; otherwise, the top book is needed. You can also search forums for assistance.
07. Next, the top pads were stapled in place. From the rear forward. The pads open up, exposing the center liner, where it should be stapled, then the cover is laid over the center and spray glued in place.
08. Next the lower bow is mounted in place, and the curtain laid over the upper rear bow. You can use spring clamps to hold it in place during the alignment process. A few staples at the corners to hold it tight are then installed. The rear curtain is covered by the top, so it doesn’t have to be perfectly centered, but it needs to be tight.
09. The top was laid over the frame and adjusted to fit. This is the most time consuming part of the install. The lower bow is removed to secure the lower section of the top.
10. You really need two sets of hands for this project, one to stretch, the other to staple and adjust.
11. On some tops, there are two small slits in the top, near the upper rear bow. These can create some trouble. Not all tops have these, but this is a KEE top, which is an OEM supplier. You need to center these over the bow so that they will be covered by the trim.
12. Some tops use cables to support the sides of the material. We reused the original cables, but getting these down the sewn-in pocket was difficult. Using a string as a leader, tied to a stiff wire, like a coat hanger, makes this much easier to thread.
13. Once through the pocket, the cable was screwed into the top frame.
14. The front side of the top pads were trimmed to fit with scissors, then a couple layers of duct tape were used to smooth out the seam. This makes for a better transition, which looks much better when the top is installed.
15. Next, the front edge of the top is stretched and wrapped tight to the header bow. You have to test the tightness along the way. A good trick is to use a cardboard box, about 8-inches or so, between the top frame and the windshield, putting some slack in the top frame. This yields a tight top without being too tight when the top is clamped shut.
16. Once the front of the top is tight, the wrinkles take some time to work out. The sides of the top will have some wrinkles, just expect it. You will have to the take the slack out, and often you have to pull the lower bow and re-staple it.
17. Stapling the upper rear bow is a tricky spot. You do not want to have to take these out, because then you have little holes in the top. You may have to, so be careful.
18. Underneath, there are several sleeves that hold bars that bolt to the inner bows between the front and rear bows. There are usually two or three of these.
19. The sides have extra material that needs to be glued to the inner frame. This is critical for a final finish, don’t just cut it off.
20. Once glued, a pick was used to find the screw holes for the new weatherstripping, which is held in place with screws.
21. For the GM A-body, the rear bow trim is positioned 8-inches down from the seam on each side. We marked this with chalk.
22. Then the trim is stapled in place. DO NOT install this trim backwards; it folds over to the rear. If you flip it, the wind will open it up.
23. A soft hammer is used to knock the trim down. It is kind of goofy, but this is the factory solution. It looks good once installed.
24. Then the stainless trim was installed with the supplied screw. You usually have to order this new; the top does not come with it. You can use the old ones, but they are usually beat up and not in great shape.
25. The last step is the staple on the front header trim. This is made of a thick round cord wrapped in top vinyl. Just keep it even and clean and you are good to go.
26. The completed installation looks great. Another trick that you should know is to keep the top up for at least 30 days after the install. This lets the top set its shape. Dropping it sooner often results in wrinkles and creases that are difficult to get out. Also, never keep the top down for 24-hours straight.
A life-long gearhead, Street Tech Magazine founder and editor Jefferson Bryant spends more time in the shop than anywhere else. His career began in the car audio industry as a shop manager, eventually working his way into a position at Rockford Fosgate as a product designer. In 2003, he began writing tech articles for magazines, and has been working as an automotive journalist ever since. His work has been featured in Car Craft, Hot Rod, Rod & Custom, Truckin’, Mopar Muscle, and many more. Jefferson has also written 5 books and produced countless videos. Jefferson operates Red Dirt Rodz, his personal garage studio, where all of his magazine articles and tech videos are produced. You can follow Jefferson on Facebook (Jefferson Bryant), Twitter (71Buickfreak), and YouTube (RedDirtRodz).