FEB 12th 2016

Axon's Automotive Anorak – The Rise And Fall Of Vinyl

Corniche Vinyl Roof

One of the pleasures of life here at Goodwood is regularly seeing a disproportionate number of brand new Rolls-Royce models wafting around the Motor Circuit and roads surrounding the Goodwood estate, due to the close proximity of the marque’s Goodwood production facility.

Retromobile promo

Seeing a modern Rolls-Royce in action is a rare treat for any petrolhead, even around the smart streets of Mayfair, Monaco and Malibu, but on the local West Sussex lanes spotting a brand new Phantom, Wraith or Ghost in a variety of tasteful or ‘lively’ colour combinations can be a fairly regular occurrence.

I mention this as I nipped out of the Goodwood circuit to buy some lunch a couple of days ago and followed a freshly-built Ghost being assessed on trade plates, equipped with something I hadn’t seen on a new car in some years – what looked like a vinyl roof!

Cars equipped with a vinyl roof existed pre-war, but the halcyon days of this automotive ‘status symbol’ was the 1960s and 70s, especially in the USA, South American, the UK and a few Commonwealth countries.

For the 1970s ‘executive’ seeking bragging rights over his or her colleagues, pulling up in a swanky new Mark III Ford Cortina 2000 E with a standard vinyl roof would have helped ensure hierarchical status over the reps in their bog-standard bare-roof Cortina 1600 Ls.

Ford Cortina vinyl roof

Before the days of flashy alloy wheels, metallic paint and a perceived ‘posh’ badge on the grill, acres of chrome and a vinyl roof were the external clues to the status and success you enjoyed when commanding the Queen’s highways.

A vinyl roof – most commonly in black – was usually the reserve of the most expensive top-of-the-range models, with derivates of humdrum 1970s family saloons such as the Morris Marina II HL, Ford Escort 1300 E and Vauxhall Viva GLS donning such a fetching period ‘fashion accessory’ as standard. Vinyl up top also usually meant a plank of wood or two on the dash and the door cappings too, with the promised of luxurious leatherette upholstery, or real leather or posh cloth if the customer was willing to dig a little deeper into their bank balance.

The most conservative and expensive Hillman Hunter derivative – the Humber Sceptre – was enhanced by a contrasting vinyl roof, as was the now-classic Triumph Dolomite Sprint (the regular Dolomite 1850 HL only sporting black vinyl c-pillar covers), the Chrysler 2-Litre, Vauxhall Viscount and Ford Granada Ghia Coupe, amongst many others.

The pillarless mid-70s Jaguar XJ-C and Daimler coupes wore vinyl tops as standard, supposedly conceived as an inexpensive solution to cover and disguise a large weld seam halfway across the roof where the regular four-door XJ saloon top was cut and shortened.

Chrysler LeBaron

Although the British motor industry was especially fond of a black plastic top 40 to 50 years ago, Detroit was also partial to this automotive enhancement, with many a top-line Cadillac, Lincoln and Imperial model clad in vinyl, often padded, in a bright (i.e. impractical) colour, and covering or reducing the size of a back window and/or rear side glass. Brazil followed a similar fashion with locally produced Fords LTDs and Chryslers LeBarons in the 1960s and 70s, as did Australia with range-topping Ford and Holden models.

This fleeting fashion fad passed most of Continental Europe by though, with the odd exception, such as the late 1960s Opel Commodore GS, the rare wankel-engined Citroen GS Birotor and the run-out Simca 1501s. 

Back in the UK though, local British importers couldn’t resist sticking a bit of tacky vinyl to the roofs of cars that really didn’t need it or suit the idea. In 1974, for example, the Edgware Road-based Alfa Romeo distributor of the time introduced a UK-only final-edition 2000 GTV SE with hideous side rubbing stripes, plus an even uglier vinyl top that destroyed the look of this glorious Bertone-penned 105-Series coupe.

Lower down the price spectrum, the importers of affordable Eastern Bloc family saloons of the day also glued black plastic to the roof tops of miserable models such as the Lada 1500, FSO 125p and Skoda Estelle to try and cheer them up and make them seem more prestigious. The trick didn’t work…

Rolls-Royce Silver

As for Rolls-Royce, the Ghost I saw earlier this week harked back to the Silver Shadows, Corniches and Camargues of the 1970s, often ordered with the expensive optional Everflex roof, an enhancement to a Corniche hardtop coupe, but a real hindrance to the already controversially styled Camargue.

The company making Everflex vinyl still exists, but for the sake of good taste, thankfully the option of a factory-fitted vinyl roof is now a thing of the past for all but the most bespoke of car manufacturers.  

Images courtesy of Michael Spiller, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 and ‘Mr.choppers’ and ‘Charles01’ licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

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