Ragtop Restoration

Ragtop Restoration

New life for an old convertible

There's nothing, I repeat, nothing cooler than cruisin' in a convertible coupe-top down, wind blowing your hair, sun burning your nose, and sippin' a cold soda. Ah, the memories!

Time in a Bottle

Unfortunately, time takes its toll. Your hair thins, your skin bears the scars of too much sun and that soft-top earns the nickname "ragtop." Just as there are products to mask or fix sun-damaged skin, there are products and techniques to get that ragtop back to its youthful look. Even if your soft-top is shredded, all is not lost.

First, the easy fix for faded tops. As a rule, American and Japanese soft-tops are made from vinyl-coated or vinyl-impregnated fabric, while European convertibles are uncoated fabric. This is important to know as the product line-up is different depending on the type of material used. If you're unsure, check with the manufacturer. While plain-fabric tops fade more severely than their vinyl cousins, the advantage is that they can be re-dyed in the comfort of your own driveway.

To Dye For

The re-dying starts with a thoroughly clean top and a convertible top reviver-type product. Mask off chrome, paint and glass surfaces with a special auto tape and a lightweight drop cloth-and have a damp cloth ready to quickly catch any drips. Some manufacturers recommend application with a brush, sponge, or airbrush, but this is not the time or place to hone your airbrush skills. Stick to the sponge or brush method unless you're a veteran airbrusher.

Start the application at the center front of the top and proceed, side to side toward the back. Let the top dry for at least 24 hours. Seriously faded fabric tops may require a second coat, which can be applied after the first application has thoroughly dried. Once the fabric looks like new, use a weather-proofing product to keep it looking that way. Most of these protective products require the same type of application, masking and drying time.

Vinyl Answer

In contrast, bringing a vinyl top back to life will require vinyl-specific cleaners and protectants. Pre-treat tough stains with an extra blast of convertible top cleaner, rubbing it into the top and then letting it soak for a few minutes. Apply the convertible top cleaner liberally, thoroughly coating the top material. Follow that with a firm scrubbing (soft brush, no wire). Remember to hit the seams too, but don't be as firm there.

For white tops, a mild bleach solution may help to brighten up the fabric, but use this sparingly to avoid yellowing or damage. Dilute it with water (less than 25 percent bleach). Also, be sure to wet the surrounding areas and rinse thoroughly. Too much bleach will break down the fibers and damage other components.


As long as we're restoring soft tops, check out the plastic rear window. This is a safety issue that can result in one of those pesky fix-it tickets from local law enforcement at the least. Thanks to the wonders of science, there are specific cleaners and restorers for plastic windows, so don't be tempted to try conventional, harsh glass window cleaner. Specialty cleaners will remove light scratches and discoloration.

Often plastic rear windows end up with a permanent crease across the middle from being folded into the convertible position. This is much easier to prevent than fix. Try using a soft blanket or towel positioned so it folds with the window.


As important as the condition of the fabric is the framework the fabric is attached to. Whether that framework is the manually operated system typical of small two-seaters or the complex switch-activated hydraulic system, keep all the pivot points lubricated with light engine oil.

Generally, framework elements that contact metal body panels in the top's "up" position are insulated with padding or molding. This is so metal never touches and subsequently scratches other metal. It's important to check the condition of the framework's bumper pads and other molding areas that make contact with body panels.

Need a Lift?

American sport coupes, such as the early '60s Ford Thunderbirds, feature soft tops that fold into the vehicle's trunk with a series of motors, stop-switches and hydraulics. Serious DIYers can restore this system to its original sleekness with some patience and standard auto tools. While each retractable convertible top system is different, we'll use the T-bird system as an example. You may not be able to find replacement parts for the hydraulics and other T-bird systems at the neighborhood auto store, but enthusiast clubs and the Internet are great sources for both original or reproduction parts.

Start with ensuring that the hydraulic system is free of leaks. They're easy to detect, and replacing hoses is a fairly routine, simple job. The stop-switches, which basically keep the motors from running into each other as the top folds down, need to be maintained with contact cleaner and lubricant. The electrical relays, arranged in banks, control the series of motors, cueing them to start and stop in the right order. The best way to service these breaker points is to remove them and spray your contact cleaner and lubricant. Before you undertake a restoration of a true convertible classic, invest in the specific shop manual. This is not a job you want to guess your way through.

When to Replace

Now for the bad news: If the soft top is torn or shrunken or generally cannot be resuscitated with a re-dye job, you're looking at a replacement. You don't want to be seen cruisin' in a Porsche 356 or the '62 T-bird with duct tape or staples holding your top together. If the fabric has withered and cracked, trying to put the top up will remind you of zipping up a pair of jeans two sizes too small. Not a pretty sight.

The good news: With a little research and possibly some hints from an established dealership, you can buy a model-specific fabric kit without mortgaging your home. These kits come with complete instructions, but if you have any doubts in your DIY ability, check into professional installation at an automotive upholstery shop.

The really good news: If you're lucky enough to have a convertible, enjoy! There's no more satisfying way to go cruising on a sunny day.

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