Caring for Your Car’s Convertible Top

by Paul Gaylo

Top down, wind in your hair; there are few things better than driving a convertible. But eventually the clouds will roll in, and you’ll need to put your convertible’s top back up. When that time comes, you’ll want to be sure your convertible’s top will keep you warm and dry. Metal hardtops are easy to take care of and offer the convenience of a fixed metal roof, but most convertibles use a fabric roof. If you are lucky enough to own a convertible, regular washing and some easy maintenance tips will keep your car’s soft top in great shape.

Determine Whether the Top is Fabric or Vinyl

Whether we’re talking about sports cars or Jeeps, soft-top convertibles share the same basic mechanism—a flexible, waterproof covering over a folding frame that clips securely in position, protecting you from the elements. Materials and complexity vary, but modern convertible tops are all waterproof thanks to either a rubberized surface or a waterproof inner core. Fabric convertible tops will have a matte finish that appears canvas-like. Vinyl convertible tops will have a leather or plastic-like sheen and are more water-resistant (but also more likely to develop cracks and leaks). It’s important to determine what type of material you have, as the tips and tricks for care vary. One way to determine your ragtop’s material is to rub a tiny droplet of water into its surface. If the droplet soaks in, the top is almost certainly fabric. If it smears, the top is vinyl.

Use the Right Cleaning Materials

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As a first step in your convertible top care, always consult your owner’s manual for special instructions unique to your convertible and its top. Soft convertible tops are more delicate than hardtops and require a gentler touch when washing.

Nearly all convertible tops will tolerate a general cleaning with normal car-wash detergent. Use gentle strokes, and check out this article on the right way to wash your car for some great car-washing tips. Avoid harsh cleaners like bleach, ammonia, buffing compounds, and waxes. Check the labels on your convertible top cleaners to determine if they are specifically for fabric or vinyl tops. Consider cleaning products that are purpose-made for your top’s materials as a first choice. In all cases, always test a cleaner on an inconspicuous area to be sure of its performance before using it across the whole top. While it may seem like an inconvenience, a quick test is worth the time spent preventing any discoloration that might occur when using the wrong cleaner.

Wash Your Top the Right Way

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Modern convertible tops in good condition will tolerate a gentle hand wash and most automatic car washes but avoid high-pressure car washes. Since a convertible’s top is more flexible than a normal hardtop, direct spray pressure may overwhelm the seals around your windows and other areas, leading them to fail in the future.

If your convertible’s top has a glass rear window, clean it the same way you would an ordinary car window, being careful not to get glass cleaner on the surrounding fabric or vinyl surfaces. If you have a plastic window, use a specialized cleaner designed to clean and polish, otherwise, oxidation will make it hard to see through these clear panels.

Be careful to avoid getting wax on your convertible’s top when you are washing the other parts of the car. Wax meant for painted metal surfaces will discolor your top and may be very difficult to remove.

Tackle Troublesome Spots and Stains

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Spot cleaning your top may be necessary, but there are some common mistakes you’ll want to avoid. When it comes to fabric tops, avoid spot cleaning with anything other than the soap you typically use. Use a clean, stiff-bristled brush on a pre-wetted top to massage away the grime, and then rinse with water. On extremely stubborn stains, try a purpose-made fabric-top cleaner. If you go this route, be sure to treat the entire top to ensure uniformity after the water dries. Avoid oil-based cleaners and harsh solvents, as these can leave permanent marks on your top.

Vinyl tops are easier to clean because they have a shiny resilient surface that usually wipes clean with a regular car wash or a vinyl cleaner. Use a soft cloth for cleaning and avoid stiff bristle brushes and abrasive cleaners, as these may dull or mark a vinyl top.

Protect Your Convertible’s Top

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On vinyl tops, it’s always a good idea to use a liquid protectant as your final step. This will help protect the vinyl from ultra-violet (UV) radiation, tree sap, and acidic bird droppings. Consider Armor All protectant and other vinyl-safe treatments to add a pleasing (and protective) shine. For fabric tops, there are specialized water-repellent fabric guard treatments you can use after cleaning. These treatments will make the water bead before it soaks into the fabric. They may also help protect against UV damage.

Frames that support and fold the top are generally maintenance free. If you are having trouble folding your top, it’s best to take your car to a specialist and ask them to diagnose its problems. Avoid trying to grease or oil the frame yourself, as you could stain your top and inadvertently mask a bigger structural problem.

If you’re going to store your car for an extended period of time, make sure the top is in the “up” position. This will keep it fully supported, looking smooth, and will help it last longer. If you fold down your top when it is wet, be sure to put it back up to allow the moisture to dry when you reach your destination. This will help to prevent mold and mildew from taking root in your top.

Unlike hardtops, most soft tops will wear out before the car does. If your top is old, frayed, torn, or heavily stained, consider getting a quote for a replacement from a specialist. Depending on your car, there may be several options when it comes to a replacement top, and some options are more affordable than others.

The Bottom Line

It’s easy to keep your convertible’s top looking great. It’s key to know what it’s made of and what additional maintenance is needed. Using the right cleaners and gentle technique to address trouble spots early on can help it stay in top-notch condition. Finally, follow up with protectants to extend the life of your top—and leave you trouble-free for top-down driving.

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Paul Gaylo is a lifelong automotive enthusiast, shade-tree mechanic, and engineer for Lockheed Martin. Having personally restored a Morris Minor, crafted a fuel-injection system for an MGB GT, and taken an XJ Jeep Cherokee to the bitter end of its useful life, he has earned a reputation as a tinkerer and curator of old cars.

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