Replacing a Car Convertible Top




Introduction: Replacing a Car Convertible Top

One of the things we love most about living in San Diego is the temperate climate, which demands a convertible. The awesomeness of cruising around with the top down is priceless, and we picked up a great deal on a '98 Cabrio.

Like most used cars, it had a couple signs of use - the worst sign of wear was the top. As vinyl tops age, they shrink and become brittle; rips and holes are accelerated by putting the top down. Most owners just stop using them to avoid taking on the cost of replacing a top. Seriously, it should be a crime to drive a convertible with the top up in San Diego. :-)

The estimates we got for replacing the top ran from $900 to $1500. I'll show you how to replace your top for . . .


(Prices may vary for your model.) The actual cost was $259, but you'll also want to get canvas cleaner and have to pay for shipping and tax.

With a single weekend's work and patience, our Cabrio (AKA Mirthmobile) now sports a new top.

Warning: This project requires employs sharp instruments and power tools, requires a familiarity with working with automotive  tools, and a **really** positive can-do attitude that will get you out of trouble when you encounter problems. If you don't possess all of these, pay the $1500 or more to replace your top.

The top you will order comes with full instructions, but this instructable is presented to inspire you. YOU CAN DO THIS! :-)

Materials needed for this instructable:
- 1 replacement top for your model of vehicle. Do some searching online - the best deal and selection we found was here:
Convertible Top Guys
Kit will include the top, pop rivets, staples, new hold-down cables, and glue you need to do the job.
- (If you have a glass window with rubber trim) Tube or strip of windshield sealer (not included in kit)
- One sunny weekend without rain (Not a tall order in San Diego)
- Silicone spray for trim re-installation

Tools needed for this instructable:
- Basic automotive tools (open/box end wrenches, screwdrivers, hammers, etc.)
- rubber mallet
- drill and 1/8" bits
- Pop rivet gun
- Screw gun and fine Phillips tips OR torx tips - there are LOTS of screws in this project, don't try it with manual screwdrivers. Torx screws are special "star" shaped counter sunk head screws, similar to Phillips but straight-sided and deeper. See if your model uses them and have a set on hand (the Cabrio uses these.)
- Staple gun - preferably a pneumatic staple gun (you might be able to rent one) but we managed our project with a standard staple gun and gentle tapping
- Center punch
- Utility knife
- At least a 6-8 foot length of 1/8" - 3/16" nylon rope
- flat plastic tool
- Helper (second person) for the window and trim stick in and out
- Mechanical ability

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Step 1: Remove Interior Panels to Expose Top Fastening Points.

Required for this step:
Screwdrivers/screw gun
Large flat screwdriver

Of course, you shouldn't start removing the old top until you have the new top in hand and have reviewed the instructions in the kit. :-)

The general procedure will be to remove the old top, working from it's outer edges inward, then the window, then the main fastening areas of the old top. Check out your top and see where it disappears under the interior panels, these will all have to be removed to gain access to the edges of the top. This will vary for your model, but in our Cabrio, I found it helpful (a step later than I should have) to completely remove the back seats and side and back side panels.

Removal of these will vary for your model. Sometimes they are screws. Sometimes they are "pop out" plastic fasteners, in which case you can gently lift the edge of the trim and work a flat screwdriver toward the fastener, then twist when the tip is close to the fastener. Usually you can hear them "tick" as they start to slip out, but often they will break, so be prepared to buy new ones.

The rear side panels in the Cabrio are pretty clever. There is a single screw into the body that goes into a bar that holds the whole thing in. Access the screw from the front after the seat is removed.

Remove all the rubber trim around the edge of the frames. Once the trim is removed from the rear frame member, you can see where the edges of the top are glued to the frame. Generally you can (gently!) lodge a screwdriver under the leading edge of the trim and work it upward and out of the frame, then "peel" the trim out. They don't go back in quite as easy. :-)

The goal in this step is to just expose where the top is fastened - don't be concerned with the rear trim stick yet, but when you remove the rear inner panels, you should see where the rear trim stick is fastened to the rear of the body by bolts.

The good news: if your model has a headliner (it should,) you generally won't have to remove it unless it's rotted or moldy.

Step 2: Remove Rear Window.

Required for this step:
Length of 1/8" - 3/16" nylon rope
Wide screwdrivers or plastic tools
Helper (second person)

Getting the window in and out is probably the most difficult step requiring the most patience, but it can be made pretty easy. You should probably tackle this early on, maybe even before removing the interior trims, because if you can't get the window out, you won't be able to complete this task.

You can use wide flat screwdrivers for this step, but exercise extreme caution in lifting the rubber so you don't tear the rubber. A better choice are some sort of flat, flexible plastic tools, anything from a plastic putty knife to a plastic scrap, without sharp edges.

Remove the defroster clips from the window, if so equipped.

From the inside of the vehicle, use the screwdriver and your fingers to lift the rubber at one corner. Using a second tool, do the same thing an inch or two away so you have a lifted "flap" between the two tools. Get the rope, and work the rope underneath the trim so it tucks into this space between the two tools. Working with one finger pressed on the rope, slide one of the screwdrivers along the edge of the trim, lifting the trim as you push so you press the rope into the lifted edge. The goal is to get the rope "tucked in" all the way around the trim, then have the two ends meet somewhere in the middle of the top edge of the window. The cheesy illustration shows what you should see: the two edges of the rope hanging down in the middle of the window.

Now tie the ends of the rope in a square knot, and in a second square knot, tie a long screwdriver as shown in the example. Pull your knots tight, and begin turning the screwdriver like the hands of a clock, twisting the rope in a "tourniquet" fashion. You should see the edge of the trim start to pucker a little. Don't twist it tight yet, just get ready.

As this point, realize you won't be able to let go of the screwdriver or it will flip like a helicopter head, possibly breaking the glass. Call in your helper, have them standing by and ready, as what happens next has to happen all at once. Get into a position where you will be able to apply pressure from the inside of the window on the corners of one side. It's tight quarters, so experiment with the best position, remembering that one hand will have to hang on to the screwdriver once you start turning it.

Instruct your helper to stand behind the vehicle and be ready to pull GENTLY at the edge of the window as soon as they see a gap big enough for their fingers from your efforts. From the inside, don't pound on or apply too much pressure to the window, you CAN break it even though it's tempered glass. Try to focus your pushing efforts on the EDGES of the window, not the center of the window.  If you're doing it properly, gentle repetitive pushes should be enough to ease the window out.

Ready? Twist the rope up tight again, working your fingers around the edge, making sure the rope stays in under the trim. Don't over-do it or the rope will slip out from under the trim and you'll have to start over. Twist a turn, press the rope around the edge, twist a turn, press the rope - eventually the trim will start to lift high enough away from the frame that you'll be able to tell, if you tighten it much more the rope will slip out.

Now begin pressing gently at the top corner of the glass, then bottom. You may hear creaking noises, especially if any windshield seal was used, this is good. It means you're making progress. Remember to use gentle bumps: put your hand on the glass, push-release, move to the bottom corner, push-release, bump, bump, bump, take your time. Eventually one corner will start to give, remind your assistant to not pull to hard and be gentle. Once one side comes up, the entire window will slide out and you can do a happy dance. The hardest part is over.

** DO NOT REMOVE THE ROPE FROM THE WINDOW. ** Tie a knot in the rope and leave it on the window, you will use it to re-install the window.

Step 3: Remove the Top From the Front, Sides, and Window Frame.

Required for this step:
screwdrivers/screw gun
Fine Phillips tips OR proper torx tips
drill and 1/8" bit
Basic automotive tools as required

The goal of this step is to remove the top from the sides and window, and will require the top itself to be fully opened and sometimes only partially closed to access all the fastened areas.

Start from the front of the top and remove all the Phillips or torx screws from the front trim strip and remove the strip. Remove the side trim strips, revealing where the top attaches to the sides of the frame as well. Beneath these you will find plastic screw mounts that the screws were in. With a small screwdriver, GENTLY pry these out, holding your hand over them so they don't flip out and get lost - they may be hard to replace. Continue inspecting the edge of the frame to the rear frame member, where you will find more trim strips and more fasteners that require removal.

Seek out any other areas holding the top in, such as the flap (pictured)  fastened by pop rivets. Drill out the center of the pop rivets with a 1/8" drill bit to remove them. The Cabrio also has a frame strap with plastic fasteners that are removed by gently prying apart the two halves. Don't lose these, as they will be hard to replace.

Take note where the vinyl is glued all around, from the front to the back areas. Be extra attentive before peeling the vinyl from these areas; the new top will be over-cut and you'll have to trim off excess. It must fit exactly as you see it here or it will cause wrinkles in your top.

Peel the top from these areas, and now the top should be free on the front and sides. At this point, it will become even more apparent how thin the aged vinyl is, it's like a dead lizard skin.

The next part is a bit tedious: using a small tipped screwdriver, begin removing the staples from the window frame around the inside of the window. It's important you remove the entire staple if possible so it doesn't hang up your new installation. If the staples are rusted and break off, try gripping the remaining piece with needlenose pliers to pull it out. If you can't get it all out, make sure you tap it in or bend it flush with the edge of the window frame.

When done, you should be able to slide the top back and now it's only attached by the trim strip as shown in picture #5.

Step 4: Remove the Rear Trim Stick and the Old Top.

Needed for this step:
basic automotive tools
Helper (second person)

From the inside of the vehicle, locate and remove all the bolts holding the rear trim stick in. Once free and loose, cover the rear of the vehicle in blankets and get your assistant to help lift out the trim stick to the rear of the vehicle. You may have to compress the trim stick a little (squeeze the ends together) to get it to come out.

Lift the trim stick up and over the top and let it set on the top as shown. You may find it helpful to cut the old top off of what's attached to the trim stick, but leave enough on to grip the old top in the next step.

The top is held to the trim stick by a thick edge on the top that fits into a channel in the aluminum trim stick. Begin working the old top back and forth sideways to slide it out of this channel. It may be crusted up and take a bit of effort to get it out, but it's not glued in, in spite of how difficult it is to move.

The rear area is probably filled with dirt and dust, take a minute to clean up the inner body area and clean off the trim stick before putting it back in. We're ready to start putting things back together.

Step 5: Put New Top on Vehicle.

Required for this step:
pop rivets, vinyl glue (provided in kit)
hold down cables (provided in kit)
pop rivet gun
small hammer
screw gun
utility knife

Like most auto manuals say, "installation is the reverse of removal. :-)

The exception is the replacement of the hold-down cables. They will be threaded through the headliner, usually through guide tubes. Follow your manual's instructions and replace the hold-down cables before proceeding.

Slide the new top into the channel of the rear trim stick, and make sure it's centered.

Lower the trim stick into the body, and have your assistant help hold it in place while you bolt it back in.

Pull the top up over the front, and attach the front trim stick first. Before putting any glue on, attach the front trim stick with a couple screws, then open and close the top to make sure everything lines up and it's not off center to one side, causing cross-wrinkles. Put a layer of vinyl glue along the front strip, then attach the front trim.

Working your way from back to front, glue the vinyl into their respective locations, and trim off the excess vinyl. Cut out little square holes where the screw fasteners go back into the frame. If you do this right, the very edge of the fasteners will overlap the vinyl where you cut it and help hold it in place.

Re-attach the side-flaps, and rivet in the top where it attaches to the frame at the middle bows.

Replace all the trim sticks.

When complete, you should be able to raise and lower the top with very few wrinkles. Almost done!

Step 6: Install Window.

Required for this step:
Staples (from kit)
Staple gun or pneumatic staple gun
Hole punch
Utility knife
needle nose pliers
Windshield seal kit

This procedure should be performed with the top completely "up" and in the locked position.

Cut out the center of the window with a utility knife and leave at least a two inch margin all around the window. Beginning at the middle top, bottom, and sides, drive a single staple into the side of the window frame, just where the old ones were. DO NOT pull the vinyl tight, just snug. It will tighten up as you go around the window.

If you're using a pneumatic staple gun, this should be a single shot. If you couldn't find one to rent, the staples will be left hanging out a bit. Although this makes it a more tedious job, use a flat nosed hole punch to tap the staples all the way in. Position the punch over each "shoulder" of the staple, like pounding in a fine nail, so you have to tap in both sides of the staple.  If you bend them, use pliers to take them out, these need to be all the way in and flush with the window frame.

Now repeat the process with all four corners, making sure you're not pulling any wrinkles into the top as you add staples. Add staples on either side of these so that the corners are firmly stapled in.

Next pick four more locations between the corners and center points, all around. Repeat until you have staples all the way around the window, with no more than 3/4" apart from each other, and all smoothly flush with the edge of the window. Yes, that's a LOT of staples and is a total pain, I wish I could have found a pneumatic staple gun too, but wasn't going to buy one for a single job. :-\

Use the utility knife to run around the finished edge and trim off the excess so it's flush with the window frame.

Apply a thin bead of windshield seal as shown in the illustration, "mostly" on the bottom of the frame edge but slightly touching the side. I found the standard windshield seal kit, the kind that's a pre-rolled "strip," too thick so I rolled it between my hands until it was no more than 1/4" in diameter. Press it neatly into the ledge so it doesn't interfere with the window re-installation, it will flatten out and seal perfectly, and won't make it too difficult to remove for the next top install (tops generally last 10-15 years, if properly cared for.)

Get your assistant to hold the window in place and set the window back in the hole. From the inside of the vehicle, twist up the rope tight in the same way you did to remove it - it shouldn't need to be as tight as it was for removal. Use a screwdriver to run around the edge of the seal from the inside to insure it's going inside the edge of the window frame before your helper applies any pressure. Have your helper apply pressure to the window AT THE EDGES (not the center, which will break the window.) You might try to work one corner and side at a time, eventually it will start to press in.

Once you can see the window is "mostly" in the frame, cooperate with your helper to agree on what's going in first. That is, "I'm pulling the rope out at the center bottom and we're going to work toward the driver's side." (Don't say left or right, they are outside the car and their left is your right, and vice-versa!) Your helper should then push on the bottom, and move his or her pushes to the bottom on the driver's side and so on, applying pressure where you're pulling the rope out. The trim should slip up over the frame beautifully, and once the rope is removed, you should have a perfect seal, inside and out, with just a few more gentle bumps.

Step 7: Replace All Trims and Hardware.

Required for this step:
Screwdrivers/screw gun
Silicone spray
rubber mallet

You're just one short hour from cruising with your new top, depending on how much trouble you have with the rubber trims. :-) Replace all the trims and interior panels and rear seat.

I'll tell you right off, the rubber trims are not likely to be an easy task. Some of them you can get to go right in if you spray them with silicone spray on the surfaces meant to slide into the top frame. Others you'll have to work in with a screwdriver or plastic tool, lifting an edge here or there. For the Cabrio, the rear frame trims just wouldn't go from any side - I had to slide them in from the end and tap the rubber, driving it in like a stake. Whatever you do, don't lose patience and start hammering away. Look at how it's supposed to go in, and work carefully. You shouldn't need more than a tap here or there once they are almost in position.

If you bought vinyl top treatment with your new top (you should have,) use immediately and as instructed. DO NOT use Armor-all, use vinyl top treatments only.

Adjustment: You shouldn't need any adjustment, but we noticed a bit of air noise coming from the header at freeway speeds after installing our new top. At the front of the top locks, you will find the hooks are held in by two large bolts. The hooks can be adjusted to tighten the locks if needed. Don't over-do it or you'll prematurely wear out the header locks, crush the rubber seal along the header too much, or break the locking mechanism- only tighten them one "slot" at a time, and only as needed.

One weekend, was that so bad? Use the money you saved to go on a sunny top-down road trip. Enjoy your new top!

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    3 Discussions


    5 months ago on Step 7

    You should write instruction manuals for a living! Nice article! I'm on the verge of buying a 20 year old Sebring and after reading this will attempt the top by myself.

    Nice instructable! Might you be able to give me an estimate on how long everything took to do, without installing the window?

    I'm in desperate need of doing this project but can never seem to get 2 decent weekend days in a row to do it. So, I'm thinking I will replace the top first and then cut out the window/install the window at a later date.


    Reply 5 years ago on Introduction

    Most of the work is the top itself, I started Saturday morning and got to step 6 by Sunday, so you'll probably still need two days. It can probably be done faster, but the worst thing someone can do is hurry, that's how errors happen. The window itself was only a couple hours. If you have bad weather just get a good tarp and alternate transportation for a day or two, there's always a way. :-D