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CaptainBristol

Why did sedans in the 20s and 30s have fabric roofs?

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Hi, all,

Here is a question that I'm sure someone here will be able to answer. Why did so many high end cars in the 20s and 30s have fabric (I'm assuming the fabric was canvas) roofs? Were those roofs leaky? I've seen a number of photos of cars from that era. The cars had what appeared to be solid steel roofs when seen from the side. However when seen from above the cars had significant stretches of fabric up there.

How come?

Thanks much,

Mark in Alaska

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Guest Trunk Rack

FABRIC ROOFS ?

The problem was technology in steel had not yet developed to permit large sheets of steel to be stretched enough to make an entire roof panel.

By the late 1930's, the steel industry and the tool-die makers had developed the technology make steel that would stretch enough, and tools that could "work" the steel without splitting it, to the point were "turret tops" (one company's advertising name for the process) of one-piece steel could be used to make an an entire roof panel.

Up thru the mid 1930's, car bodies were essentially stage-coaches, built as coaches had been build for hundreds of years. Wood frames with covering panels nailed on.

The introduction of the all-steel body in the mid 1930's was a tremendous safety factor. It also saved a fortune in production costs, as you can build a much stronger body faster and cheaper out of steel sheets and stampings, then you can "building up" wood bodies.

Somewhere someone hopefully has a copy of the GM and Chrysler advertising film strips from the 1930's, where they show how much safer an all-steel body is. Both strips show the previous generation (so-called fabric top sedans) and a "current generation" (meaning all-steel body), subjected to roll-over accidents.

Of course the wood-bodied car bodies would disintegrate. The all-steel bodied cars would be driven away.

Yup, they dont build em like they used to. THANK HEAVEN !

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That's a good question and would like to hear an answer also. I had read in someones history they didn't have the capability to do large draw (meaning height) or large area stampings until the mid 30's or advent of the all steel bodies era. Didn't say if that was because of equipment or steel composition or both but wonder if that really the case.

EDIT: Apparently it was steel. Thanks, Trunk Rack

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The first all steel experimental bodies were produced in York Pa. by the York Hoover Co. The technology actually developed from York Hoover's attempts to draw one piece (plus the lid) caskets from steel. York Hoover had diversified into casket manufacture (York Casket Co) as demand for wood framed bodies diminished in the late '20's-early '30's.

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Things continue to improve, unfortunately it isn't us. Have a look at the gas cap lid on a Toyota or Honda. Many have three curves, they are works of art. Don't know if we can do that. Even Mercedes trys to hold it to one curve, but prefers flat.

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the Budd company made all-steel bodies for Dodge bros. in 1914 -1915. After Dodge started making thier own they switched to compsition bodies (wood and steel).

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<div class="ubbcode-block"><div class="ubbcode-header">Originally Posted By: mrpushbutton</div><div class="ubbcode-body">the Budd company made all-steel bodies for Dodge bros. in 1914 -1915. After Dodge started making thier own they switched to compsition bodies (wood and steel). </div></div>

"All steel" did not mean an all steel roof. Dodge's first "all steel" roof panel (still an insert, but steel) was 1936.

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....your explanation was just the ticket.

However, I do have two more questions:

1. were those roofs prone to leaking?

2. I'm assuming they were noisy. Were they?

Thanks again,

Mark in Alaska

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As the rubberized fabric aged and developed cracks, they of course did begin to allow some moisture to pass thru. Often the leaks occurred at the moulding where they joined the steel panels. 10-25 years was probably a typical life if they were well cared for and the car was garage-kept. Typical care often involved coating them with a layer of butcher's wax once or twice a year.

But they surely were quiet, extremely quiet!

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The problem was with the steel. The rolling mills made sheet steel that was too narrow to make a whole roof in one piece. So they made the roof with a hole in the middle, filled with a material that resembles a vinyl top,over a base of wooden rafters covered by chicken wire and cotton padding to give a smooth shape.

Only luxury cars and custom bodies had one piece roofs. A 1934 Packard had a roof made of 4 pieces. The Cord 810 had a one piece roof made of 7 separate stampings, welded together, and the seams smoothed over with lead body solder, applied by hand then filed and sanded smooth. Of course this was too expensive and labor intensive for a mass produced car.

In 1934 the steel mills got new rolling mills that made a wider sheet. This permitted stamping out the whole roof in one piece.

General Motors introduced the "Turret Top" on their 1935 models in late 1934. The Chev Master series got the new turret top but the cheaper Standard model still had the insert.

The last cars I know of with the top insert were the 1937 Plymouth standard model and the Chrysler Airflow. The Airflow used the same body 1934 - 37.

By 1938 all American cars had the 1 piece top.

The English Riley RM model had a padded top over a wire mesh base as late as 1955 or 1956.

Ironically they brought back the vinyl top in the 60s and 70s as a luxury feature. In the 30s they were bragging because they got rid of them LOL.

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Guest Trunk Rack

<div class="ubbcode-block"><div class="ubbcode-header">Originally Posted By: Restorer32</div><div class="ubbcode-body">Packards in '37 still had fabric insert tops as well. </div></div>

Actually - a couple of years later. They were still building the so called "Senior" Packard bodies the old "composite body" way clear thru the end of "large" Packard production in the summer of 1939> That is when Packard closed down its "large car" or so called "Senior Division" production facilities, so that all production could be integrated into its standard car production.

Please - folks, dont be mad at me for use of the terms "Junior" and "Senior" Packard products. The term "Senior Division" and "junior division" were PACKARD's terms at the time, to differentiate where the essentially two different "companies" of Packard were built.

Yes, those so-called "composite" bodies ( essentially, car bodies built like stage coaches, with wood frames; the sheet metal nailed on) sure SOUNDED good when you closed a door. Especially when the stamped steel door wasnt properly sound-proofed.

Again, as noted elsewhere, GM and Chrysler went to full steel bodies in the 1930's faster than Packard did. Somewhere you can still find the "promotional" film-strips GM and Chrysler made showing how much safer in a accident the all-steel body is, compared to a typical "composite" body.

Yes, I am a fan of big Packards. And I love the sound of those "big" Packard doors closing. But if I had to choose a roll-over accident in a late 1930's Cadillac V-16 compared to a composite-body Packard V-12 - well...take a look at those old film strips !

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Guest Trunk Rack

yup ! (think we saw the same film-strip) (those Airflows may have been ugly, but they sure had tough bodies !)

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I would say one reason was that all-steel bodys where difficult to get quiet due of vibrationnoise and sounddeadning wasn't created yet, that's one reason why they also had wooden floors.

An other reason was that it was cheaper and lighter than steel.

With todays materials you can easyley get them watertight and still looking right.

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Guest Trunk Rack
The problem was with the steel. The rolling mills made sheet steel that was too narrow to make a whole roof in one piece. . . . . In 1934 the steel mills got new rolling mills that made a wider sheet. This permitted stamping out the whole roof in one piece until late '34 for '35 produdction in some makes of cars.

General Motors introduced the "Turret Top" on their 1935 models in late 1934. The Chev Master series got the new turret top but the cheaper Standard model still had the insert.

The last cars I know of with the top insert were the 1937 Plymouth standard model and the Chrysler Airflow. The Airflow used the same body 1934 - 37.

By 1938 all American cars had the 1 piece top.

The English Riley RM model had a padded top over a wire mesh base as late as 1955 or 1956.

Ironically they brought back the vinyl top in the 60s and 70s as a luxury feature. In the 30s they were bragging because they got rid of them LOL.

= = = = = = = = = = = = = =

This is all very true, but only part of the story. There was a very good reason WHY there was no point in mills rolling steel wide enough to do an entire car top in one piece.

Very simple reason. It wasnt until the early 1930's that the technology of steel manufacture, and of steel stamping, developed to the point where large complex sheets could be stamped out without the steel tearing or cracking. Once that problem had been solved, it made sense to mill steel in wider sheets.

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To answer the question about noise and leakage...my 1936 Dodge Brothers touring sedan had a steel top insert and was very quiet inside and never a leak through the top insert edges or windows. It was my everyday driver, so yes, I drove it rain, snow or shine.

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Another problem was the very high cost of a stamping mill big enough to stamp out a whole roof.

If you can find a picture the stamping mills were as big as a 2 or 3 story house. I have seen a picture of one stamping out the roof for a 1940s Nash. This one stamping went from the base of the windshield all the way to the back bumper. It must have been more than 10 feet long.

Such an enormous investment in tooling could only be justified in terms of mass production of many thousands of bodies. But once the investment was made it cut the cost of making the bodies due to the time and material saved.

This must have been one factor in the demise of small producers of hand made autos like Stutz, Pierce Arrow and Duesenberg. And why some chose to buy their bodies from outside suppliers. Even Packard began buying their bodies from Briggs about this time and Packard was not a small company except by comparison with the giants like GM and Ford.

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