Few things are more exhilarating than dropping the top, having the wind wash over your face, and listening to the sweet symphony of a tuned exhaust. The convertible experience elevates driving to a whole new level. To keep the good times rolling though, the system requires regular maintenance. Over a vintage ragtop’s life, the electric/hydraulic motor, top cylinders, vinyl top, or any other related parts need to be replaced or restored.
Unlike any other system on a car, a convertible top assembly is a hydraulic/electrical/ mechanical system with a metal frame and an elaborate upholstered top. This combination of disparate components must operate in harmony so the roof smoothly rises out of the well, lowers into position onto the windshield, and does the same thing in reverse.
When a part fails within the system, or is worn out after several decades of use, component replacement and often complete restoration may be in order. At this time, you should source the premium quality parts from an established leader in the industry. Hydro-E-lectric, based in Punta Gorda, Florida, has specialized in convertible top replacements, top cylinders, and convertible top motor pumps for more than four decades.
In fact, the company offers convertible top components for BMW 318i to VW Super Beetle and everything in between, and this includes muscle cars from the Big Three. The company also carries convertible top hose sets, top latches, top hardware, well liners, boots, carpet sets, window motors, window cylinders, vent gears, header bows, and rear tack-bow trim sticks for foreign and domestic cars from 1946 through present day.
The company was founded in 1976 by Paul Wiesman in Auburn, Massachusetts. Co-owner and daughter Ericka Wiesman-Berryhill recalls the humble beginnings, “He has a 1953 Olds 98. When he went to the garage one day, the window was down and a puddle was on the floor. He removed the hydraulic window cylinder and went to a machinist friend to help fix it. He advertised the rebuilding service in Hemmings Motor News, and started making new ones. The business grew from there. That cylinder is still on the car, and the window still works.”
Several years ago, Hydro-E-Lectric moved to a 6,000-square-feet facility in Punta Gorda, Florida, several years ago and now has 10 employees. When discussing convertible tops and interiors, Wiesman-Berryhill states, “As long as the color is available, we can get the material and then make any top or interior piece. If you call me, and you have a ’64 Cadillac that has a canary yellow top, and I can’t find it [the color] anywhere. As long as the material is available to us, we can make it ourselves or have the top and other parts made in that material.”
Electric Motors and Cylinders
Hydro-E-lectric carries a full line of rugged and reliable hydraulic/electric convertible motors that drive hydraulic cylinders to lift and lower convertible tops. After several years, the electric motor’s internals, seals, and lines can deteriorate. In most cases, it’s more expensive to rebuild the motors than to replace them. Fortunately, it’s a straightforward process for replacing the motors, routing the hydraulic lines, and bleeding the system. Most motors are found behind the rear seat, and typically, only a few bolts hold the seat in. Once the rear seat has been removed, you need to remove the hydraulic lines with a wrench, unplug the motor’s wiring harness, mount the new motor and plug it in. Typically, the entire replacement procedure only takes half an hour.
As Wiesman-Berryhill states, “The parts we offer are plug-and-play, so it’s a direct replacement. You have to take the old one [motor] out and put the new one in. Then, just like bleeding brakes, you bleed the system to get the fluid in. Most mechanically-inclined people have the ability to do that.”
Some ragtop motors are old or unusual enough that they may need to be rebuilt. As Wiesman-Berryhill explains, “We don’t rebuild our standard motor pump, but we rebuild the early ones, the 1946 to 1953 pumps. We also rebuild the small electric, convertible-top motors used on ’71 to ’76 GM scissor-top convertibles. A lot of the hydraulic motors we have on the shelf can be rebuilt, but it usually takes three or four hours, and by then, you’ve spent more money than buying a new one.”
Hydro-E-Lectric has solutions for ragtops from 1946 to 1954 that use a 6-volt system. Wiesman Berryhill explains, “If you want to keep it original we have a 6-volt motor, and wire-adapter kit to make it work in the car. It can also be converted to a 12-volt system fairly easily – we just replace the switch, wiring, and hoses.”
Convertible top and motor maintenance go a long way towards extending life or preventing replacement down the road. Often, tops systems sit for too long and that lack of use creates problems. As Wiesman-Berryhill states, “It’s always a good idea to run the tops every once in a while to keep the rods lubricated. The motor has an armature and you don’t want that to stick. The motors are made to be run and they get weak over time. It’s good to keep them running every once in a while.”
The hydraulic cylinders also have a life cycle. When the life cycle has been exceeded or damage has ocurred, the owners often experience common problems. According to Wiesman-Berryhill, “They [the manufacturers] pretty much made those [hydraulic convertible cylinders] as a disposable part. They can start leaking. If the rods bend, or if the barrel gets dented, they have to be replaced. Normally, it will struggle to go up on one side. Sometimes when putting up or lowering the top, it will fall or slam down to the windshield or into the well. This is a clear indicator, they need new cylinders.” Hydro-E-Lectric offers a full line of cylinders and a cylinder rebuilding service for older or less common models.
Convertible tops are extended and retracted countless times, exposed to UV radiation, moisture, and inclement weather. After some time, frequent use and exposure wear out the vinyl or canvas tops. The tops become faded, cracked, or sometimes pieces of vinyl peel away. Water may enter the car through the roof. The plastic rear window may haze over, and if it’s a glass window, it may actually fall out of the roof material.
As most suspect, installing a top requires skill, the right tools, patience, and frequent adjustments. Not everyone is capable of doing the work. Wiesman-Berryhill recalls a recent convertible top install at the shop. “It’s a skill set that takes a lot of time and learning,” she said. “I watched a top installation recently on a ‘64 Corvette. The day before the install, it took hours and hours of getting things aligned and the frame sitting right. The next day, it took most of the day for the technicians to put the top on. The installer did the whole front [of the top] and then some of the back. He put the top up to the windshield and it had some extra material, so they had to take the whole front apart and redo it because the vinyl wasn’t tight enough. If he has to do it twice, someone like me would have to do it two or three times.”
In addition to convertible top repair and restoration, the shop will restore and customize interiors. The company provides technical support to ensure the products perform up to customers’ expectation, and the company stands behind its products with a five-year warranty on hydraulics. Tops have a five- to eight-year warranty, depending on the manufacturer. In addition, the company extends a two-year warranty on labor. If your convertible top motor is leaking, a hydraulic cylinder is losing pressure, or if the convertible top is cracked, faded, and failing, the staff at Hydro-E-Lectric has components, parts, and expertise to make your ragtop operate like it did when it rolled off the showroom floor.
For more information about everything on convertible tops and interior restoration, check out hydroe.com.