What is a Landau roof? A history of luxury car vinyl roof treatment

Leather upholstery has long been synonymous with luxury and class in the cabins of the world’s finest automobiles. For a surprising period of time, the same attitude also applied to the exterior of the car – or at least, a reasonable vinyl facsimile of it. The “pram” roof, that surprisingly persistent example of wearing your vehicle’s undergarments on the outside, graced the bodywork of dozens of brands from the 1960s through the late 1990s, with the torch carried over to the secondary market long after OEMs have left. the case.

It turns out the pram roof has a history that predates the automobile, haunting the industry like a ghost long after its relevance has faded into the stylistic ether. While memories of this timeless accessory may have faded in recent years, if the past is any guide, we’re never so far from a resurrection of one of the least likely status symbols. Of the industry.

Different horses for different courses

Once upon a time, when horses ruled the roads, one of the fanciest cars money could buy was called a “landau”, named after the German town whose coachbuilders put them on the map. . Its claim to fame was its ability to keep occupants dry in the rain while providing unrestricted access to the sun on milder travel days, thanks to a folding fabric roof that covered the entire passenger area (while often enclosing the conductor in the elements).

Then there was the level of comfort customers had with wagons and buggies, a factor that made them more readily embrace the familiar (wooden bodies, fabric roofs) alongside the weird (gas burners noisy and spewing smoke). This led to many interpretations of the pram concept, usually as a half-shell that opened up the view through the windshield while keeping rain and snow at bay (and eventually transitioning to a mullet covered with fabric for the steel roof lines of higher final models).

Fake convertibles at factory discounts

Eventually styling trends shifted and painted steel and tin largely took over from the deciduous corpses that had formed the original backbone of automotive design, leaving only a trickle of cars covered in vinyl available to the masses. As with all things fashion, however, the cyclical unearthing of the past played no small part in the various shapes and silhouettes that invaded American parking lots, which meant that after only a few decades of slumber, the pram concept was ready for a revival.

The main instigator was Cadillac, which turned to the modern marvel that was vinyl (one of the many exciting hydrocarbon-based products of industrial chemistry that emerged after World War II), to give what he saw as an old-fashioned touch of class to the 1956 Eldorado coupe. in fabric found on the ultra-expensive Biarritz convertible edition of the car.

It wasn’t long before the rest of Detroit was lining up behind the luxury leader, and by the early 1960s a long list of brands were marketing their own soft-touch, well-padded vinyl tops adorned with buttons and tabs. snaps meant to evoke the feel of rag tops of yesteryear. It was Ford that revived the “pram” name in particular, adding it to the range-leading Thunderbird in the early ’60s as its own trim level (and also making vinyl available on the Falcon Futura a lot less expensive). The T-Bird even came with “landau bars” stuck to the side, a visual representation of old-school car hinges.

Audiences were only too willing to buy into the concept that exposed vinyl was the next best thing after acres of interior wood in terms of richness and four-wheeled taste. Predictably, this led to an explosion of interpretation of the pram in nearly every slice of the market, with even experimental models like the 1963 Chrysler Turbine car boasting vinyl veneer.

While the pillow-like implementation remained a constant among high-end nameplates, stiffer vinyl shells quickly spread to the low-cost muscle car and adjacent segments. Divorced from the soft texture of the pram, these designs have taken over showrooms to cover everything from wagons to vans to sedans with a reinforced canopy that, in the case of Mopar’s Mod Tops and Floral Tops, has sometimes even exploded the eye with paisley or shark tooth prints. patterns that often matched the interior upholstery.

As an added bonus for automakers, inexpensive vinyl top installations have saved the body shop a lot of money by concealing welds and other aspects of the unfinished metal that hides underneath. This benefit was certainly not passed on to the customer, as torn or carelessly sealed vinyl exposed the unpainted metal to moisture, allowing rust to spread like a hidden tumor on the roof and pillars.

A-Plenty portholes

By the time the 1970s rolled around, executive style trends took a distinctly nautical turn as portholes (or more formally, “opera windows” including their rectangular brethren) began to appear from the C-pillars. of the most powerful land yachts available. from Lincoln, Cadillac, Chevrolet and even AMC. Always shorthand for luxury, the formal landau top (a term that was now more liberally slung across marketing materials, alongside look-alike ‘Brougham’ models) entered its imperial phase, festooning all manner of personal coupes and sedans. resembling barges in the holiest spot of each automaker’s respective showrooms.

It was here that the momentum of the pram ignominiously began to stop. As the ’80s approached and Detroit’s downsizing began, fewer and fewer models featured what was increasingly seen as a reminder of an overly baroque and overly excessive automotive era. Although smaller fares (like the AMC Eagle) could still be found with a prominent vinyl hood, these were increasingly carryovers to the upper end of an automaker’s lineup (like the Oldsmobile 98, Ford Crown Victoria, and Chrysler LeBaron) where the vinyl hung. The 1996 Cadillac Fleetwood and Buick Roadmaster were the last American automobiles to offer the pram look straight from the factory.

What circulates, comes back… The secondary market

Unfortunately for modern aesthetes, the aftermarket wasn’t as willing to stray away from what it perceived to be a cash cow of customers seeking their vinyl fix. The end result was a cottage industry of poorly designed and even more ill-fitting fabric hairnets buttoned onto the rear quarters of everything from Eldorados to town cars to Toyota Camrys by owners eager to relive a bygone era of the automotive styling as clumsily as possible. The further the design of the vehicle moved away from the boxy shapes of yesteryear, the less convincing these faux pram kits became, resulting in a feature that today more often causes shivers rather than admiration from passers-by.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the pram-continuation phenomenon seemed to find its home in Florida, a hotbed of retirees living out their nostalgia for a bygone automotive era. So it only makes sense that as this population stops driving, pram craving has fallen to its lowest level in decades, biding its time in the background as the endless carousel of public taste continues to spin. .

That ticking you hear? It’s the countdown to the 2035 Cadillac Escalade Brougham EV.

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