From riding stallions across the open plains, to sailing schooners along ocean straights, and base-jumping from the cusp of a perilous precipice, man’s infatuation with feeling the wind in their hair is eternal. Over the centuries, this infatuation has transformed thanks to the invention of the bicycle, the airplane, skateboards, roller-skates, speed boats, hang gliders, pogo sticks, snowboards, and any other number of open-air mode of transportation.
But despite the advent of all of these revolutionary inventions, modern man’s preferred method of transportation still involves a wheeled apparatus and an engine of some sort. Yes, we’re talking about motorized vehicles, and the numerous options that are available to us as drivers.
When it comes to vehicular options though, outside of riding a motorcycle, ATV, or a trike of some sort, convertible cars offer the most liberating driving experience. But these machines have their unique weaknesses and maintenance issues, with one of the big one being the retractable top that shields the vehicle’s occupants from pop-up rainstorms and swarms of locusts alike.
The Anatomy of the Modern Convertible Top
Unless you are working with a retractable hardtop, like that found on the Mazda Miata MX-5 RF, the average convertible top comprises either of a supple covering that’s been affixed to a folding, scissor-like retractable structure. Once clipped into place, this soft top protects the vehicle’s occupants from the elements, deadens sound, and acts as a form of privacy.
While they may never be as weather resistant or safe as their hard top counterparts, the soft top convertibles of today are far more resilient than one might expect. Featuring things like rubberized and insulated inner cores, 3-ply toppings with acrylic twill weave facing, Polyester backing, and gorgeous woven surfaces, the convertibles of today are equal parts well-crafted and rugged.
Most cloth top convertible rely upon a canvas-like material consisting of either an acrylic, or dapper polyester and cotton woven fabric laminate outer blend, stretchy elastomeric butyl inner layers, and a meticulously stitched cotton lining layer. While these materials may vary depending upon vehicle application and intended purpose, (Jeeps require a rugged PVC top), they almost always share one thing in common. They are there to shield the vehicle’s inhabitants from the outside world.
Vinyl tops on the other hand, are typically constructed from a solid sheet of vinyl, often in a textured pattern, that has been affixed to the convertible’s scissor arms, and then padded and lined with poly and cotton blends for sound deadening and aesthetics. While not nearly as popular as they once were, retractable vinyl tops can still be found on various older automobiles, and due to their age, are far more susceptible to damage if not properly maintained.
As for cleaning the scissor frames that support the convertible top, and folds away when it is unneeded, a gentle wipedown with a quality automotive interior cleaner and a microfiber cloth should be more than sufficient. However, if something like corrosion is preventing you from opening and closing the top, it’s time to hit up your mechanic for a diagnosis.
Quick Tip: Not sure what kind of convertible top you have? Fabric tops generally have a matte-like finish that looks like canvas, while vinyl tops resemble rubberized plastic or leather. If you’re still not sure, turn toward JD Power, which suggests taking the following steps. Simply splash a little water on the roof’s top and lightly press a droplet or two into the surface with a gentle rubbing motion. If the water is absorbed, then you have a fabric convertible top. If the water continues to bead-up and roll away, your vehicle’s rooftop is made from vinyl.
Best Convertible Cleaning Products for Cloth and Vinyl Soft Tops
After being carefully cleaned with water and a gentle car wash shampoo, filthy vinyl tops should be spritzed down with a convertible top cleaner/degreaser. There are quite a few options to choose from, but a real standout winner is the Tonneau Cover & Convertible Top Cleaner by 303 Products. This residue-free solution comes in spray-on form, and when paired with warm temps and a quality convertible top cleaning brush, has the ability to lift all manner of grime and stain. Reviews are impressive, and the brand’s satisfaction guarantee negates fears over whether the product will work or not.
Another solid contender is the Convertible Top Fabric/Vinyl Cleaner from RaggTopp. Devoid of soaps and detergents, with a naturally low pH balance, this spray-on solution lifts filth from the wet top, and after a little agitation with an approved brush, rinses away without issue. Unlike certain products on the market, this cleaner does not contain bleach, instead favoring a non-toxic antioxidant approach. This means it is residue-free, environmentally friendly, completely biodegradable, and will not harm or streak paint, metal, plastic, or rubber surfaces.
Quick Tip: If you are unsure of a new convertible top cleaner, spritz a small area that no one will notice, like within the folds near the base. It’s always best to test a new product out in a spot that no one can see, instead of coating an entire rooftop, only to realize that it leaves splotchy marks everywhere. This is true for all cleaning products, may they be top-tier degreasers, or citrusy homemade cleaners.
How to Safely Clean a Cloth or Vinyl Convertible Top
Dr. Beasley’s has a few soft top tips as well, especially when it comes to dealing with vinyl tops. Its detailing experts suggest using a gentle car shampoo, a wheel brush, and plenty of water for moderately dirty, routine scrubbing. A wheel brush’s feathered bristles will help to free dirt and debris from the vinyl top’s textured surfaces, and the rest, well the rest can be washed just as you would any other part of the vehicle.
Always make sure that the top remains thoroughly drenched, and be sure to use a brush with bristles that are just firm enough to be effective, but not so rigid that they will damage the fabric. At this point it is advisable to spray your preferred convertible roof fabric cleaner, and brush its surfaces with a firm, evenly distributed motion.
Just be sure to wash the entire top all at once, instead of in portions or on just one particularly filthy area. This can cause discoloration, and on something as expensive as a convertible cloth top, that translates to one massive “OH SHIT…” moment.
Quick Nerd Note: For the longest time, it was imperative that you never used vinyl top cleaners and protectant products on fabric convertible tops. Nowadays, there are quite a few products that can safely be used on either surface, just be sure to read a few reviews before committing.
When it comes to cleaning vinyl tops, the same methods that are used on cloth tops can be implemented pretty much across the board. Just be sure to always use a soft cloth or a scrubber with plush bristles, for vinyl convertible tops are quick to scratch and peel. It’s also a good idea to avoid any shampoo boasting that it will “improve gloss.” While these chemicals may work wonders on paint, they are completely overkill for vinyl tops, with some people reporting a lingering oily residue on the surface.
Entire top thoroughly spritzed and scrubbed, allow the cleaning solution to soak for the recommended interval listed on the packaging, and then rinse the entire top until every trace of cleaner is removed. At this point, you can either allow the top to air dry on its own, or if you have a plethora of clean microfiber cloths on hand and nothing better to do, blot the entire top until it feels dry. We stress the use of a high quality microfiber towel because it will be lint-free, unlike traditional cotton cloths.
As for modern day convertible soft tops, there is far less to worry about when it comes to washing than in decades past. And while we may not approve of them here at AvalonKing, most newer automatic car washes will not damage a convertible top as long as it is not an ultra high-pressure setup or one with bristles or scouring pads.
That said, the old fashioned two-buckets-and-a-beer method is still the safest approach, and here is why…
A normal car roof is a fairly stiff surface, and typically comes covered with a clear coat, vinyl wrap, paint protection film, a ceramic coating, or some combo of the lot. Due to its ability to bend and flex, none of these protective layers can be applied to a retractable convertible top, so older, or poorly maintained automatic car washes can inflict some serious damage to even the toughest retractable top. Trust us, you don’t want to see the carnage that tattered, filth-laden scrubbing pads, recycled and overly mineralized hard water, pH imbalanced shampoos, and improperly tuned high-pressure water jets leave on a convertible top.
Quick Tip: Regardless as to whether you are cleaning a fabric or vinyl fabric, you should always wash the vehicle in the shade. Direct sunlight can cause the water you are using to evaporate quickly, which in turn can and leave unsightly water spots on the top, especially when a shampoo or a convertible top cleaner is put into play.
Convertible Top Cleaning Routine
So how frequently should you clean your convertible’s cloth or vinyl top? Much like ceramic coatings, that depends upon how often it is driven, where it is driven, and whether or not it is garage kept. Hitting the trails in a modified off-road vehicle will likely result in a shit-ton of dust, dirt, mud, and other organic compounds splattering across a removable top, so a thorough cleaning should be implemented as soon as you return to basecamp.
For other convertible car owners, keeping an eye out for things like tree sap, bird feces, bug guts, pollen, and filthy water falling from building ledges and overpasses after a winter thaw should occur every time you come back home from a drive. The reason being, is that if you can catch these unpleasantries right away, you can probably get away with a quick hose-down instead of a full scrub.
Quick Tip: NEVER, under any circumstance, use a household cleaner to refresh a convertible top. Household cleaners, like dishwashing liquid and sanitizing sprays can rip your soft top a new one, especially when things like ammonia, bleach, alcohol, detergents, and vinegar are present.
How to Protect Convertible Tops Between Cleanings
Caring for and cleaning fabric soft tops requires a slightly different kind of care than what is offered to its vinyl alter-ego. Cloth convertible tops are far more porous, and being so, the materials that form their woven structure must be infused with a bevy of chemical-rich ingredients. These “toppings” not only repel water, road grime, and elemental unpleasantries like bird shit, but they deflect harmful UV rays as well. But factory repellants will only last so long, even on vehicles that are stored indoors and are rarely driven. Removing contaminants and rejuvenating the soft top’s resiliency is your only hope of extending its life.
Quick Tip: NEVER get wax on your convertible’s top when you are washing the other parts of the car. Wax is engineered for protecting clear coats and other hard surfaces, and it is a bitch to remove, especially if it is ground into a cloth soft top or allowed to harden.
Tossing a protectant on top of a vinyl roof will help preserve pigmentation, retain texture, and add suppleness. Taking this extra step will also prevent the vinyl top from fading and cracking, so don’t skip this protective portion of the convertible car care process, because a ceramic coating like Armor Shield IX cannot be applied to soft surfaces that fold or bend. Regardless of whether you opt for an industry leading RaggTopp Vinyl Protectant, a Chemical Guy’s alternative, or a 303 all-in-one vinyl roof care kit, the protection, peace of mind, and appearance you will get will be nothing short of outstanding.
Quick Tip: Most convertible rear windows are made from a polyvinyl material of some sort, which makes them shatterproof, surprisingly resilient, and ideal for folding without the fear of creating creases. The downside is that this stuff is a lot like car wrap, and therefore quite porous, so all manner of gunk and grime is eager to embed in its soft surfaces. While many automotive glass cleaners are now deemed safe for use on these types of windows, extreme levels of filth will likely require the use of a specialized product like Plexus, or Meguiar’s PlastX. If not properly maintained, may become leaky or discolored with time.
As for prolonged storage (convertibles and winter make for an awful mix), be sure to leave that top up. The top will be far less likely to crease while in this position, and will keep your interior devoid of dust and varmints looking to make a winter home inside. Another useful bit of advice is to always let a cloth top dry-out in its fully deployed position, because a soggy soft top will only promote mold growth if allowed to sit in your trunk for prolonged periods of time.