I should not like this, but …

My blog last week about the Chevrolet Caprice (a French word meaning “behemoth,” I believe) may somehow cosmically have gotten me to see this:

What the what, you ask? This is (apparently because I can’t see if the headlights are rectangular or round) a 1976 Caprice Landau, to which has been added … T-tops.

A T-top, according to Heacock Classic, is …

… a beautiful example of compromise. If you want the open-air fun of a convertible but don’t want to completely sacrifice structural rigidity and add the weight of a drop top, the T-Top was made for you. It’s also not a feature you’ll find in any car being manufactured today. Meaning if you want the red-jeans-wearing, mullet-having, John Cougar Mellencamp-blaring awesomeness of a T-Top, you’re more than likely going to need to buy a classic car.

While many credit GM for the T-Top, it was actually invented and patented by car designer Gordon Buehrig. It was first used in a 1948 prototype by The American Sportscar Company or “Tasco.”

The Tasco Sportscar featuring t-tops

See those wheel covers? They turn with the wheels!

While Tasco had an excellent roof, they never made more than one prototype of the car.

The T-Top wasn’t seen again until GM introduced it on the 1968 Corvette, at which point Gordon Buehrig promptly sued them. While his suit was successful, the settlement is said to be relatively small.

The Corvette’s T-Tops were so well-liked they were cited as the reason Chevy discontinued Corvette convertibles in the 1976 model year and didn’t resume production of them until 1986.

A C3 corvette with T-Tops

What late C3 ‘Vette lacked in forward visibility and stingray badging, it completely made up for in roof-awesomeness.

Perhaps the most iconic application of the T-Top was on the second-generation Pontiac Firebird. Offered for the first time in 1976, these T-Tops were originally provided by Hurst until 1978, when they were replaced by larger, less leaky panels  manufactured by Fisher. The “Smokey and The Bandit” Trans Am, pictured above, features Hurst tops.

Eventually, all of the Big Three American car manufacturers tried their hands at making cars with T-Tops. They even made their way onto less performance-oriented models like the Chrysler Cordoba and seventh-generation Ford Thunderbird. Overseas, this roof is featured on a variety of Japanese and British automobiles, even on quirky utility vehicles like the Subaru Brat and Suzuki X-90 (you may not recognize it without a giant Red Bull can on the back).

While none of today’s car companies have the good sense to make cars with these truly awesome roofs anymore, the Chevy Camaro and Pontiac Firebird brought the T-Top into the 21st century, if only just. T-Tops went the way of Pontiac and its Firebird in 2002. Until manufacturers come to their senses, car-buyers with discriminating tastes, i.e. those who adore T-Tops, will just have to look to classic cars to get their open-air performance fix. And that’s just fine by us!

The T-top was only on the C3 Corvette, replaced on C4s thereafter by a targa top, which covers between the top of the windshield and the B-pillar. The bar between hatch panels was because merely cutting off the roof would have made the car unstable. Stiffening from the C4 onward (the C5 was designed as a convertible to which the roof was added) helped deal with that problem.

There is one other GM T-top not mentioned …

… the 1977 Olds Toronado XSR, one of which was built with not just a T-top, but …

… a power T-top. This is the only one American Sunroof Corp. built for Olds, because they couldn’t get the power top mechanism to work. (Imagine GM rejecting new technology because it didn’t work right.) Olds instead sold the Toronado XS, which had merely a sunroof.

I once owned a car with a dealer-installed sunroof. It leaked somewhat, but that was the least of the problems with that car. Sunroofs designed with the vehicle generally don’t leak, but the downside is that power sunroofs reduce headroom, which is an issue for us tall drivers. We have a Honda Pilot that came with a sunroof as standard equipment. It’s cool to drive it with the roof open, assuming it’s not too cold or windy. (The former can be dealt with by, obviously, turning up the heat; the latter is dealt with somewhat with an air deflector that deploys when the roof is open, but it’s best to not have any windows open in that case. The other downside is if your hair is a little bit, uh, light on top.)

The most desirable of the big Chevrolet B-bodies (the Chevy Impala and Caprice, Pontiac Bonneville and Grand Ville, Olds Delta 88 and Buick LeSabre) are the convertibles. (As are the pre-1971 Cadillac Coupe de Ville and the post-’70 Eldorados.) Targa tops and T-tops are the next best thing. Convertibles today are either sports cars (ranging from the Corvette to the Mazda Miata) or otherwise small cars (the late Chrysler Sebring). Detroit doesn’t make big cars anymore, so Detroit doesn’t make big two-doors, let alone big convertibles.

This photo came from this web page, which claimed that the owner had also modified the car’s axles to put on 14-inch wheels (one inch smaller than the originals) for the reprehensible practice of “donking.” (Usually “donking” involves installing much larger wheels, not smaller, as in the case of this Caprice.) If you were going to put different wheels on the Caprice, the logical choice would not be 14-inch wheels, but reproductions of the old Chevrolet Rally wheels. Ironically, Rally wheels were not offered on the ’71–76 Chevy B-bodies, while they were available on everything from Malibus to Corvettes. (The B-body bolt circle was too large. I found that out the hard way.)

Chevy ingenuity, or cheapness: The 1974 Spirit of America Impala, with special wheels taken from pickup trucks of the era.

So for reasons known only to GM, one could not get Impala or Caprice Rally wheels, even though you could get sport wheels on your big Pontiac …

1974 Pontiac Grand Ville convertible with Rally II wheels.

… or Buick, though not, for some reason, the big Olds.

In the foreground is a 1974 Buick Estate Wagon, which has vinyl roof and woodgrain AND Buick styled road wheels.

The B-bodies (built at Chevy’s late Janesville plant, by the way) were designed thusly for 1971. (The C-bodies — the Olds 98, Buick Electra and Cadillac Coupe and Sedan de Ville — were even bigger; “C” probably stood for “colossal.”) The ’71–76 Chevys model offerings did not include the Impala SS, combining both size and horsepower from 1961 to 1969. The Impala SS’ death is too bad given that Chevy could have put together a ’71–76 Impala SS from its own parts bin, using, for instance, its 454 V-8 and the swivel bucket seats and console of the mid-’70s Monte Carlo and Laguna S-3. Of course, someone “restomodding” a big Chevy could do that too, as long as you’ve already departed from originality with your T-top.


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