Aaron Widmar
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A Beginners Guide to the Types of Convertible Tops

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2021 Lexus LC 500 Convertible interior dashboard with top down
Pictured: 2021 Lexus LC 500 Convertible
Photo: Lexus

The word “convertible” comes from the root word “convert,” simply referring to a car with a roof that is changeable. However, any automotive enthusiast would tell you that there’s much more to a convertible than simply that. There are, in fact, many types of convertible tops based on their material and the way they are removed. Here’s a quick, simple guide on the different types of convertible tops.

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2015 BMW M4 Convertible hard top retracting
Pictured: 2015 BMW M4 Convertible
Photo: BMW

Hardtop convertibles

The biggest distinction between types of convertible tops is if it’s a hardtop or soft top.

Hardtop convertible roofs are made of sturdy, rigid material — typically metal that’s the same color as the car body. They provide better protection against harsh weather (including cold temperatures) and security from thieves.

  • Detachable hardtops function as a single piece that can be removed entirely from the car and stored elsewhere. These used to be popular in sports cars in the latter half of the twentieth century but faded out during the 1990s.
  • Retractable hardtops are multi-piece units that rely on mechanical systems to collapse and store them in the back of the car. They’re costly to fix and purchase but are the most convenient and attractive when they work.

Popular examples include the Chevrolet Corvette, Mazda Miata RF, and Mercedes-Benz SL.

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2016 Buick Cascada convertible with soft-top roof retracting
Pictured: 2016 Buick Cascada
Photo: General Motors

Soft-top convertibles

Soft-top convertible roofs are made of pliable, fabric-like material that can extend and retract without taking up much storage space or necessarily relying on an automated mechanical system. Fabric-based soft-top covers only last about 3-6 years (depending on upkeep) and are easy to cut through. But, they also match the aesthetic of convertibles and aren’t horrendous to replace.

They’re offered in a variety of material combinations of plies, inlay, and lining. These often involve:

  • Polyester or vinyl: good for durability and are most popular
  • Rubber: good for protection and ease of cleaning
  • Cotton or canvas: good for visual elegance

Popular examples include the Ford Mustang, BMW Z4, and Porsche 911 Cabriolet.

You’ll also find detachable soft-top roofs on some off-road vehicles, such as bikini tops that consist of fabric stretched and strapped over a utility vehicle’s frame — though detachable hardtops are becoming more widespread on SUVs for year-round practicality.