No other styling element captured the distinctive elegance of the late-'40s custom car era more than a sleek chopped and padded Carson top. Although its origin, and even its name, has been misreported, hot rod historian Greg Sharp unraveled the mystery in Rod & Custom in August 1991. Thanks to Greg, here's how Carson tops came to be built.
Back in 1927, Amos "Happy" Carson opened an auto upholstery shop at 4910 Vermont Ave. in Los Angeles, and Glen Houser joined him in 1930. Five years later, they began offering the "French top"--essentially, a padded, more substantial affair than the thin, stretched canvas tops that were then in vogue.
When Amos Carson died in 1942, Houser inherited the shop, and his business started to boom. Custom-built, non-folding padded tops for chopped (and sometimes stock height) convertibles were built to order by several other Los Angeles upholstery shops in the 1940s and '50s. Besides Glen Houser (whose shop closed in 1965), the next best-known L.A. top fabricator was Bill Gaylord. C.A. Hall in Oakland was another noted top builder.
In its heyday, Glen Houser's Carson Top Shop turned out more than 15 custom tops a week. A surviving Carson Top Shop photograph (circa 1940) shows four mid-'30s Ford roadsters with freshly completed tops and several more in progress. If your top needed a nip first, Greg Sharp says, Jarrett Metal Works (close by Houser's) would chop it for you. The cost of a completed Carson top was in the $125-$175 range, and many celebrities, including Clark Gable, were clients-Gable ordered a Carson for his un-chopped XK120 Jaguar.
To save time and money on smaller roadsters, Houser and his crew often re-used the stock top framework and bows, cut to compensate for the chop's height reduction, then re-welded them together with steel stock for strengthening. That served as the framework for the new padded top. On larger cars, Houser re-used the front and rear bows, fabricated additional bows and new window frames out of conduit, and then welded the assembly together. The added metal bows helped form the top's shape, and supported the layers of cotton padding that gave the Carson top its distinctive shape.
The top fabric--usually a synthetic, grained material, sometimes lined Haartz cloth or its equivalent--was draped over a framework of stretched burlap strips and chicken wire. The exterior was covered, neatly stitched, and then tacked to a Hide-em strip across the windshield header. The process was illustrated in Dan Post's, "The Blue Book of Custom Restyling," as early as the 1944 edition.When I planned my '32 Ford roadster back in 1994, I wanted a Carson-style top rather than a simple roadster top with canvas stretched over a reworked frame. This type of installation was rare on '32-34 roadsters, but it was done. Carson tops were more commonly fitted to larger 1935-and-up models. Luckily, Dave Simard located a tattered but authentic old padded top in California for a '32 Ford roadster. It had the shape and the discrete detailing we needed to see in order to build an authentic new one.Dave suggested Steve Pierce, owner of One-Off Technologies Inc., as the best person to scratch-build a Carson-style top for my car.
"Steve's more than just an upholsterer," Simard said. "He's a well-rounded craftsman who can fabricate, do the wiring, really build a whole car. He's engineered a whole new top system. Steve studied that old top to learn how it had been done, then he decided how to improve it but still make it look like something that was built in the 1940s."My '32 Carson-style top was Steve's first. He built the framework out of channel and conduit, devised a clever system of hold-downs utilizing the stock top tabs on each side of the body in the rear, and made a pair of knurled knobs that attached to the windshield posts to hold the front of the top securely. I selected Mercedes-Benz tan Sonnenland top cloth for the exterior, and chose perforated Mercedes M-B Tex leatherette for the headliner.
Traditional Carson tops had relatively flat rooflines, probably to accentuate the car's lowness. I wanted a bit more loft to complement the '32's small cockpit and its curved decklid. Steve tweaked and refined the shape with additional padding until we were all satisfied. He created a matching Hide-em strip for the front out of the same canvas material, and he fabricated a pair of side curtains with Plexiglas windows to match.
The resulting top was stunning, and it has been a signature point for my '32, never lifting, even when I've driven over 85 mph with it on. Other top builders have imitated it, and shortly afterward, Steve built a similar top that was featured in SRM on Dick Metz's '32 roadster, Oh Boy.Steve has since built Carson-style padded tops for Jimmy King's '39 convertible coupe and Dave Simard's '36 Ford roadster. Other car owners have asked about Steve's Carson-style tops, so he's created a process to make them to order. Outside, they closely resemble Glen Houser's work. Immensely rigid underneath, they're made of aircraft-grade 6061 aluminum tubing with a hidden, stainless steel latch system. You can order German Sonnenland canvas, Haartz cloth, or vinyl top materials, with a choice of headliners.
Steve's new tops also feature a removable rear curtain with a stainless steel-framed, tempered glass window, padded with synthetic materials for long-lasting beauty and wear. If desired, the inside trim can be matching or contrasting. Like the originals, they are the lift-off style and do not fold. Besides '32 roadsters, Steve plans to build tops for '33-34, '35-36, and '39 Ford convertible coupes, as well as '49-51 Mercury convertibles.
Steve's top frames are TIG welded on jigs that are accurate to '32 Ford body measurements, and he'll build jigs for other model years as orders come in. Windshield options are for standard Ford-type windshields, either stock height or chopped, or send One-Off Technologies your windshield frame with mounting measurements and Steve will custom-build a header and latch system for your particular frame. He can also fabricate a top to fit a Past-Tech, DuVall-style split windshield. The rear top mounts use existing mounting tabs, but new mounts can be fashioned for owners who prefer a smooth body look when the top is removed.
Steve started by taking careful measurements using a trammel tool with pointers, so he cou
In order to build Carson-style tops to an exact standard, Steve fabricated a splash (reall
"The way the cowl is shimmed creates the correct alignment or can cause misalignment," Ste
Weight is a factor; Steve's designed his Carson-style top so it isn't heavy to lift; but i
Steve made his top jig out of square tube pieces with roll pins to locate the top bows. He
Steve carefully welded the top together using the jig, thus ensuring it would fit perfectl
Steve rolled the rear bow with a tubing roller that he modified so it's easier to adjust.
The process is complex, and it requires skill, custom-built jigs, and specialized tools. Thanks to the creative persistence of ace photographer Chuck Vranas, here's how Steve Pierce built an all-new Carson-style top on Charlie Doyle's chopped '32 Ford roadster. Originally built by Dave Fiore, with a cloth-covered Gibbon fiberglass top, Charlie's Deuce got the full treatment.