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Correct convertible top care, part 1

July 02, 2014
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There are over four million convertible automobiles on the road today. Every major automotive manufacturer has at least one convertible in its line. Yet, most car-care professionals are not aware of any standard operating procedure for the care and maintenance of convertible tops.

For detailers, offering convertible top care is a relatively inexpensive and simple way to increase the average per-vehicle revenue. It can bring a completely new market to a site by attracting new and used automobile dealers and convertible owners.

The forgotten surface

For all the time the auto appearance care industry spends convincing its customers that vehicle surfaces need to be protected, very little attention is given to convertible tops, which account for at least 25 percent of the exterior surface of some vehicles.

The convertible top is a piece of cloth or vinyl that is up against everything the environment can throw at it.

Manufacturers of convertible tops are aware of this and thus use high-grade and heavy-gauge materials for the convertible top.

Nonetheless, anything that car-care facilities can do to provide extra protection to that material will help it last all the longer.

Types of convertible tops

Detailers must be aware of the two main types of convertible tops and have the ability to recognize the difference.

1. Cloth — The first type is the classic top constructed with cloth as the covering material. This material looks and feels like canvas, but is actually made of woven fibers that are either synthetic, like acrylic, polyester, olefin, or a synthetic and cotton blend.

These fabrics are actually breathable but are made water repellant by a chemical treatment process used during manufacturing. The original repellency breaks down with time and exposure to the elements.

2. Vinyl — The second type of convertible top is made of thick vinyl. Vinyl is a plastic product composed mostly of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and made flexible with the addition of plasticizers.

The vinyl top may look like a canvas material, but upon closer inspection, one can see that the canvas is simply an impression stamped into the vinyl when it is manufactured.

Correct chemicals

It is normal for the plasticizers to gradually dry out over time, causing the material to crack and eventually split. However, with proper care this process can be slowed significantly.

It's extremely important to use the right chemical for the surface of concern. Automobile manufacturers are receiving warranty claims from owners of convertibles that have disintegrated prematurely.

Often this can be attributed to an unwitting car-care professional or vehicle owner who uses strong solvents or other harsh cleaners on a regular basis to keep the convertible material clean.

There are stories of detailers using a bathroom cleaner, commonly employed for removing mold stains from tile grout, on a convertible's surface.

The main ingredient in this cleaner is bleach, which is highly corrosive in nature, especially when used in the concentrations in which it is typically sold over-the-counter.

Even with a milder multi-purpose cleaner, such damage might be minimal, but the concern is the cumulative effect of repeated cleanings with inappropriate chemicals that can lead to the breakdown of the material or the stitching.

The material: The products

There are products designed specifically for the cleaning of convertible tops.

Various companies, which make the material for American and European convertible tops, and manufacturers of retractable truck bed tonneau covers recommend using products designed specifically for convertible tops.

On fabric tops — It is recommended that professionals use a chemical with a fluorocarbon repelling system.

Such a chemical will bond with the fabric and repel liquid and dirt while at the same time providing ultraviolet protection. Look for products that do not contain silicone, Freon, or chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs).

On vinyl tops — A fluorocarbon repelling chemical is not necessary because vinyl is not porous.

Instead, use an approved product that protects and beautifies the top. Such a product should have ultraviolet blockers that help reduce the cumulative effect of sunlight exposure.

It is important not to use products that contain silicone, petroleum solvents, or CFCs, all of which can have a negative impact on the vinyl material.

Once you've got the right chemicals for cleaning and protecting convertible tops, the process is quite simple.

Initial treatment: New vehicle

Before even getting the vehicle wet:

  1. Vacuum the convertible top using an upholstery brush to pick up any loose dirt or dust.
  2. Next, wet down the top thoroughly and mist it evenly with the fabric/vinyl cleaner. If necessary, the cleaner can be lightly agitated using a soft nylon brush.
  3. Rinse the top thoroughly until all foam from the cleaner dissipates. Allow the top to dry completely.
  4. Once the top is thoroughly dry, apply the appropriate protectant evenly across the entire exposed fabric surface in three light coats, allowing the product to dry 10 minutes or so between coats. This service will take no more than an hour, sometimes less depending on drying times.

It is reasonable to charge a wholesale rate of $50-100 per vehicle. Retail service can easily fetch $100-200 dollars on a standard vehicle.

These charges are quite reasonable when compared to the cost of replacing a convertible top.

Next week, part 2 will feature the Reconditioning treatment methods

Prentice St. Clair is the president of Detail in Progress, Inc. ,the San Diego-based business which offers consulting for the automotive detailing and reconditioning industry. Prentice can be reached at prentice@detailinprogress.com.

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