Plot a convertible top repair strategy

May 1, 2015
Convertibles can pose a number of repair challenges, most significantly electrical issues that can be extremely difficult to decipher. So prepare a repair strategy to ensure your cycle times aren’t majorly impacted.

There's an old saying that consumers make most vehicle purchases using their heads. Buying a convertible is done with the heart.

The thought of cruising with the top down on a warm, sunny day is pretty enticing, but these visions can fizzle quickly once a motorist is confronted with the more mundane realities of convertible ownership. Unless you live in a warm weather state, you get the benefits of a convertible just a few months each year. These vehicles also typically are more expensive to purchase and insure. Some lose nearly all their available trunk space when the top is lowered.

Repairers can experience similar fuzzy notions when a damaged convertible passes through their shop doors — especially if they believe a convertible repair is like any other job.

Convertibles can poses a number of challenges, most significantly electrical issues that can be extremely difficult to track down unless you have specific tools and significant experience. These repairs can significantly alter cycle times unless you've prepared a repair strategy.

Consider the following steps:

Step 1: Always check the top. A typical damaged vehicle analysis involves inspection of the damaged and surrounding areas, frame measurement and an examination of the vehicle electronics. If a vehicle has a standard roof, there's not much reason to pay it special attention if it isn't a collision point.

The opposite is true with convertibles. Convertible systems can be particularly sensitive to collisions, even if the top isn't directly impacted. Nearby damage and collateral movement to the system can prevent it from working properly.

Always perform a close inspection of the convertible top, looking for damage. Once the visual inspection is completed, grab the vehicle owner's manual and use its instructions to lower and raise the top. Make sure the system operates smoothly and without problems such as stalling, rattling or not operating at all (some systems won't operate if sensors indicate a problem). Examine the system for leaky pumps and cylinders, along with damaged or misaligned linkages and hinges.

If these areas appear to be damage free, but the system still isn't working as it should, you'll need to start what could be a fairly difficult diagnostic process.

(Photo courtesy of Volkswagen) - Cruising with the top down is a motorist's dream, but convertibles can provide repairers with significant--not so sunny — problems. 

(Photo courtesy of Ford) - The 2015 Ford Mustang was engineered as a convertible and now features a better quality top and an electro-mechanical system. (Photo courtesy of Volvo) -Hard top convertible systems are complex and usually require a factory scanning tool for diagnostics. Consider subletting this work to a specialty shop. 

2015 Mustang game changer

Convertibles represent a relatively small percent of the new vehicles sold each year (about two percent, according to statistics from IHS Automotive). Regardless of how small the convertible market might be, several manufacturers target these buyers with popular luxury and sport coupes — particularly the Ford Mustang. Nearly 20 percent of new Mustangs sold are convertibles.

Ford prizes these customers so much that it engineered its 2015 Mustang — the 50th anniversary model — as a convertible, instead of a coupe with the top simply lopped off. Notable changes included an increase in vehicle rigidity and upgraded suspension to deliver improved ride and handling for all Mustang models.

Ford also upgraded the engineering of the convertible top with better materials and a better looking, smoother operating ragtop. The upgraded roof sports a high-quality vinyl with added insulation to stifle road noise.

The convertible system has been made more compact, improving space in the trunk and back seat when the top is lowered. The compact design also helps the Mustang cut a smoother profile that also will benefit from rear quarter windows that now drop down. When the top is up, the roof no longer presents folds or “ears” at the rear corners.

The most significant improvement may be the electro-mechanical system that replaces the hydraulic top mechanism. Not only is this system quieter, it raises and lowers the top in half the time. Complementing this upgrade is a new windshield header that utilizes a single middles latch (in place of the two latches on either side of the windshield) for easier operation.

For the first time, Ford has made the Mustang available for sale in Europe and Asia and reports that preorders have exceeded expectations--putting the popular pony car in the hands of more enthusiasts who will help ensure its survival.

Step 2: Trunk inspection. You can eliminate several potential problem sources by inspecting the vehicle's trunk, which should be your first diagnostic step.

Many convertible tops fold up in the trunk when they're lowered. Damage to the trunk or, in many cases, movement of any objects there, can prevent the system from operating.

This can be a particular problem with some luxury brands whose lowered tops take up much of the space in the trunk. Even a few objects in that area will prevent the convertible system from operating. If necessary, empty the trunk of its content to search for damage. With the trunk empty, attempt to operate the top again. That may solve the problem. (There are instances of shops chasing convertible damage when the actual source was a cluttered trunk.)

There are several other possibilities related to the top's storage area, says Rick Zirbes, owner of Dick & Rick's Auto Interiors in Bloomington, Minn. Zirbes has 36 years of experience chasing down electrical and other problems in convertibles (and a number of other automotive areas).

He notes that some vehicles, notably Chrysler models, use a divider to separate the lowered top from the trunk contents to prevent damage to both. If the divider or its switch is damaged or out of place, the system won't function.

If any of these possibilities isn't the source of the problem, you'll need to move on to more complex sources.

Step 3: Hard top, harder problems. During the past several years, hard top convertibles have displaced many soft-top models. Manufacturers have turned to them, in some cases, because they provide a more streamlined look that some customers prefer. Zirbes says they also tend to be quieter and seal better.

More advanced technology carries with it more complex repair challenges. Zirbes points out that hard-top convertibles are computer controlled, with multiple complex mechanisms and more sensors and electrical parts than a canvas top. Damage to any of these can shut down an entire system.

For example, Zirbes notes that the ambient temperature sensor (which works with the system's hydraulics) typically is located at the front end of a vehicle and is susceptible to damage from front-end collisions. Damage here is a frequent source of an inoperable convertible.

That doesn't mean tracing this sensor as the source is an easy task. Zirbes says these systems need to be analyzed using factory scan tools. "A generic tool isn't going to do the job," he says.

Even if a shop does invest in the necessary scanning tool, locating the source of an electrical problem can still be extremely difficult. Zirbes says sensors sometimes don't indicate damage if they remain electrically connected. In these cases, there's no substitute for advanced knowledge of convertible systems and experience working on them.

"You really need to understand how these systems work or you're not going to get far trying to figure out what's wrong with them," says Zirbes. "Once you go beyond the obvious, you'll probably run into a lot of dead ends."

Sophisticated new convertible systems translate into fewer "obvious" problems that many shops are equipped to handle. Zirbes notes, "Today's complex convertibles represent a much different process than traditional cut and paste cycle time repairs."

"Shops that know when they need someone with specialty experience will get the vehicle back in the hands of the owner at a reasonable time."

Specialty repairers (dealer shops also can be helpful) possess knowledge of the problems inherent in specific convertible models that can be particularly useful in diagnosing operational issues.

Zirbes, for example, notes that BMW's hard tops are particularly susceptible to damaged sensors and crimped wires. Older hard-top Volkswagens require a scan tool to reinitialize the system to make it operational again.

Many soft-top models now utilize a single piece top that must be replaced if the window is broken. Repairers who don't know this and attempt to repair the window are wasting their time.

Other experts note that Volvo convertibles sometimes have issues with the micro-switches and potentiometers that control the raising and lowering of the top. Some Mustangs have seals that can fail and allow water to drip into the back seats.

Step 4: Related repairs. Even if the convertible top itself doesn't require work, in some instances it will affect how other work is performed. Zirbes explains that some repairs will differ from a solid top to a convertible. Replacing a quarter panel on some Volkswagens will involve disassembling the top to get to the body.

Shops need to consider this extra work in order to properly charge the customer or insurer and set accurate completion times. Repairers also need to take a closer look at repair instructions for convertible vehicles to anticipate this work.

Step 5: Right replacement parts. Aftermarket replacement parts for the convertible market have been available for years; however, Zirbes and others caution against their use. The main reason: Aftermarket top and parts sets don't always include all the necessary fasteners and retainers OEM versions do, leaving shops to pull these pieces from the existing top or other sources. Sometimes the fit is just a bit off, which can play havoc with the operation of the top.

Zirbes says aftermarket quality has improved. In the case of hard top convertibles, he notes that often the OEM version is the only available option.

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(Photo courtesy of Chrysler) - When diagnosing convertible issues, always check the trunk for damage and to determine if there is suitable room for the top to lower.

(Photo courtesy of Volkswagen) - Even if a convertible top doesn't show obvious signs of collision damage, always test it. These tops are more sustoble to damage than a traditional roof.