Thursday, August 8, 2013

Don't Blow Your Top

WARNING: readers with weak hearts may want to have medical assistance standing by when reading the later parts of this blog post. Somewhere along the line, I decided I needed to buy a hard top for the car. While I know I can get the soft top more weatherproofed, the hard top would be my first choice for a day I expect serious rain, or all day rain. The hard top is also quieter, and I've already noted that driving with the soft top up is a loud proposition. In the long winter months I'm likely to leave the hard top on until warmer weather appears.

There were two factory options for hard tops on the MGA. In the early years of production when my car was made there was an aluminum (aluminium) alloy top option. These are beautiful with a broad and very distinctive rear window, but also rare and very expensive - several thousand dollars. Later, they switched to a fiberglass version that is now not as rare, and both due to composition and availability not nearly as pricey. Since the body shape didn't change, these later tops fit my car.

I watched EBay and Craigslist throughout the country and found a good option in California. Now I just had to find an inexpensive way to ship a 4 ft. by 4 ft. by 2 ft. 100 lb. box across the country. Most options like UPS and private freight were going to cost more than the top itself. However, based on a tip, I looked into Greyhound shipping. I was within their size and weight limits, and incredibly, the shipping from California to Washington, DC for this huge box was only going to be $100. While you can arrange for door to door shipping with Greyhound, that is an extra charge. To avoid that, you just have to drop off and pick up at a Greyhound station. There was one just 10 minutes from the seller, and I found that I have two within 1/2 hour of me. Now I just had to find a way to get a strong, light box that size to the seller. Luckily, he offered to help me crate it if I designed the crate. To keep it cheap and light, I stuck with 1/4" luan plywood, and cheap 1x2 furring strips from HomeDepot. Each panel was made by screwing the strips as a face frame around the border of the plywood, with some internal filler strips for strength. Each of these panels were then joined at the edges with screws. We used coarse drywall screws to avoid pre-drilling. It wasn't in my original design, but the seller added some internal supports to keep the top from moving, and some carpet padding to keep it from damage where the wood rubbed against it. It took about a week, but one day I got a call that it had arrived. They'll keep it for you a few days before you start paying for storage, but I managed to get up there the next day after work. The top arrived safe and sound without a hitch.

The top in place on the car.
Cue the foreboding music, for here is where our happy tale takes a dark turn. I asked the previous owner whether the top came with the mounting hardware. He seemed a little confused about what I was referring to, but said that while he never really used the top, he thought he remembered that everything needed to attach the top was there. When it arrived I found that a previous owner had restored the top, and had devised an alternative mounting method, either because the replacement parts were not available, or because he preferred it. There was a strap that attached to one of the mounting buttons used for the soft top on either side. The top had to flex a little to get the strap on, but I got it tow work. At the front, the same chromed wing bolts used for the soft top are used, but were missing. Not a problem because I could move the ones I already have over.  I screwed the bolt in on the drivers side until it seated tightly, but then couldn't find the bolt for the other side. I was in a hurry to get going, so I left it - figuring that three attachment points would be enough just for now and it felt snugly attached. Cue crescendo in music.
The trip in to work went fine, and I was preparing to head home when I got a last minute invite to a business dinner that I needed to attend across town. I hopped in the car and out onto the highway at 65MPH. The winds were gusting a little and I was thinking I was glad I wasn't in the soft top. After a few miles the top started rattling a little, and a split second later it lifted straight up off the car. This is a major 5 lane highway at the beginning of rush hour in the busy Virginia suburbs of Washington, DC, so there were probably 50 potential victims behind me, many probably (illegally) checking email and texts on their phones assuming that all the cars in front of them were going to not only keep moving forward, but also were not going to launch large projectiles at them.

There are stories of mothers lifting cars up to rescue their children, and other superhuman feats in the face of disaster for a loved one. I now know this power myself, because by some strange unknown instinct, while still steering straight along the highway, my hand shot up in the air and caught the top by the only possible point it could be held - the chrome thumb screw at the corner. The top is a little heavy, but even worse, the drag on it at highway speed is pretty strong as you might imagine. The top pulled my arm backwards in an unnatural way but I managed to hold on and safely navigated to the shoulder. I have no idea what happened with the cars behind me, except that I know no one crashed or even screeched tires.

The top had put deep gouges in the paint across the boot lid (trunk) and rear deck of the car, and had knocked out the rear tail light cover (though the bulb still worked). Amazingly, other than that the top and car were fine. I stood there on the side of the road, trying to assess my options. I re-attached the top, but didn't trust the connection for obvious reasons. I thought about slowly driving home, but I really needed to go to this dinner, and I wasn't going to let the car get in the way of real life. In the end, I decided to hold on to the chrome wing nut, and slow down to about 55 though driving below the speed limit around here brings hazards of its own.

With the road side stop and reduced speed, I arrived about a half hour late for my dinner, but had a good story to make up for it, and a slightly bleeding hand to offer in evidence. I made it safely home after dinner with no more incidents. On further inspection when I got home, I realized that the front wing nut was bound up part way through the threads, and not holding the top in place at all, so in effect I had no front attachment points. It only felt snug because of friction on the front mounting pins. When the air got under the top just a little, it didn't take long for the rear mounts to twist out of position and allow the near disaster that happened.

Luckily Clarke Spares and Restorations make high quality replacement parts to switch back to the proper mounting method in the back. While I found that I need to repair the thread on the front left, the front right is fine.  So, for now the top is sitting in the basement waiting for this next unexpected project. I won't be using it again until I'm confident that I have a firm mounting point at all four corners. So, my advice for those who want to try it, if you do buy a hard top don't let it blow off on the highway.

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