Today’s topic is a divergent offshoot from our last column on ’50s model cars. Unfortunately, as the title infers, it might be a bit more talkin’ than showin’ because I was quite surprised to find…er, rather, not to find much in the way of relevant photos of the topic at hand. I spent a full day going through literally thousands of file photos, and could find very little. It’s not the sort of thing people would specifically photograph, and it doesn’t show up well in photos of custom cars. See? I’m already talkin’ too much.
Our subject was generated by a letter I received from Garry Alesio. It was in response to a photo I showed of a red ’60 Chevy Impala model I built in 1960, with a white tarp over the back seat with two tuck & roll (corduroy) stripes and a diamond in the middle. He said:
Greetings Pat from Carlsbad, CA. I saw your model in your latest article that had an interior tarp over the back seat and was interested in the history of that. I bought and owned a black ’51 Ford coupe with red and white tuck & roll built by an old Texas hot rod guy in the mid ’80s. It had at one time a tarp over the back seat and the clips were still in place but the tarp was long gone. No one could ever tell me why they would have one on the inside of the car. And I could not find one photo of a similar one to replicate it. I read about a gold ’50 you had with one but can’t see a photo showing the interior. I am fascinated by this, and tried asking previous owners, but none still living ever saw it. I have since sold the car, but have seller’s remorse when I see articles about cool shoeboxes. All the best, Garry.
That’s definitely a nice ’51 coupe, Garry. Whoever built it in the mid-’80s was thinking back to the mid-’50s. My guess is that it originally had wide whites and flipper wheelcovers of some sort. I see the armrest/cupholder is removable, and if it were period perfect the headliner would be white with red piping. Plus the carpet would have white binding. And yes, we can see the snaps on the seat corners and rear window frames that held the tarp over the back seat. These are the type used on boat covers and some race cars, with an oval escutcheon in the tarp that fit over the protruding part, which then turned 90 degrees to securely hold the tarp in place. In your car the tarp might have been red to match the headliner, but in the ’50s/early ’60s it would have been white.
Like you, I was very surprised to find hardly any photos showing such back seat tarps. But I do have some of the gold ’50 you mention, and which I noted in that column I upholstered “like my model cars.”
In my case, I used round upholstery push-snaps, and I had to draw the upholsterer some pictures to show him what I wanted, but he did a great job on all of it.
Besides wanting to replicate the ’50s style I remembered and loved, I had a practical reason for the tarp. Due to the heavy C-ing of the frame son Bill did when the car was his, to allow for the radical lowering of the rear with air bags, a conventional rear seat wouldn’t fit. So I just had the area carpeted to use as readily accessible cargo space.
Come to think of it, my car was a sedan, which originally came with a back seat. So did some coupes (like your ’51). But in ’49-’52 (or longer) Ford, Chevy, and Plymouth made Business Coupes that had a shorter roof and no rear seat, which rodders preferred because they were lighter and quicker. So putting a tarp over that area was a simple and cheap alternative to more custom upholstery. I never thought of that until just now.
But you’re right, Garry, to surmise that snap-on, fitted tarps, or tonneau covers, were originally made to protect topless open cars such as roadsters, phaetons, and later sports cars, from the elements–sun and rain–when their folding tops were not in place. Same for speedboats. Probably old carriages, too. In the case of roadsters, the tarp could be carried in the trunk and quickly snapped in place when the car was parked or stored outside for any length of time. Better yet, many had a zippered cut-out for the driver, which was even quicker, and protected him from buffeting wind at highway speeds. So guess what?
Or even in classes that allowed more streamlining and center steering, a snap-on tarp was quicker and cheaper than forming a Dzus-buttoned metal cover. This Chevy-powered T roadster (right) is a photo I’ve shown before that could elicit a number of captions. But I’ll just say it has a nice tonneau cover.
Upholsterer/racer Tony Nancy made some of the nicest tonneau covers for his own 22 Jr. race cars, as well as for others.
But this doesn’t answer Garry’s question of why a rodder or customizer would add such a tarp, or tonneau cover, over the back seat of a closed car, especially one with an upholstered back seat? I don’t remember anyone asking this question before, especially not in print, so I’ll take a stab at it. Two things. First is their association with race cars, whether lakes roadsters, drag cars, or perhaps especially early ’50s sports cars, which used them both for road racing and on the street. The point being that there was something sporty, even racy, about a snap-on, stretched-tight tarp covering some of the interior. Second, and I think this is even more pertinent, a tarp covering the back seat makes any post-’48 car a little more intimate. A little more like earlier coupes that had only one seat, and nothing behind. Just room for you and your pal. Or better, you and your sweetie. And less like a family sedan.
Several early customs had tarps over the back seat area–almost always white–it’s just very hard to find photos even marginally showing them. This is LeRoy Goulart with his well-known lime green Winfield custom ’50 Ford. Not only does the tarp appear to have a tuck & roll stripe down the middle, but the dash is tuck & rolled, too.
Garry, you like shoeboxes? Yes, I’ve shown this one before. No, I still don’t have a name, nor have I seen it since I got this one photo at an early ’80s KKOA meet during the Kustom car revival. But it’s just about perfect. This black beauty has all-white T&R with black piping, and a white tarp behind the front seat. I was thinking that maybe the backseat tarp was a West Coast thing, but this car was in Kansas, and Garry yours was done in Texas.
I’m trying to remember when I first saw one. Probably in the late ’50s. But my next-door neighbor, Wally, was five years older than I was. He not only introduced me to model cars, but he and his friends all got cars around ’58-’60 when they were in high school. We didn’t call them rods or customs, but they were all modified. Wally got a ’53 Chevy convertible. Immediately dumped it on a rake with cut coils, nosed and decked, medium whitewalls with beanies and beauty rims, two cheater pipes under the rear, and eventually ’55 Dodge Royal Blue metallic, white top, and 265 V8 driveline from a wrecked ’56 Chev. Then, early one morning, he drove it down to Tijuana and came home that night with a complete blue and white tuck & roll interior. It had metallic blue rolls running vertically, with horizontal white rolls in a horseshoe pattern (a la ’58 Impala). Blue carpets with white binding. Blue door panels with white rolls running through the kick panels. White rolls on a plywood package tray added in back, and more white rolls all across the dash. And, yes of course, a white tarp snapped over the fully upholstered back seat. This was no show car, so it wasn’t for extra points. It was just part of the whole package. An extra touch. One more modification. More sporty. More intimate on dates. And it unsnapped in seconds if he wanted to take the gang to the beach, or on a double date.
Adding a diamond or T&R stripes probably was more for show points. When Wally sold the ’53, the next guy had the local T-shirt artist air-brush a Roth-type “weirdo” in the middle of the tarp; that was another option.
Speaking of showy show cars, it took me a while to find this Feb. ’58 cover of Car Craft. I wasn’t even sure which small magazine it was on, but I had etched in my brain that the big heart was on a red-and-white tonneau cover. Turns out it was the whole bed (and back of cab) that was tuck & rolled. But it did have a white snap-on tarp as well.
Which takes us to pickup trucks. Like this segue? Again, two things. Hot rodders have always liked pickup trucks (witness the crazy popularity of Chevy C10s right now). Sure, we need them to haul around parts, or to tow/push race cars. But plenty of pickups are built as hot rods. Why? Because they are the closest thing we’ve had to coupes since about 1949. We’re talking regular half-tons here, not extended or crew cabs. But they’re light, agile, and have that short, single-seat cab, just like a coupe. There’s a bit of racy aspect to it, but I think it’s more that intimacy thing. A personal vehicle rather than a family one. Plus you get that very useful bed on the back. Pickups have been popular as hot rods since the beginning.
But the second thing relates even more directly to our topic: hot rod (or custom) pickups have always had snap-on, usually white, tarps over the beds. Of course this is a practical thing. You can carry or store stuff in the bed without making the truck look junky, but more important, keeping it hidden from public eyes (much like a car trunk). But the tarp, or tonneau, not only literally streamlines the pickup, but it visually finishes it off. So the hot rod pickup bed tarp soon became a further extension of the custom upholstery. They were tightly, and closely fitted to the bed, with lots of little chrome snaps.
So, to further answer Garry’s original question, these custom upholstered pickup bed tarps were both a close relation and a predecessor to the similar back seat tarps he’s asking about. Rodders were familiar with them and custom upholsterers knew how to make them. And if this isn’t already way too much answer for a seemingly simple question, how about this last tidbit? Just out of curiosity I looked up “tonneau” in the dictionary, mainly to find the word’s derivation. I was quite surprised. The definition was both brief and specific: “The rear seating compartment of an automobile.” Wow. So a tonneau cover is quite literally a rear seat cover. So says Noah Webster. And the derivation? It comes from the old French word for tunnel, which further implies the back seat area of a closed car. Noah did add this: “also : the entire seating compartment.” This might more closely describe our meaning of a tonneau cover, in general, for sports cars, pickups, and open cars of all kinds for many decades. But now you, as well as Garry, know more about custom car back seat tarps than you probably ever needed to know. Till next time. Hope I come up with something equally engrossing.