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1969 Cadillac Fleetwood Eldorado
with Power Sunroof

Was this the beginning of the end for the convertible?

Image: 1969 Cadillac Fleetwood Eldorado with new power sunroof featureFor decades, people who wanted to feel the exhilaration of wind in their hair and sunshine on their skin opted for a glamorous convertible. In the days before air conditioning in automobiles, there was nothing else quite like it. But that was not without some draw backs as well. Wind in your hair also brings dust, dirt, and bugs. Sunshine on your skin brought sunburns and increased the likelihood of skin cancer down the road. Convertibles were somewhat drafty even with the top and windows up, and they could be cold during the winter months. As air conditioning and stereo radios and tape players became more popular among new car buyers, interest in the convertible body style began to wane. By 1974, Ford Motor Company had stopped making convertibles completely. Chevrolet, Pontiac, Oldsmobile, and Buick made their last convertibles in 1975. Cadillac built its last Fleetwood Eldorado Convertible in 1976. Clearly, there wasn't enough demand to justify the cost of continuing the convertible body style.

Cadillac built its first automobile with a sunroof in 1938. It was a Sixty Special, notable because it was styled by a very young William L. Mitchell, who at the time was the new head of Cadillac's styling studio, and it would go down in history as the first car he designed from the ground up. Other incredible cars would follow, as Mitchell's career at GM lasted over 40 years.

The sunroof was called the "Sunshine Turret-Top Roof" on the Sixty Special, and was patented by GM's Ternstedt Hardware Division. Offered for only four years on the Sixty Special and Cadillac's companion line, LaSalle, a total of just 1,500 were sold. 1939 was the most popular year for the option, with around 750 being sold. Just 230 1940 Sixty Special sedans were built with the option during the final year it was offered.

That wasn't the end of the fresh air feature, however. An after market company, Golde and Company, was installing a similar sliding metal panel in many makes and models, and it was growing in popularity. The first American manufacturer to offer a Golde sunroof as a factory option was Ford, on its 1960 Thunderbird. Manually operated, the metal panel slid between the roof of the car and the headliner inside. A rotating handle on the panel inside the car secured it in place, and it was said to easily glide open and closed with one hand and minimal effort. Priced at $212.40, just 2,536 cars were sold with this feature, which in Ford's eyes wasn't enough to justify continuing it the following year.

Despite the lack of an agreement with a major manufacturer, Golde continued to thrive in the after market, and in 1965 became American Sunroof Corporation (ASC). By the mid-sixties, once again the company focused on working with an American automobile manufacturer to offer the sunroof through its dealer network. ASC approached Ford Motor Company again, which agreed to offer a power sunroof in its new 1967 Mercury Cougar, Motor Trend Magazine's Car of the Year for 1967. About 200 Cougars were built that year with the new fresh air feature, and all are highly sought after today in the collector market.

1968 Mercury Cougar Dan Gurney Edition (prototype shown)The popularity of the power sunroof grew for 1968, with a growing number of Cougars being ordered with the option, as well as it being featured in some of the car's television and print advertising for the year. New car dealers seeking to increase their profits began offering the power sunroof as an after market add-on to customers, which meant American Sunroof was installing its power sunroof on Oldsmobile Toronados, Buick Rivieras, and many other cars to fill dealer orders.

For 1969, Ford continued to offer the sunroof on its Cougar models, and offered it as a factory option on Thunderbirds as well. The advertising campaign for the Thunderbird emphasized the new option, and cars with the sunroof were attracting a lot of attention. Late in the model year, the new-for-1969 Continental Mark III also began offering it, but cars built with sunroofs were very few, so they are rarely seen these days. It was at this point late in the 1969 model year that Cadillac also became involved. Plans were already well under way to add a convertible model to the Eldorado line for 1971, but Cadillac knew some of its customers would prefer the hardtop body style, and this would give them the feeling of a convertible without any of the negatives.

1969 Eldorados destined for the sunroof installation were completed on the regular Clark Avenue factory assembly line in Detroit with other Cadillac models. Once inspections were completed, Eldorados were taken to a special holding area to be shipped to American Sunroof for the sunroof installation. Once there, bracing was installed to support the roof structure and the headliner and supporting rods were removed from inside the car. A template was attached to the roof, and the vinyl roof material was carefully marked and cut to create a hole slightly smaller than the actual finished opening size. The vinyl material was pulled away from the opening and taped down to keep it out of the way. The metal roof was then marked and cut using an electric power shear that sliced through the metal like a warm knife through butter. The hole was again cut slightly smaller than required to allow for the metal to be folded down over the installed pre-fabricated metal sunroof drainage tray.

Once the drainage tray was aligned and installed to the interior roof panel with braces and brackets, the metal roof panel edge was folded down over the tray using an impact hammer, and everything was securely spot welded into place. Drain tubes were installed in both the A-pillars and rear roof quarter pillars to drain water from the gutters in the tray. Contrary to popular belief, the seal around the sunroof opening was never designed or intended to keep water out, but was meant only to minimize water leakage and prevent wind noise. The gutter collected the small amounts of moisture that seeped through the seals, and drained it out of the car through the drain tubes. Even in a torrential downpour, the amount of moisture slipping past the seals would be very minimal.

While the tray was being installed, the headliner was cut at the second seam back from the front edge, and a matching piece of material without seams was sewn on. This eliminated the front seam completely, and provided a solid piece to be fitted around the interior sunroof opening. It was necessary to eliminate the front seam to allow the headliner to be properly fitted around the sunroof opening.

Image: Cadillac Eldorado with factory power sunroof in closed positionCadillac had one requirement for cars equipped with sunroofs: a vinyl roof was mandatory. It also recommended the installation of a 6-way power seat, as the sunroof assembly reduced interior headroom by about one inch. American Sunroof maintained stock of vinyl roof material used on the Eldorado, and matching vinyl was applied to the sliding sunroof panel itself so it would match the vinyl roof on the car, and blend in when closed. The excess vinyl roof material that had been taped back out of the way during the installation process was then pulled down and glued to the sides of the sunroof opening, to give it a finished look when in the open position. The sunroof seal was glued to this section of the vinyl roof as well. The sunroof tray itself was finished in a semi-flat black paint, and featured polished aluminum tracks and track covers for an attractive appearance when viewed from above with the panel open. The cables that moved the panel were lubricated with Vaseline, and no maintenance was required other than periodically wiping off the aluminum track covers, and ensuring the drain lines were not clogged.

Image: 1969-1970 Cadillac Power Sunroof control switch (1970 shown)Inside, a circuit breaker was attached under the instrument panel near the car's circuit breakers, which provided the power connection to the sunroof control switch. The sunroof switch was located on the instrument panel in the same space where the convertible top switch would be placed on convertibles, directly below the fuel gauge (see image at right). The switch was identified by the lettering "CLS," "OPN," and "SUN ROOF." The motor only worked with the key in the on or accessory positions, to prevent unsupervised operation of the panel by children.

The sunroof motor was mounted above the windshield and in front of the sunroof opening. The electrical wiring was routed from the control switch to the motor behind the driver's side A-pillar trim.

Once everything was installed and adjusted, the completed car had the roof bracing removed and was closely inspected to make sure no adhesives had been smeared on anything, and to ensure that nothing had been marred during the installation. Cadillac required that American Sunroof return the car to factory fresh condition, in keeping with Cadillac's high standards of quality.

With installation, reassembly, and clean up of the car completed, the car was moved to a final testing area where the panel was operated several times to make sure it worked properly, and the fit of the panel was checked to guarantee that wind noise would be minimal in the closed position. Once the car passed these tests, it was moved to be transported back to Cadillac for one last quick inspection by Cadillac before it was shipped to its final destination.

Upon delivery, the delighted owner soon discovered that with the panel open, there was little wind turbulence and when closed, one would never know the car had a sunroof unless they looked for it. At the flip of a switch, you could have a drive wide open to the sky above, or when the skies turned threatening, in less than 15 seconds you would have a weather tight car.

Cadillac didn't do much to market the option for 1969, other than photographing an Eldorado with sunroof on the roof of Cadillac's Engineering Building in Detroit (see image at top of page). This same car was placed on display at the New York International Automobile Show, which was held in late March 1969. More effort to market the sunroof was exerted the following year, with special brochures and advertisements created to promote sunroof availability on Fleetwood Broughams, Eldorados, and Coupe deVilles for 1970. Records indicate a few Fleetwood Broughams, Coupe deVilles, and Sedan deVilles were built with power sunroofs in 1969, but it's not clear if this was done through Cadillac or by dealers per customer request. More Eldorados were built with sunroofs in 1969 than other Cadillac models, likely due to Eldorado's need to compete with the Thunderbird, which had been offering the sunroof as an option since the beginning of the model year.

The power sunroof option was priced at $626.00, making it the most expensive option offered on a 1969 Eldorado.

Image: 1969 Cadillac Eldorado shown in Chalice Gold Firemist paint