5 Tips For Making Your Hardtop Into A Convertible (And Not Dying In The Process)

Volvo Sawzall 1


At first glance, making your own convertible seems like the single easiest project you could ever attempt in the world of automotive customization. The problem to be solved is a simple one – you have a roof, and you don’t want one anymore – and the tools to cut, hack, and otherwise destroy said roof are readily available at any rental counter or hardware store in the country. It’s a fun weekend spent with a car you probably don’t care about anymore, but still want to have a good time with for as long as its now-noodle-limp chassis will last.


There’s really nothing more “Roadkill” than dramatic saw-based surgery for your car, and we fully support your desire to get a tan behind the wheel of your former sedan (or coupe, or truck). Still, there’s something to be said for things like “structural integrity,” “not getting wet,” and “not slicing your hand to the bone when opening up a door.” Sure, you could just hack it up, wear some welding gloves and a raincoat, and hope for the best, but maybe there’s a better way–one that doesn’t involve a trip to the ER or your car breaking in half two miles into its inaugural drive.


Or maybe there isn’t. With help from Portland, Oregon’s Peter Braun, an auto journo who has ridden the custom convertible dragon more than once and lived to tell the tale, we put together these five reciprocating saw convertible tips. Have a look and see if there’s anything we left out on the way to the wind whipping through your hair.


  1. Don’t Smash The Windshield



There’s an art to slicing open a car’s roof with a Sawzall, and part of that technique means knowing how close you can get to the top of the windshield frame with your initial cuts. Too far forward and you run the risk of cracking the glass, and since the windshield is pretty much the only structural element you’ll have left on the topside of the car you’re really going to need it to stay in one piece. Mark off a minimum of three inches from the frame before starting to saw. “The first time I cut into a car, my measurement was less than precise and I may have cut directly through a sun-shade… so maybe don’t do that,” says Braun.


At the back of the car, it’s a different story: you’ll want to cut under the pillars framing the back glass and then continue those cuts around the base of the window itself. It’ll probably crack, so wear safety glasses or something. You do own safety glasses, right? A breathing mask is typically a good idea, too.


Peter had some hard-earned wisdom to impart on us when it came to choosing the right weapon for the task of cutting through all that steel. “Be ready to saw-up,” he said. “Your garden variety saw might be able to cut through the wet tissue paper they made old k-cars or Geos out of, but when it comes to tackling something like a Volvo built out of steel from retired German battleships you may need to opt for the world-conquering hellfire of a gas powered concrete cutting saw. Just be warned, one of those monsters makes it easy to make mistakes in a hurry, so if you don’t want to be known as Lefty for the rest of your short, blood-spurting life, take added precautions.”


Maybe it’s a good idea to invest in some chain mail at the same time.


  1. Everything Is Going To Be Sharp



Once that roof is off you’re going to be dealing with the second-worst part of a Sawzall convertible: every piece of metal above the window line is seemingly determined to cut, hack, and slash you to pieces if you get anywhere near it. This is why step two of cutting the roof off of your victim car is grabbing an angle grinder and smoothing down all that steel and plastic as much as possible.


Pro-tip from Peter: “For the discerning cheapskate a couple roles of duct tape will help make up for the lack of a grinder, or sandpaper… or a sharp saw blade at least when it comes to the eye gougingest bits.” Don’t leave anything sharp behind thinking that it’s unlikely hands, heads, and arms will be near a particular jagged piece of metal – you’ve got to assume that whatever bad thing could happen, will happen when driving your homemade convertible.


Once you’ve rounded everything down, there are likely going to be at least a few areas that still seem kind of of dangerous. This is where foam padding and previously-mentioned duct tape are your friend. What, did you think this was a guide to a concourse-winning project? We just want to keep you alive long enough to get you to the ER in time to have your organs harvested (just kidding) (or are we?).


  1. Umm, Seatbelts?



If you’re making a Sawzall convertible, chances are crash safety isn’t your biggest concern. Without the roof in place, chances are your ride will crumple like a tin can if it hits anything above the 15-mph mark, but that doesn’t mean you want to break your face open on the dashboard or steering wheel if you have to stop suddenly because someone cut you off while taking a picture of your topless majesty.


Before you slice and dice the B and C pillars, take a look to make sure you aren’t about to remove the anchor points for the safety belts at the same time. While some cars integrate their seatbelts into the seatbacks themselves, you’re likely going to have to make a choice here: either lose the stock belts entirely, or leave a vestigial stub of dangerously-sharp metal poking up like a skewer from the side of the car. We don’t recommend driving around with four serrated shark fins located just behind your passenger’s heads, so this is a good time to install a set of lap belts and meet safety halfway.


  1. Insulation In Your Face



With no roof in place there’s going to be a lot of wind blowing through the cabin, and since you opened up holes where previously there had been no holes, there’s a good chance random junk is going to start flying out of the A-pillar, B-pillar, C-pillar, and probably the rear deck, too. Insulation, flakes of metal, sound-dampening material, plastic seals, rubber stuff, Cheetos from another era, it’s all part of the vortex generated by your custom convertible now, so again, maybe wear some safety glasses (or really cool goggles) the first few times you head out for a spin. Mr. Braun chimes in with an important Sawzall fashion tip: “As a an experienced veteran of several custom convertibles I highly recommend a driving scarf, sure it might catch on one of the pointy bits you missed and strangle you, but at least you will look classy while you are at it.”


Then there’s the wind itself. Your car was never designed to be a convertible, so the windshield rake angle was never tested for buffeting. Who knows what eardrum-shattering decibel levels you’ll discover as you bravely accelerate towards highway speeds? Earplugs can help, and maybe try rolling up the windows at speeds where a vortex of terror won’t suck them right out of the door panels.


  1. Maybe Don’t Open The Doors



If you plan on driving your Sawzall convertible more than once, you’re going to have make a few concessions to the complete loss of structural integrity that typically comes from lopping off a vehicle’s top. Without the roof to keep the chassis linked together, a unibody car will flex like a young Arnold showing you where the beach is. A full-frame car gives you a bit more leeway, but not much, so you’ll want to make sure you do what you can to fight its newfound wet-noodle tendencies. “I can say from experience that even a few sweet jumps will render your custom convertible’s chassis into the shape and consistency of overcooked fusilli,’ Peter told us.


First things first: don’t open the doors. Along with the windshield, they’re the only part of the car’s body that’s still valiantly fighting flex. The roof’s gone, so it’s time to act like the Duke boys and just hope on in over the sill. In fact, why don’t you go full-General Lee and weld the doors closed, because chances are they’re going to pop open the first time you hit a pothole, and then never close ever again.


“Fortunately I learned from experience that the door locks, on even the rustiest Volvo are up to the task,” related Peter. “That being said, a previous Geo convertible I worked on… well the doors fell off.” If you’re feeling extra ambitious, you can try to weld the underbody to improve its strength, like the old X-frames on early convertibles. Feel free to use angle iron, because no one’s going to see it. And because angle iron’s cheap.


If you’re up to it, and you want to tackle the safety issue and the structural concerns of your new ‘vert at the same time, a roll cage is a great way to stiffen up a roofless vehicle. It also gives you a place to attach harnesses and seatbelts. Some might argue that a cage kind of defeats the purpose of a Sawzall chop-top to begin with, but those people probably don’t have to ride in your death machine.


What did we miss? Do you have any homemade convertible tips you can share with us?


Volvo Sawzall 4


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Roadkill Fall 2016 Cover