CARSON TOP SHOP part 1
The birth of the Traditional Custom Car in the late 1930s was influenced by one big event. The design of the Carson padded top by Glen Houser in 1935.
The traditional Custom Cars as we know then had their birth in Sunny California in the later part of the 1930’s. The looks of these custom restyled cars developed during the 1940’s and around 1946-48 the style had reached near perfection. Custom cars in those years were restyled to reach the long, low road hugging illusion. These cars were restyled to reach an graceful effect of unbroken lines. These cars were created with eye for balance, using other brand parts to make the Custom to look better, more elegant, more exclusive, but always with near perfect proportions. The early restyling on cars were mostly based on convertible and roadster bodies. The windshields were chopped and smooth perfectly flowing padded tops were created to flow with the smooth lines of the cars. The Carson Top Shop located on Vermont Avenue in Los Angeles had developed this padded top in 1935, and used it on a chopped custom for the first time in 1937. The look they achieved with that changed the look and feel for the custom cars from that time on. The Carson padded top would become very popular first in Southern California, later migrating to North California, and then to all over the US.
Mid 1930’s photo of the Vermont Los Angles shop where Amos Carson started to work using the front section of the Vermont Auto Works shop. The window reads that Tops (convertible) are $10.-. The French tops advertised on the left window were more, but we do not know how much more. The shop window also shows that the shop already did seat covers as well at this time.
Lets start at the beginning. The Carson Top Shop was established in the late 1920’s at the 4910 Vermont Avenue location. At this locations the Vermont Auto Works specialized in Auto painting, general auto repair, and body and fender work. Amos Carson, born in Utah 1971 rented the front of the shop and started his A. Carson Tops shop. Amos had learned the trade from his father who was a harness and saddle maker at first. Later when they moved to Salinas Ca. during the family opened a pool hall which was ran by Amos Carson.
In 1927 Amos closed the pool hall and moved to Los Angeles where the Top Shop was opened. The first couple of years the shop worked on regular soft tops and interiors. In 1930 Glen Houser started to work for Amos Carson. Glen had a soft spot for customizing and started to add custom touches to the model T and A’s that would be at the shop. Special convertible tops and other details, Glen Houser became a very important asset to the shop. And in 1935 he unknowingly gave himself a icon status when he designed and developed the first smooth non-folding, padded top. He named it the French top, since it was styled after the looks of some of the metal padded topped cars from French created couchbuild cars. According the stories the car for which Glen designed this padded top was a 1930 Model A roadster. Sadly we have never seen a photo of this car.
Just some of the many early Carson Padded topped customs in Southern California in the early 1940’s. The padded tops set the style for the early custom look. Most of the Carson padded tops were for chopped cars, but there were also some done for stock height cars.
In 1937 early Custom Car pioneer Roy Hagy was working on a clients project. A near new 1937 Chevy coupe that had been in an accident destroying the whole top when it rolled over. After removing the damaged top, and repairing the windshield frame and belt-line Roy took it over to the Carson Top Shop to see if they could create a special made top for it. Glen houser created his french top especially for this 1937 Chevy, creating hand made bows and adding all the padding. We do not know if this car had a chopped windshield or stock height, but this customized car is said to be the first custom car to ever receive a Glen Houser Carson Tops Shop padded top.
After that it all went very quick the looks of this padded top fitted the custom restyled cars perfectly. The soft rounded profile fitted the looks of these cars so much better than the hard edged retracting rag- tops. Plus it was way more easy to make a padded top fit the lowered windshield of the convertible or roadsters than a working rag-top. Glen Houser’s signature padded tops were an hot item in Southern California in the late 1930’s early 1940’s. The padded top added more comfort than the regular rag-tops, protecting the driver and passenger from heat and cold, plus the tops were relatively easily removed (with two man, or a ceiling mounted hoist) for topless cruising.
A dark colored padded top was created for March Baldwin’s 1940 Mercury convertible. This photo is from 1944, but the car was restyled when the car was near new. The shape of the Carson top was a bit different in these early days.
Unidentified early restyled 1939 Ford convertible, with the running boards removed and shaved trim and handles. The dark colored padded top shows the early style smaller diameter roll at the bottom.
A Carson top’s framework was mostly constructed from steel stock and hand-formed conduit. The shop tried to include the cars stock front bow, and possibly the stock rear bow if they were available for the car. The frame work was bolted to the stock convertible brackets. Aviary wire (finer than chicken wire) was attached to the frame work and and stretched burlap (jute) strips were added to form the base upon which the padding and cotton batting were affixed. Before the outside was completely covered the headliner would be created. This way the headliner could be easily attached to the frame work from the outside.
After the headliner was installed the cotton padding was added to the frame and molded to shape, followed by the top fabric, generally a fine pebble-grain Haartz cloth, or Nitrite-treated fabric was draped over the structure, cut to fit using carefully labeled templates, and the seams sewn on a worktable using an industrial sewing machine. The completed top was then stretched across the framework and permanently attached to it. The bottom of the top had an extra roll added concealing the snaps and hiding them from view. The top was then securely fastened to the windshield frame using the original top header bow and attached at the rear sides using two large bolts.
Write up on the California Carson Top in the 1949 Speed and Power Handbook.
Illustration from around 1948 in the Speed and Power handbook shows the read how the top was created and the materials needed for it. Interesting illustration but it did not give away all the details.
In the 1949 edition of the Dan Post Blue Book of Custom Restyling two very detailed illustrations were used to explain how the Padded tops were created. The first illustration shows very well how the bows were created and how the original wooden front bow was reused.
The Carson Top Shop was not the only shop to create padded tops in the 1930. We know that the George Thomas Top Shop in Hollywood created a wonderful padded top for the SoCal Plating Co. 1935 Ford “truck” in 1935-36. The shape of the top very much reassembles the shape of the Carson Tops. Later more shops would create the padded tops especially for Custom Cars and Hot Rods. Shops as the C.A. Hall Auto Tops in Oakland Ca., Runyan in Santa Monica Ca., Bill Gaylord in Lynwood, Ca., Eddie Martinez in Lynwood and several others. But it was Glen Houser at the Carson Tops Shop who made these padded tops popular. In fact so popular that the ‘Carson Top’ had become the generic name for all custom-built, removable, non-folding, padded, tops. No matter who had produced the actual top.
Glen G. Houser was born on December 7, 1907 in Nebraska, in the late 1920’s he had relocated to Los Angeles to become an auto trimmer. In 1930 he started working for Amos Carson, and in 1942 when Amos Carson passed away he took over the business. The shop would remain the same Carson Top Shop name, but the interior tag the shop added to each interior and top showed Houser’s name on it.
The Houser’s Carson Padded Tops interior tag. More about this tag can be read in the Upholstery Tags CCC-Article.
With the padded tops become a most wanted product in the late 1930’s early 1940’s the shop had to think about simplifying the production. Glen Houser started to make patterns from everything he did. Wood patterns for the bows he had to create and cardboard templates for the fabric they used. Everything was standardized. Crawling in and out of the cars during the creation of the top was very time consuming, plus tiering. So Glen created special jigs for the most popular cars that came into the shop for the Padded Carson Tops. These jigs could be uses to create the frame work on, and to do all the upholstery work while standing up right. This saved a lot of work, and production would go up to about 15 tops per week during the peak in the 1940’s. It is estimated that the Carson Top Shop might have produced a total of 5000 tops from 1927 till the mid 1970’s. Mostly padded tops, but also custom made rag-tops in the early years. A staggering number of tops.
The “disadvantage” of all this automation was that all the tops did look alike, and there was not much room for special work. This is one of the reasons why the Barris Kustom Shop would later start work together with Bill Gaylord so that George could have him create better flowing tops, especially on the 1941-48 Fords.
Robert (Bob) Houser working on the inside of a new padded top. This photo is really great since it gives us a great look at the jigs the shop created to be able to create the padded tops off from the cars, making on them work go faster and easier.
The Carson Top shop worked close together with the Jarrett Auto Works Shop next door. This shop would chop the convertible and roadster windshields, and if needed could perform other metal work as well. This allowed the customer to drive their stock automobile to the Carson top Shop, and pick up a complete Custom chopped padded topped automobile two or three days later. A complete chopped padded top would range between $125.- and $175.- depending on style and if the windshield had to be chopped.
Frank Caggino with his 1939 Mercury in 1948, freshly chopped by the Jarrett’s Auto Works and a new Carson Padded Top. Frank’s Mercury is still around today, and the current owner has saved the original Carson as well as the Jarrett Shop invoices.
Carson Top Shop invoice dates January 27, 1948. The total bill for the Carson top was $169.75, and Frank added the $149.36 from the Jarrett’s Auto Work bill (below) to get a total of $318.11 for the complete restyling.
The good thing about the Carson Top Shop was that they did not concentrate to just Custom Car and Hot Rod work. They saw the potential in doing special padded top for the Sports Car market as well. That help get business going for a long time. Clark Gable ordered a Carson top for one of his Jaguar XK-120s, which of course helped the sales of this unit.
The frame work is finished and tested on the car. It now is ready to go back on the jig where the layers of material will be used to form the top. The car is an unidentified 1950-51 chopped Mercury convertible.
The Carson Top Shop used a nice ad in the very first issue of Hot Rod Magazine, January 1948.
The Carson Top Shop understand the importance of advertising and name image. They advertised from the beginning of the automotive magazines and kept doing that ever since. This image shows just a few of the ads they ran in the magazines.
The shop offered several styled of tops, and there was also a choice in finishing material, at least color wise. The most popular material was the white canvas, but especially in the early years a lot of tan and black tops were produced. At first the only rear window option was a removable convertible mail-slot rear window. The rear flap around the rear window would be removed completely, or zapped to the headliner for better ventilation in the summer. Later the Carson Top Shop developed the “Coupe de Ville” style padded top. This top had a wrap around rear window done in shaped heavy or light-weight plastic.
The Olive Hill Garage created this channeled 1939 Ford convertible and the Carson Top Shop create de “Coupe de Ville” (wrap-around) padded top. The car was owned by Art Lellis, one of the two Olive Hill Garage shop owners. The car is still around today, but the top is long gone.
Close up of the “Coupe de Ville” wrap around rear window which could be ordered with heavy or light-weight plastic formed rear windows. This style of top provided a much better rear view than the original mail-slot rear windows.
Most of the Carson Padded tops were created for convertible’s and roadsters, but the shop also did a good number of long four door convertible sedans and phaeton’s. This one was done for the Valley Custom Shop created 1938 Ford for Ray Vega.
This Life magazine photo gives us a really nice look at the padded top Carson created for Bob Lund’s 1950 Mercury with 1951 rear fenders. The car was another Barris Kustoms creation. This photo also shows the flap around the rear window that can be removed completely.
In 1948 Glen Houser’s 18-year old son Robert (Bob) joined the Carson Top Shop. He started off welding the frames used to construct the superstructure of the multilayered Carson tops. Later on he did all the work needed in the shop. Glen Houser passed away in 1969, leaving the business to his son Bob. Bob would keep the business running for another 5-6 years, then he closed the shop and retired.
References and more info
- Blue Book of Custom Restyling, book Dan Post
- Speed and Power Handbook, booklet 1947-49
- Motor Trend, magazine April, 1953
- Street Rodder, magazine, April, 1989
- Rod & Custom, magazine August, 1991 (The Carson Top Story by Greg Sharp)
- The American Custom Car, book Pat Ganahl 2001
- The Big Book of Barris, book 2002
- Barris Kustom Techniques of the 1950’s, books
- Rodders Journal, magazine issue 12
- Coachbuilt.com, website
There is a lot to tell about the Carson Top Shop, the Carson Tops, and interiors, in fact so much that we could not fit it all into one article. This first article concentrated on the shop, the padded top and its importance for the custom car scene.
In PART TWO we will focus on interior work and the latter 1950’s work the shop did.
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