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A Ragtop Owner Is Converted: Glass Is Clearly the Way to Go

November 15, 2000|CATHY CURTIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Whoever invented the plastic rear car window for the ragtop must either be a sadist or someone so shortsighted that he always runs out of gas on the freeway.

No matter how much you baby this little plastic rectangle--no matter how careful you are never to use circular strokes while cleaning, never to scratch or abrade its tender surface, never to get a hot-wax treatment at the carwash--too soon it will cloud over and accumulate those vision-defying yellowish deposits.

And there's not a thing you can do about it. To date, no form of clear, flexible plastic has been developed that can withstand the harmful effects of ultraviolet light and the chemicals found in dust, fog, smoke and smog.

We convertible drivers are an adaptable species, however. A few of us get around the problem by keeping the top down in all seasons. Others opt to zip out the rear window and enjoy a permanent neck breeze, even in winter. Still others--I counted myself one of this tribe--simply adapt to being unable to see out the back window.

Hey, it's not that we really can't see out at all. After all, we do receive a sort of impressionistic aura of whatever is behind us. If we're on the street, it's likely that those blurs are actually cars or trucks. If we're backing up in a parking lot, well, those blurs might be any number of things, even people with shopping carts or small children. Needless to say, we thoughtfully compensate by devoting extra attention to our side-view mirrors.

In honest moments, though, we have to admit that a rear window that is rapidly becoming more opaque is not exactly a safety feature.

When I realized that I was likely to keep my Mazda Miata for some time, despite its age (9 years) and significant mileage, I figured I ought to look into replacing the window. The obvious thing to do, of course, is simply to replace the plastic. In my imagination, this would be a simple procedure--sort of, you know, snapping out the old one and snapping in the new one. Could this take more than an hour or so? And how much could a little piece of plastic cost?

After calling around, I discovered that manufacturers' replacement plastic windows are not as cheap as I'd thought--$380 at one Mazda dealership, plus labor. A friendly parts department employee explained that the dealerships typically farm out the installation to a local auto upholstery shop. And I could get a better deal by calling one directly.

Indeed, the upholstery shop quoted $275 for the window and installation but told me the operation would take six hours because the top had to be removed, and so forth and so on. (My brain had stalled early in this conversation at the very idea of giving up my car for the better part of a day.)

In any case, this shop was a good 45-minute drive from home. There were plenty of car upholstery shops in my neighborhood. Why go out of my way? Still, I worried about going just anywhere. What if my window began to leak during winter storms? I was fairly certain these little pieces of plastic don't come with any guarantees (sure enough, they don't).

After a disappointing tour of the classifieds at Miata.com--where I learned that the two plastic windows currently for sale were owned by people in other states and that, in any case, installation is too complicated a job for the likes of me--I got a tip from the parts salesman at another Mazda dealership.

He suggested that I call Brain Storm Performance, a Miata specialist on South La Cienega Boulevard in Los Angeles, where a sewn-in plastic window costs $250.

Sure, they could give me a new plastic window, said the general manager, Scott Surut. Or even a new glass window ($375 plus $165 installation). But why throw good money after bad? I'd be better off with an entirely new ragtop. This idea made me clutch my wallet and wonder if I wasn't being treated like the stereotypical clueless female customer. Hey, my top is in great shape--just look at it!

We stepped outside, and another employee carefully ran his hands over the top, inside and out. He showed me that the cloth had become brittle after so many years of sitting out in the sun and that it was no longer attached to the center frame rail. Sooner or later, this would result in abrasion and tearing.

*

Faced with the evidence, I had to agree: A replacement plastic window would be nothing but money down the drain. So I wound up taking the plunge: $785 plus tax to install a Robbins 38-ounce vinyl top with a glass window. (The plastic-window variety costs $121 less--and a lighter "budget top" less still--but by this time the lure of glass was overwhelming.)

Robbins is a venerable name in the convertible world. The company was founded in 1943 in Santa Monica by Texas native Richard D. Robbins--whose Dodge dealership had literally gone up in smoke--and started as a trim shop, doing interiors and restoration work.

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