It’s a common sight in the farming areas of the world — a group of enterprising automotive hackers take a humble economy car, and saw the roof off, building a convertible the cheapest way possible. Being the city dwelling type, I always looked on at these paddock bashing antics with awe, wishing that I too could engage in such automotive buffoonery. This year, my time would come — I was granted a hatchback for the princely sum of $100, and the private property on which to thrash it.
However, I wasn’t simply keen to recreate what had come before. I wanted to take this opportunity to build a solution for those who had suffered like me, growing up in the confines of suburbia. Surrounded by houses and with police on patrol, it simply isn’t possible to cut the roof off a car and drive it down to the beach without getting yourself in altogether too much trouble. But then again, maybe there’s a way.
The goal was to build the car in such a way that its roof could be cut off, but remain attached by removable brackets. This would allow the car to be driven around with the roof still attached, without raising too much suspicion from passing glances. For reasons of legality and safety, our build and test would be conducted entirely on private property, but it was about seeing what could be done that mattered.
To achieve our goal, it was decided to use a series of off-the-shelf steel brackets with M10 bolts to hold the roof on. Two would be placed between the top of the windscreen and the roof, and one each would be placed on the C-pillars of the car. To cut the car apart, we ended up sourcing a reciprocating saw, with a variety of other hand tools helping to remove the car’s trim and interior panels.
Before making any cuts, we lined the brackets up on the car to drill the mounting holes. With the brackets taped in place, I broke out the cordless drill to make way for the M10 bolts that would hold the roof on. After drilling pilot holes with a regular bit, a Christmas Tree bit was great for enlarging the holes. If you’re not familiar, they’re a great way to drill holes up to 30mm with a regular handheld drill, without having to buy expensive individual bits. However, once we’d drilled all the holes and put the bolts through, we hit a snag.
The C-pillar of the car has both an interior and exterior metal skin, meaning that when we fed the bolts through from the outside, we couldn’t actually attach the nuts on the back of them. This was solved with a quick run down to the hardware store to source a grinder and cutting wheels. With some judicious slicing and dicing, we created plenty of sharp edges, and just enough room to get the nuts on without slashing one’s hands to pieces.
The windshield brackets had a simpler problem — the roof liner was in the way. Kudos to the Hyundai Motor Company where they are due. After 16 years the roof liner was still taut, clean and presentable… until the box cutter came out.
Our plan all along was to get the brackets mounted and bolted in place prior to starting the cutting. Modern monocoque cars lose a lot of strength and rigidity when the roof is removed. If we’d cut the roof away, it would be inordinately difficult to hold it all in place while we then tried to drill holes for brackets to mount it back on. By installing the brackets first, we’d get some semblance of an original fit after cutting.
With the brackets bolted on, we could now commence hacking the roof off. With the reciprocating saw fired up, we began to slice along the C-pillars and the windshield. Brackets were only unbolted one at a time as we cut past them, which made cutting much easier, as the car wasn’t falling apart as we worked. Reciprocating saws can be surprisingly effective and powerful — just be wary of what the blade might catch on the other side of your panel. We were careful to make sure we avoided any wiring, fuel, or hydraulic lines — hitting one could easily spell disaster. Nevertheless, we got the job done without any major mishaps and the roof was now cut free, but bolted in place.
Those of you with a mechanical inclination are probably asking some questions about our methods here. Truth be told, putting bolts through holes in thin sheet steel isn’t great for longevity. The shock and vibration loads of the automotive environment will tear the steel apart in relatively short order. In our case, it didn’t matter — our Hyundai was here for a good time, not a long time.
With the major cutting work done, it was time to up the stealth factor. Shiny steel brackets were far too obvious for our tastes, never mind the gaping cuts in the body work. A can of black spray paint and a roll of duct tape allowed us to cover the worst of the modifications. From 30 feet or so, the casual gaze would just see a beaten-up old hatchback, and that’s precisely what we wanted. But would it be drivable?
The short answer — surprisingly so. On the rural property’s smooth tarmac roads, the car was barely worse than stock. There was some additional wind noise, but by and large the car didn’t feel a whole lot different. Upon hitting the rough dirt roads, things changed pretty quickly. The bumpy surface was making the rough-cut panels rub and squeal against each other and overall it was a rather horrible experience. We slowed to a crawl as we made our way out to our secret test paddock.
We arrived to a sandy wasteland, where nothing much grew, and the ground was just firm enough thanks to some recent rain. We broke out the spanners in the dark and attempted to remove the bolts holding the roof on without nicking an artery — thankfully, our convertible antics did not become a blood sport. It took four of us, but we managed to prise the roof free, dump it on the ground, and then climbed into our glorious steed for the evening.
The events that followed were exactly what you’d expect — a series of wild weaving, handbrake turns, and the inevitable bogging in wet sand. It turns out our convertible Hyundai handles just fine, at least for one night. In regular use I’m more than certain that the chassis would quickly flex and fall apart. There’s no feeling quite like tearing along beneath a clear night sky, with the wind in your hair and a jagged metal edge perilously close to your right elbow. We had some good times, and the Hyundai served us well.
Feeling exhausted, it was time to pack up – and to our surprise, the roof actually bolted back on the car successfully. Had we the means, we likely could have used the car for further antics, though the necessities of real life meant that after one brief evening in the moonlight, our humble sister from Seoul was destined for the scrap heap.
I consider the project to be a success — we built a convertible that didn’t fall apart, and was stealthy enough that it could pass through the average neighbourhood without raising too many eyebrows. It was also our aim to do this cheaply, and I broke down the costs below.
- 2001 Hyundai Accent – $100
- Grinder + Cutting Discs – $40
- Reciprocating Saw – $150
- Fasteners and Brackets – $30
- Fried Chicken – $30
All up, I was in for $350 which, for any sort of automotive experiment, is extremely affordable in my book. There’s a certain freedom that comes when working with a car that’s headed for the crusher. While our Hyundai was falling apart, we were able to give it one last crowning glory, and have an absolute blast doing it. Check out the video below, and start planning your own madcap build today!