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Carson Top Shop, Houser's Carson Top Shop
Vermont Auto Works 1927-1942; Carson Top Shop, 1942-1954; 4910 S. Vermont Ave., 1954-1974, 4717 Crenshaw Blvd., Los Angeles, California
 
Associated Firms
 
     

'Carson Top' has become the generic name for a custom-built, removable, non-folding, padded, chopped top most often found on custom automobiles constructed during the early Post-War era, almost exclusively on the West coast.  Named after the man who owned the firm that originated it, Amos Carson, by the early 1950s a number of Californian upholstery shops were producing nearly identical tops, all of which should more appropriately be called 'Carson-style tops'.

Carson was clearly the first American to adopt the style, which was loosely based upon the padded tops found on coachbuilt convertibles seen at the Paris Salons of the 1930s, a style he originally referred to as a 'French Top'.

Amos Carson was born in August of 1871 in Spanish Fork, Utah Territory to British parents, Amos & Mary Carson, his father being an accomplished harness and saddle maker. The 1880 US Census lists him in Spanish Ford, Utah living with his mother Mary (35yo) and sister Mary (6yo, born in England). The junior Amos learned the trade of his father, the 1890 Salt Lake City directory listing him as a harness maker. The directory also lists his mother Mary ‘widow of Amos’ and brother J. Carson, saddler, all at 59 E. Third South, Salt Lake City.

The 1892-1896 Salt Lake City directories list him as an employee of F. Platt Co., Retail Harness, Saddlery, Hardware Etc., 147-149 S State St. He married Annie Jane (b. May 1870 in England), and to the blessed union was born a daughter, Susan, who was born in March of 1892.

The 1900 US Census reveals he and his family were now residents of Sacramento, California, his profession, harness maker, his employer A. A. Van Voorhies & Co., 322-324 J St., Sacramento.

By the time of the 1920 US Census, Carson and family had relocated to San Francisco, California where he had opened a cigar store. He subsequently operated a pool hall in Salinas, California and by 1927 had relocated further south to Los Angeles, California, where he returned to the ‘carriage trade’ establishing the Vermont Auto Works at 4910 S. Vermont Ave.

The 1930 US Census lists Carson as a resident of Los Angeles, California, (wife, Annie J.) his profession; auto top repairs. An existing picture of the shop circa 1935 shows a banner advertising ‘French Tops’ in the front window. A French Top was a more substantial lined and padded convertible top, a style which was currently all the rage with Continental coachbuilders.

Carson’s right hand man was Glenn G. Houser (b.1907-d.1970), the man credited with constructing the first non-folding padded, smooth lined top in 1935 for a customer’s 1930 Ford Model A convertible.

By early 1936 Houser had constructed a breathtaking, streamlined, chopped padded top for the Southern California Plating ‘delivery truck’ built by George DuVall and Frank Kurtis from a ’35 Ford Phaeton, which also wore the first DuVall V-windshield. Carson’s next-door neighbor, Jarrett Metal Works, would often chop the windshields and side windows to fit the lowered tops.

A Carson top’s framework was constructed using parts salvaged from the existing convertible top to which additional steel stock would be added to strengthen the superstructure. Larger tops included additional bows and hand-formed conduit that would form the frames for the side windows. Chicken wire and stretched burlap (jute) strips were added to form a sturdy base upon which the padding and cotton batting were affixed. Once the cotton was molded to shape the top fabric, generally a fine pebble-grain Haartz cloth, or Nitrite-treated fabric was draped over the structure, cut to fit 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 using integral snaps and hidden tack strips (aka hide-ems). The top was then securely fastened to the windshield frame using the original top header bow and attached at the rear using two large bolts.

Houser’s signature ‘Carson Tops’ were an in-demand item in metropolitan Los Angeles in the years leading up to Second World War and after Amos Carson passed away in 1942, Houser took over the business in the style of Housers’ Carson Top Shop.

Glenn G. Houser (aka Glen G. Houser) was born on December 7, 1907 in Lexington, Dawson County, Nebraska to Joseph M. and Edith Houser. He had an older brother named Milford B. Houser, born in 1903. He’s listed with his family in the 1910 and 1920 US Census, but by 1930 had relocated to Los Angeles, where he’s listed in the 1930 Los Angeles voter registration roll as follows:

“Glen G. Houser occupation trimmer, h. 1025˝ Florida St (Republican)”

1940 US Census lists him as Glen Houser-32yo (wife Corinne -29yo, born in Nebraska, son Robert -10yo, born in California) occupation Auto Trimmer at Top & Body Shop, h. 8942 Menlo Ave.

At its peak in the late 1940s Houser produced an average of 15 tops per week, so a total production of 5,000 convertible top (including fixed Carson and standard folding units) during that time seems reasonable. The firm advertised in the very first issue of Hot Rod Magazine, and their ads can be found in early issues of Car Craft, Motor Trend and Rod and Custom.

Depending on the options and material, a post-war Carson top was priced between $125-$175 and although most Carson tops where white a handful were made in other colors such as cream, tan, black and blue. The firm’s most famous customer was Clark Gable who ordered a Carson top for one of his three Jaguar XK-120s.

Houser’s 18-yo son Robert joined his father’s business in 1948 where he started off welding the frames used to construct the superstructure of the multilayered Carson tops.

By 1950 several California top and upholstery shops were offering custom-built, non-folding padded tops for both standard and chopped convertibles. In Los Angeles Carson was the best-known with Gaylord second and Runyan third with Oakland’s C.A. Hall taking care of the Bay area’s hot-rodders.

Motor Trend’s Robert L. Behme interviewed Glen Houser in early 1953 for his series of on-the-spot interviews of men in the custom car field. The following appeared in the magazine’s April 1953 issue:

"SCENE: Carson Top Shop, Los Angeles, California. Bob Behme has just entered, and Glen leaves his workbench, wiping his hands on his coveralls, as he greets Bob.

GLEN: Hello, Bob. What brings you here today?

BOB: Glen, I'm here today, because MOTOR TREND is running a series of interviews with the men in the custom automobile field. Along with Dale Runyan, you are one of the leaders in the custom top and upholstery, field. I'd like to ask you a few questions which I hope will give some of our readers enough information to know what to expect both in price and workmanship when they order custom upholstery.

GLEN: That's' fine with me. Fire away.

BOB: A good beginning would probably be seat covers. The first thing I think of when upholstery is mentioned is seat covers. Are ready-made seat covers a good deal?

GLEN: That's' hardly the right way to ask the question, Bob. Ready-made seat covers fill a definite need, but they are like anything that is ready-made. They are made for a normal car - and no car is normal. Each seat is, different. Because of this, ready-made seat covers are bound to have a few discrepancies. Another thing - there are only a few fabrics to choose from, and there are only a few designs to buy. That is why guys like me are in business. We create something just a little more nearly perfect – something just a little different. We are not catering to the man who wants to save a few pennies. We can't do that and stay in business. Instead, we are making upholstery and seat covers for the man who wants the best, and who wants something original.

BOB: I see your point, Glen, and I stand corrected. Suppose I change my tack and ask you about fabrics best suited to custom seat covers?

GLEN: These are a good many, Bob, but to name a few - Saran, Lederan, and Firestone's Velon are all good. Fabrics for custom seat covers come in any color, and in many plaids and designs. They'd cost about $35 or $45 installed.

BOB: Okay. Let's switch to a discussion of tops. Take that beat-up hard top of mine that's lounging outside. Can that be covered with fabric?

GLEN: Yes, and as you probably know, a lot of car owners are doing that very thing. A hardtop can be covered with the same material used on convertible tops. It comes in blue, green, tan, maroon, and white. If your car is a late model, the fabric can go on right over the metal top without any holes.

BOB: How do you do this?

GLEN: The chrome moldings around the windows and doors are removed, and after the material is sewn together, it is stretched over the roof and tucked under these areas. Once it fits snugly, the molding is put back into place. This holds the top in place. On the earlier cars, the '36, '37, and '38 models, there often is no such molding, and we must drill a few holes to fasten the fabric on with metal screws. On a late car, the fabric could be removed without a mark, but with the earlier cars, the screw holes must be filled with lead if the top is ever removed. The cost for a fabric top would run between $125 and $175, depending upon the car.

BOB: You just can't talk about tops very long until the conversation naturally seems to drift to the Carson Top. They are now made for all cars, aren't they?

GLEN: Yes, they are. Carson Tops are now available for many of the foreign cars, including the Jaguar and the MG, - as well as for our own American-made automobiles.

BOB: When you make a Carson Top you use all new parts, don't you?

GLEN: Almost all new, Bob. Everything is new except the front bow. The top is fastened to the body by two bolts in the rear, and by the original convertible bow on the windshield. The Carson Top is formed over a framework of metal bows and the bows are welded to the convertible bow in the front. The framework is covered with several layers of jute, fabric, cotton, and stuffing. The outside material is normally of a convertible top sports material. We cover all buttons with a flap and roll.

BOB: Don't such tops offer a choice of rear window designs?

GLEN: Yes, they do. They can be purchased with either the standard opening type of window in either plastic or glass, or in the popular Coupe de Ville in heavy or light-weight plastic..

BOB: Hey, just a minute. By Coupe de Ville, do you mean the wrap-around windows?

GLEN: That's just the style I mean. It is known by many names -Riviera, Coupe de Ville, or wrap-around. The price of a Carson Top depends on the style of windows and the style of interior upholstery. A top with the open style windows and a plain interior starts at $200 for any car over a '42 with the exception of the foreign cars. American autos older than '42's usually run about $175. '36 and '37 coupes are smaller and cost only $155.

BOB: I know the Carson Top is not a folding top. Is it difficult to remove?

GLEN: No. It's almost as easy to deal with as a folding top. You can install a hoist in the garage rafters and lift the top, or two people can easily pick it off the car and store it against the garage wall.

BOB: Folding tops are still pretty popular. I presume the remarks you made about the ready-made seat covers applies to a ready-made top too.

GLEN: Yes, they do. A fellow can save money by purchasing a ready-made top for about $40, but he can never get the fit of a custom top. After a convertible has been driven for a few months, the bows begin to warp. A top has to be made for the bows to fit snugly and to look really good.

BOB: Attractiveness is not the only advantage of a custom top is it?

GLEN: No The customer is usually a craftsman. He takes pride in putting on extras which make his product last longer, as well as look better. All fasteners would be covered with a flap and the edges would be rolled. Wearing points would probably be covered with extra layers of fabric. Prices start at $65, and given proper care such a top should last a good long time.

BOB: Ah, there you've come up with a moot point! Just what is proper care?

GLEN: First of all, a convertible should be kept in a garage, out of the sun at all times when it is not in use. If the-top is moist it should be dried thoroughly before it is folded. When it is washed it should never be washed with anything stronger than white Ivory soap. The top should be brushed regularly, and after one year it should be coated.

BOB: What sort of coating do you recommend?

GLEN: There are many good products The one we use here is called Seal-it. We like it because it is a dye which can be used to color the top fabric any shade the owner chooses It is water repellent yet it never seems to make the fabric hard or shiny.

BOB: The folding top is not upholstered but both the hard tops and the Carson Tops have upholstered head linings don't they?

GLEN: Yes they are usually upholstered in either a welting or a piping.

BOB: Hold on a minute Glen. Set me straight, will you? I know that welting is the small fold that goes along the creases, but tell me what is this piping?

GLEN: Pipings are large tucks on the seats and side panels and head lining which are stuffed to give a series of half-circle rolls. Most- of the time, head linings are piped in a two-tone effect - say an all-over white fabric with a few rolls of green for accent. This is really a nice effect, but it seems to look best on customs. It doesn't come off on a stock car. A stock looks best with either a single tone piping or the more sedate welting.

BOB: Just how much work does an upholsterer get into when he installs a new head lining?

GLEN: He gets into quite a lot of work. It is a very difficult task to perform properly. The standard lining is removed and heavy 3/8-inch steel bows are installed across the inside of the roof. The upholsterer then makes a pattern of the inside of the roof and begins making the lining on his bench. Wires are put through each of the folds or pipes on the back. When the top is completed on the bench, it is taken to the car and the wires are strung through the bows. This is important because the use of the bows and wires keeps the lining tight and snug. The job should cost about $75 if welting is used and about $125 if the top is piped.

BOB: It seems as if the pipe and roll on seats and tops are becoming very popular. What is the most popular size of piping?

GLEN: At the moment - here in the West, anyway - the small two-inch pipe with a fairly large 'horseshoe' roll coming around the edges of the seats down to the floor is most popular. The small piping seems to look best and because it is tightly sewn, it seems to wear better than the larger piping.

BOB: When upholstering the seats, you completely rebuild them, don't you?

GLEN: That's right. We remove the upholstery and restyle it along the customer's designs. The exterior is sewn on a bench, then, placed on the seat frame and padded to give roundness and softness. Prices should start about $250 if side panels and kick panels are included.

BOB: Can a fellow get this done for less if he has only the seats upholstered?

GLEN: Sure, he could have the seats upholstered for about $175, but he wouldn't really be saving money. Sooner or later he will want the door panels and the kick panels covered, and it will be another $90 to $100. If he has this done along with the seats, the upholsterer can cut all the material from one bolt with a greater saving in fabric and labor, and he can pass this saving along to the customer.

BOB: Is there much demand for padded dashes now?

GLEN: There is not as much demand for them as there was. It seems to be going out of style slowly, although we have recently done several 'Kaiser', type crash rolls. The upper half of the dash is padded with a heavy, soft 'crash roll,' while the lower area is chromed. This is quite striking. Some sports-type cars look good with a completely upholstered dash. A partial dash would cost about $35. Chroming shouldn't run over $15 or $20.

BOB: Is a completely upholstered dash limited only to sports-type cars?

GLEN: No, but it's a tricky thing to design. It should be limited to cars with a rather plain dash design. The late model Fords and Chevys take to it rather well. Most foreign cars look good. The toughest part of padding a foreign car is the work involved in removing and replacing the instruments. On either the American or foreign cars, it would run between $35 and $50.

BOB: Many fellows like the advantage of an arm rest in either the front or rear seat. Do you recommend a fixed or removable arm rest?

GLEN: I recommend the removable arm rest for two reasons, Bob. First, it is easier to construct, and thus is less expensive, and second, the removable arm rest can be upholstered without causing bulges and wrinkles. The arm rests are built of wood and upholstered in fabric. The fabric usually matches the seats—if the seats are a pipe and roll, then the arm is identical. This would cost about $25 or $30 plain.

BOB: What do you mean by 'plain'?

GLEN: All arm rests are hollow. They can be used for storage, but many fellows are converting their arm rests into a bar. To do this, the top is hinged and inside padded. A bar arm rest costs about $50. If the arm rest extends down to the floor, as many do, it would probably cost about $75. Rear seat arm rests cost the same as those for the front.

BOB: Are tire covers limited to older American cars and popular foreign makes?

GLEN: Oh, no. Many owners who have installed continental kits are changing from the metal tire cover to sports fabric because it gives a more sporty look. The cover should cost about $12.

BOB: At this point it seems natural to turn to tonneau covers. They are very adaptable, aren't they? I wouldn't consider them limited to smaller sports cars.

GLEN: Tonneau covers improve the looks of almost any convertible. But more than that, they offer protection against the elements when the top is down. There are many variations of the tonneau cover. First, there is the 'full' tonneau. This fits from the back, the rear seat, up over the windshield and down, to snap around the sides. It protects the upholstery from the sun and moisture. The second design — perhaps the most popular — starts at the back seat and ends at the windshield. With the windows rolled up, it offers good protection from the dew, and with the exception of the open windshield, it is excellent protection from the sun's rays. The third design is a half tonneau. It merely covers' the rear seat. The full tonneau costs about $50. The second type, ending at the windshield, costs about $37, and the half-tonneau should cost about $27.

BOB: This should sum up the upholstery interview pretty well, shouldn't it, Glen?

GLEN: I think so. This should be enough information so that anyone can know how to get his money's worth. One important point, however, is that custom upholstery and top work result in a handmade product. The quality and taste of that product depend upon the man who does the work. Before buying seats, tops, or any work, it is best that the prospective purchaser inspect the upholsterer's past work. There are many top-notch men in the business, but there are also a few 'rag pickers' who do not care about quality. If the car owner will pick his workman with care, the upholstery or top should leave nothing to be desired in appearance, and should last a long, long time."

By 1954 demand for the firm’s signature tops had been in decline for several years and the firm relocated to a new, slightly smaller building at 4717 South Crenshaw where they could concentrate on their expanding custom upholstery business. The firm’s very last ‘Carson Top’ was constructed in 1965 for a Barris-built Ford Galaxie show car. By that time the firm was installing vinyl tops for local car dealers and four years later Glen Houser passed away leaving the business to his son Robert, who kept it going until 1976 when he withdrew from business.

© 2004 Mark Theobald for Coachbuilt.com

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References

Beverly Rae Kimes & Henry Austin Clark - Standard Catalog of American Cars: 1805-1942

The Carson Top Shop; Motor Trend, December 1949 issue

Robert Lee Behme - The Case For Custom Upholstery - Motor Trend, April, 1953 issue

Greg Sharp – The Carson Top Story; Hot Rod Yearbook No. 14, pub. 1974

Greg Sharp – The Carson Top Story; Rod & Custom, August, 1991 issue

Upholstery by Gaylord, Rod and Custom, October 1953 issue

Thom Taylor – Top Gun; Custom-Car Legend Bill Gaylord, Rod & Custom November, 1997 issue

The Carson Top; Street Rodder, April, 1989 issue

Building a Carson-Style Lift Off Top; Rod & Custom, August, 2006 issue

Ed Roth & Tony Thacker - Hot Rods by Ed Big Daddy Roth, pub. 2007

Pat Ganahl - Ed "Big Daddy" Roth: His Life, Times, Cars, and Art, pub. 2011

Pat Ganahl - The American Custom Car, pub. 2001

George Barris, David Fetherston - The Big Book of Barris, pub. 2002

Tony Thacker - 1951 Mercury Convertible; Blue Heaven, November, 2003 issue of Rod & Custom

Dan Post - The Blue Book of Custom Restyling, pub. 1944

   
 
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