Chop Your Top for the Coolest Custom Around
Do you want to customize your car and make it sleeker, more dramatic, and cooler than ever? Customizers of all stripes agree—you have to chop the top. Kustom kulture rallies around chopped tops. You can’t talk kustoms without talking about chopping and channeling and flip through any issue of Hot Rod magazine and you’re bound to see your share of chopped customs. Tim Bernsau of Rod & Custom said in his article “Top Chop Tricks From a 1932 Ford Coupe” in the February 2009 issue, that more has been written on chopping tops than any other customizing technique and a quick Google search would seem to prove him right. Chopping is still all the rage—50 years after it was first popularized.
To “chop a top” is to bring the top down a few inches, cutting the pillars and windows, which lowers the roofline. Sam Barris is said to be the first chopper—he chopped his 1949 Mercury straight out of the showroom and went onto chop Larry Ernst’s 1951 Bel Air fastback and the 1951 Hirohata Merc. After that, chopped tops were all the rage, especially in the 1960s. Harvey Earl popularized them with his “dream cars” in the General Motors Motorama shows. Concept cars with lowered rooflines gave the public a look at automotive design at its most chic while giving customizers lots of ideas for how they could chop their own cars. Design sketches from that time also reflect the chopped top look. To this day, concept cars are still chopped, even when they are meant to reflect the production cars. Chopping never goes out of style.
Chopping: Art for Cars
There is no one way to chop a top and many customizers refer to chopping as an artform for that very reason. Some pledge allegiance to the 2/3 body and 1/3 top formula. Still, others like to eyeball it based on the car’s individual characteristics. Said Simon Watts in his article, “The Hardtop Chop: Unboxing a Shoebox” in the February 2009 issue of Rod & Custom, “I like to think of it more along the lines of a woman’s figure. You can’t calculate a formula to find out why it’s great; you just know it when you see it.” In the third part of his “Hard Top Chop” series, Watts shared his secret: “Cut, stand back, and weld it together once it [looks] right.”
Other customizers agree with Watts’ statement that chopping is about a car’s figure coming together as a whole. “No one part stands out more than any other,” Watts advises. “Each curve and line flows into the next flawlessly, all the major shapes complement each other in a pleasing way and they all work from every angle.” Isn’t that how every customizer envisions his or her project’s final product? Unified and aesthetically impressive?
Of course, there are wrong ways to chop a top. And many customizers warn that too severe a chop can have disastrous results. In “How to Chop a Truck Top Without Blowing It Chop Your Top,” an article from the July 2009 issue of Custom Classic Trucks, John Gilbert likens a chopped top to a tattoo—it’s best to get it right the first time, he says. But, when it’s done right, “A customized classic with a chopped top is more than just plain badass, it’s as cool as it gets.” With such potentially explosive results, it’s worth a try, right?
How to Chop a Top
There are two common ways to chop a top—and many more variations. One method is to bend the car’s posts, watching out not to stretch the roof. The other method is to stretch the roof in order to fit the windows back into the car once the top is chopped. Gilbert tells readers from experience that bending the posts is bad because it’s difficult to put the windshield and windows back post-chop. He also emphasizes the importance of taking one’s time, especially once the metalwork begins. If you allow too much heat to build up, you will warp your roof—damage that is nearly undoable, unless you know a talented body guy.
Traditionally, customizers chose to gas weld when chopping a top. The new guys often use an MIG. But the greats like Bill Hines, an expert chopper born in 1932, still swear by gas welding. Hines only uses an MIG to tack-weld pieces in place. The July 2009 article, “Chopping a 1951 Mercury – Master Chop” in Rod & Custom describes Hines climbing on top of the Merc. The 77-year-old chopper was by no means a siting advisor. (You’ll still find him in his shop 7 days a week if you happen to need any work done.)
Top Chopping Basics
If you’re thinking about chopping a top—here are a few pointers from masters like Hines. Keep your car’s profile in mind when thinking about your chop—continuity is important. Chopping a car with a wraparound rear window can be tricky—you may need to find a smaller rear window instead and fill in the quarter-pillar void. Bending the posts makes it difficult to fit the windows and the windshield, so consider stretching the roof instead.
And, while you’re chopping, you might also consider channeling. Channeling a car means removing the floor, bringing the car down on the frame, and reattaching the floor—the whole process brings the car lower to the ground and makes it look even more dramatic. Customizers who love chopping often also love channeling, especially because it lowers a car’s wind resistance, allowing for an even smoother, faster ride.
Dan Kahn said it best in “1951 Custom Chevy Chop Shop,” an article from the June 2004 issue of Rod & Custom, when he said, “Anyone can stuff a bigger cam in a motor, throw a Hurst shifter on the ol’ four speed, or swap on a set of flipper caps and white whites. What really separates the men from the proverbial boys is taking a torch to perfectly good sheet metal and altering factor body lines.” Ultimately, Kahn speaks the truth: “If you want a full-blown radical custom, you’ve got to chop the top.” There you have it folks. What are you waiting for? It’s chopping time.