Origins of "rag-top"

This week’s Carnivàle had a line using the term “rag-top” to refer to a convertible car. I’m wondering if this might be an anachronism.

I don’t understand.

What’s to understand? When did the term “rag-top” (referring to a convertible car) originate? Was it before or after the timeframe of Carnivàle (roughly dust-bowl era)?

Encarta says mid 20th century.

Partridge’s Concise Dictionary Of Slang And Unconventional English attributes it to Graham-Ranger, 1981.


Webster’s Collegiate dates it to 1953. I never heard the term in the “dust bowl era” (ca 1935). A sedan with a folding top was a “touring car” while an equivalen coupe was a “roadster” which also had a “rumble seat.” I understand that Germans word for the rumble seat was the “mother-in-law seat.”

Well we used to call my old MG a rag top back in the 60’s so I’m gonna call Bullshit on this one.

Indeed, the term seems to have come into common use about the early '50’s.

But, I just found a 1926 newspaper cite, referring to the new Studebaker duplex phaetons and roadsters having made the “old fashioned ‘rag top’ automobile entirely obsolete.”

So, at least one person used the term that early, but it probably didn’t mean a convertible. I’m not much on cars from the period, so maybe someone who is can interpret what my earliest cite meant.

Any model of auto with a cloth top, touring car, roadster, etc. could be considered a “rag top.”
May have been regional originally and later spread cross country.

Open top trailer: Trailer with a removable top that is usually made of tarp material. Also referred to as a ragtop. A semi trailer on the highway or on a rail car.


Early automobiles’ chassis were outgrowths ofbuggy chassis. Most buggy tops could be folded down for use in nice weather and so could those on automobiles. They also had side curtains that could be either rolled down or snapped into place in bad weather. Remember, “… with isinglass windows you could roll right down in case there’s a change in the weather.” (The Surrey With The Fringe On Top Oklahoma!)

My son and I put a new headliner in his 1960 Falcon and discovered that it was essentially a buggy top fitted into the car - except it didn’t fold down out of the way in nice weather.

I will have you know that the title of this thread keeps making me hum Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby,” you scurvy knaves!

Following up on the regionalism theory of springears, where is your cite from?

The San Mateo(CA) Times.

If I were driving a convertible, California would be one of my first choices.

For what it’s worth,my 36 ford had a soft top–and in about 36/36 Chevy came out with an all steel top which it advertised as t he"turret top."

The soft top was common in the early 30s and ,unless properly maintained,was called either the rain roof or the rag top.

However I believe this was a regional reference to a leakysoft top and not a name for the roadster.


Maybe you should send a copy of the article to the dictionary/etymology sites so that they can update their entries. Looks like you found something they didn’t.

I see why Dag Otto didn’t understand. What’s Carnivàle?

Such wood-frame and cloth tops were not retractable as are those of a convertible. It was recommended that a product called “top dressing” be used regularly to prevent cracking of the waterproof coating of the cloth cover. Wood was also used as a stiffener inside the steel outer body in many places, such as the door posts. This site states that Chrysler introduced theall-steel body as early as 1914 but the wood as a structural member wasn’t entirely gone until the late 1930’s, By then better steels that could be readily formed by stamping became available.


The car in question is definitely a convertible. The top is down in the scene.