One of a Kind – Custom Poptop

When we were considering how to turn our tin-top Vanagon Syncro into the ultimate road tripping machine, we spent a lot of time looking at different options that would give us more living space.  In particular we required the ability to stand up in our kitchen.  Because Chimera is one of the rarest of the Vanagon Syncros, a sunroof Syncro, it already contained the huge hole in the roof necessary to fulfill this requirement.

We, however, wanted more.  We wanted protection from the elements and swarms of mosquitos that we will be sure to encounter on our journey south.  For this, there are really only two options.  The first is to put a hard top on the roof.  As the name suggests, a hard top is a hard, usually fiberglass, shell that is glued to the roof to provide additional interior height along the length of the van.  This option was dreamed about, but was dismissed due to the seemingly exorbitant cost from the only Vanagon hard top provider in North America.  In hindsight, the prices are quite reasonable.

The second option is to add a pop top.  Various versions of the pop top exist, but the most common and well known is the Westfalia pop top.  We strongly considered this option and even drove to a junk yard with the intent of purchasing one off of a wrecked van.  When it came down to it, we backed out with the knowledge that we would have to effectively destroy the precious sunroof Syncro installing the Westy top.

With no other “off the shelf” options available, the possibility of a custom pop top was discussed with Tim’s Dad, Todd.  To our surprise, a day or two later, he emailed some sketches of a concept he came up with.


Concept overview sketch.

 With his experience building a small sailboat by hand using Cold Rolled Boat Building technique, Todd thought he could construct what he described as a “shoebox” type design out of plywood, using cloth, epoxy, and resin to add strength.  The top of the box would lift off of the bottom to pop up and provide the height and protection from the elements that we were looking for.  We liked the idea and said “Yes, please build that for us!”.


The first fitting of the base of the pop top.


Measuring for the mounting fixture construction.

As Todd set to work on the pop top, we focused on the rest of the roof.  With only the center portion being taken up by the pop top, there was plenty of room fore and aft to add storage.  We procured a huge roof basket off of Craigslist, and proceeded to cut it in half.  The plan was that half of the basket would sit up front above the driver and half would sit in the back, behind the pop top.  Blake, a good friend who helped with countless other welding tasks that we threw at him as we were preparing the van, helped to weld new end bars on each resulting section and add necessary mounts.  A quick coat of black paint and the racks were finished.


Blake helping to prep for welding of the roof basket.

Tim’s Dad, having been given only about two months notice to fabricate the pop top, worked countless hours through a particularly cold Colorado winter.  He assembled and epoxied in the basement to stay warm and allow the epoxy to cure.  He lost many hours of sleep wondering how he could build a jig to assist with assembling the nearly 150 separate pieces of plywood that eventually formed the pop top.  And, he delivered a beautiful, one of a kind pop top one week before we planned to leave.


Resin and hardener used in the pop top construction.


Construction of the complicated and extremely strong base mounting fixtures.


Applying epoxy to the top part of the pop top.


The pop top assembled upside down with Yakima rain gutter mounts.

All that was left to do to complete the roof of the van was to install the solar panel mounts to the top of the pop top, sew the canvas tent, and paint the exterior to protect the construction from the harmful UV rays of the sun.


Installing the solar panel mounts.


Epoxying a layer of cloth over the solar panel mounts to add strength.


Emily sewing the pop top tent on Tim’s mom’s antique sewing machine.


Test fitting the canvas.


Painting with Monstaliner.


The painting operation, we also painted the whole roof of the van.


Safety first!

It was an extremely ambitious schedule, but we worked many late nights that last week to finalize the van roof.  We prepped and painted the roof of the van and the exterior of the pop top with a do-it-yourself truck bed liner paint, Emily sewed for many tough hours on the Sunbrella canvas material for the pop top tent, and everything came together amazingly seamlessly the day before we left.


The pop top installed.


Pop top, roof baskets, and awning installed.


Looking good!




The view from inside.

5 thoughts on “One of a Kind – Custom Poptop

  1. I enjoyed seeing the detailed description and images of the evolution of the Chimera. What a team effort! Hope you are seeing lots of gorgeous sunsets and basking in comfort after the last colors fade.

  2. This is so good, I love it! Hope your guys’ trip was a blast. I was wondering how you went about fixing the canvas to the frame. I have a fiberglass pop top truck with the canvas ripped out because of mold, and was looking for some pointers as to how to install it yourself.

    • Hi Andrew,
      Thanks for getting in touch. We attached the canvas by sandwiching it between the wood of the pop top and a strip of wood or aluminum with a screw every few inches. We used a hot nail to melt holes in the “canvas” where the screws go through.
      Hope this makes sense and helps.

  3. Looks really good. Just now found your blog and am enjoying it both for the travelogue and the technical vanagon stuff. I live in Boulder as well and more to the point, also have a sunroof syncro, so particularly like how you adapted this for your purposes.
    Great work!

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