America has had an incredible, dynamic, and often quite innovative automotive industry for well over a century, but that rich automotive history also includes many missteps and some outright failures. There’s one engineering failure, though, that makes the Pinto gas tank placement and the Vega’s engine woes seem like mere blips: the persistent and depressing problem of terminal headliner sag.
I realize that droopy headliners aren’t exclusive to American cars (even Mercedes had these issues) but this problem was once extremely common—almost universal— on American cars made from the early 1970s into the early 1990s. That time span is a major part of why I’m hyperbolically calling this the Most Embarrassing Automotive Engineering Failure: it went on far, far too long.
We’ve all seen cars with this problem: the fuzzy fabric that lines the ceiling of, say, a 1982 K-Car or a 1991 Buick Skylark becomes detached from the adhesive holding it to the roof, and begins to sag down in big, billowy arcs, pushing up against your head and making you feel like you’re driving a Bedouin tent.
Usually, the central dome light is the only thing holding the whole thing in place, at least until you start jamming thumbtacks and pins in the fabric in a desperate attempt to keep it out of your face.
What makes this materials/adhesives/engineering failure so egregious is the relationship of how minor a thing it should be to fix, how much it devalues the experience of driving the car, and how damn long the industry had to correct it.
Cars were doing this since the 1970s; by the early 1980s American automakers should have seen that the problem was widespread and worthy of attention, but, somehow, this ridiculous, drapey bullshit continued for two more decades.
What’s especially maddening is that solutions were already well-known: American cars of the 1960s did not have these issues, because they tended to use vinyl, stitched headliners. For example, look at the headliner in this 1966 Mustang:
Lovely, right? That’s an unrestored headliner, and it’s managed to stay off of human heads for over 50 years. Now let’s look at a much more recent car, a 1995 Jeep Cherokee:
Look at that mess. By the time this headliner was sagging, there had been about 20 years of seeing this shit happen to cars. There’s just no excuse for that.
Granted, a droopy headliner isn’t the kind of thing that strands you on the side of the road, but, let’s be honest, it’s just embarrassing. It’s like driving a car with a temporary donut spare or a plastic garbage bag for a window: it makes you feel like a sad, fuckup loser, and that’s the exact last way you want your car to make you feel.
What was going on in the American automotive industry that nearly every major manufacturer somehow couldn’t solve or, even worse, couldn’t be bothered to solve this gigantic annoyance? If the adhesives development over those two entire decades wasn’t up to snuff, why the hell didn’t they revert back to the headliners that were proven to work? Was that fuzzy crap really that much cheaper, or were focus groups demanding a mouse-fur-touch experience above their heads with such vigor?
Headliners from the 1970s to the 1990s are the American car industry’s Jared Fogle: never good, substantially worse with age, and with plenty of ignored warnings that could have saved the American people from a lot of pain and embarrassment.
American carmakers, I need you to look hard and long at these saggy-ass headliners. The next time you feel like everything is going great and you’re getting complacent, remember: there was once a time when you let shit like this slip for decades. Never again.