Surprise Topper for the Mini-Truck
Updated: Oct 30, 2022
On a recent trip, parked up by the sea, I got talking with a friendly fellow who had noticed my camper and pick-up in the past. He was intrigued by the camper, it being a one-off. He'd also seen an old canopy/topper on a mates property and wondered if it might fit my pick-up deck. For those of you not familiar with utes or pick-ups, the open rear deck is so useful for loading timber and gravel etc, but also, having a closed canopy or topper (usually made of fibreglass, steel or aluminium) which is weatherproof and lockable means you can carry extra gear which frees up room inside the camper trailer, where space is often at a premium.
So, I was definitely interested in the canopy. The kind fellow, I'll call him Mr M, said his mate would be happy with $10-00 for it. Winner winner chicken dinner.
We arranged to meet up at his friend's place to check it out. I picked up Mr M and had my tape measure with me. My Isuzu is more than 30 years old. What were the chances a canopy would fit? All utes are different, and each manufacturer can make toppers to fit single or double cab configurations. Still, they cost thousands new, so even if I had to make a few alterations and figure out the fitting, it was worth a look.
Long story short, the canopy was definitely a goer, slightly shorter than my deck but narrower in width, sitting just inside my top rails. Sweet. Two windows were smashed completely but I figured I could replace them with perspex which is lighter and stronger than glass. Not that I'd ever worked with it but hey, how hard could it be???
Other than the broken windows, the main problem was that my deck-top was about 5cm longer than the topper. We decided it was better to marry the tailgate end up and fabricate a waterproof flashing to cover the gap at the cab end.
First attempt at flashing, I used shower-liner plastic, molding a bend along its length by warming with a heat gun. I spent a lot of time trying to do this having never worked with plastics. I could only heat and bend a small section at a time. Easy to overheat, and as each section cooled as I moved along, the change in temperature caused warping and rippling. I was really unhappy with the result and ditched it. (See below, centre image. Last image is metal flashing in place before the canopy is shifted forwards.)
I don't have metal fabricating gear either, but I found an old piece of roof flashing lying about. It was long enough to span the deck space and I cut it to size with snips. It looked the business, neat and nifty. All I had to do was seal it well when I clamped the topper to the ute deck.
On the topper roof there was a non-functioning high-mount tail-light and the fibre-glass surround was cracked. There were also holes where something had been mounted in the past. I didn't want leaking issues so decided to patch over the whole area. Once I'd filled and sanded, I primed the area and hit it with some shite gold spray-paint I found in the shed to protect it until I had the whole topper prepped for final paint.
I removed the broken windows and outer frames, measured up and bought a sheet of perspex from a hardware store. This was about $150.00, by far the most expensive repair piece for the whole job. Pretty happy about that.
The inner window frames were held together with screws and rivets. I had to drill and grind out the rivets to separate the sections as the window is a tight fit and there is no other way to refit the new glazing.
I've not had experience cutting perspex before. I tried using a fine jigsaw blade but it caused cracking so I used a thin metal cut-off wheel on my grinder and it worked fine. Kinda melted its way through but no cracks.
Fitting the perspex into the frames was a bit of a mission. I couldn't use the original seals as they were had it and new rubbers are pricey, so I used a silicon-type sealer on one side, between the perspex and frame, then left it in overnight to cure. Next day I flipped the perspex and frame over and sealed in the other side.
I re-fitted the windows and outer frames into the canopy shell. Some of the hydraulic lift struts were failing so I replaced them with a pair made for large toolbox lids. I bought these for under $20, about one tenth the cost of auto ones, exactly the same size. I just had to swap the swivel-end fittings to suit mine.
One of the rear latches for the tailgate window was munted and the frame was twisted and weak. I cut off the rivets, strengthened the aluminium channel with a section of galv angle and welded the broken latch to another piece of galv angle. I bolted this into the existing aluminium channel. I also strengthened another broken section of channel where the strut attached.
I didn't have keys to the rear tailgate window locks so I sent away to the manufacturer for replacements. I've temporarily screwed down the windows inside for security. If I decide to make a camper in the bed of the topper, I'll do something more user-friendly with the window locks as there's great airflow with both sides open. But for now, I'm just using the truck to pull my camper and the canopy is for weatherproof storage.
I got paint for the topper from a local supplier to kinda match the truck. It's just water-based (easier than auto paint), and I applied several coats with a mini-roller.
I also fixed a ding in the side of the truck (there when I bought it), to tidy that up as well.
My maiden trip to the beach was just before a public holiday, which I normally avoid. But it was great to get away. The beach was chokka with campers by morning and that evening Mr M, Mr C and a friend happened by for their own get together and bonfire nearby. I was chuffed to be able to show them the transformation of the truck topper.
Total cost for perspex, sealers, paint, keys and struts, was under $250.00. Canopies cost thousands new and often many hundreds second-hand so I'm very happy with the "gifted" addition.
All in all I'm so pleased to have the extra weatherproof, lockable space. I can chuck my water containers, camp chair and bike in the back and not worry about rain. Happy days.