CONCEPT CAR FEATURES PC RETRACTABLE ROOF

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DETROIT — The next generation of retractable automobile roofs could open in the center like a pitched tent before folding up and collapsing behind the rear seat.

And they could be made entirely of scratch-resistant, injection molded polycarbonate resin.

That is the idea behind the Open View concept car unveiled Jan. 6 by Karmann U.S.A. Inc. at the 1997 North American International Auto Show in Detroit. Karmann, which develops vehicles and components for various manufacturers, showcased the futuristic sports utility vehicle at the event with hopes of attracting top carmakers. The car was on display through Jan. 20.

``We aren't necessarily trying to get [original equipment manufacturers] to buy into the Open View car lock, stock and barrel,'' said Matthias Lenz, a marketing manager for Karmann. ``But we'd like them to take a look at our roofing system to see the possibilities on other vehicles. Our hope is to generate positive feedback.''

The copper-colored convertible's roofing system attracted attention at the show, which typically is attended by more than 700,000 people. Three panels on the roof, which is opened at the touch of a button, retract horizontally, rotate and lower into a grooved compartment behind the rear seat. The entire process takes less than 30 seconds. A fourth panel sits upright to act as a spoiler to resist wind noise.

The tinted glass is made from engineered thermoplastics supplied and molded by Wilhelm Karmann GmbH at its headquarters in Osnabruck, Germany.

Karmann recently began using the PC roof, which was produced in-house, to replace traditional glass and steel, said Hartwich Tiemeyer, supervising manager of Karmann's U.S. office in Livonia, Mich. The tinted material had proven scratch- and heat-resistant and as stable as steel in company tests, he said.

``Four years ago, we probably wouldn't have gone to plastic for a roof,'' Tiemeyer said. ``But other European vehicles, including the Renault Espase minivan, have used plastic components for roof and truck covers. So we thought it was time to try it out for a roof.''

The plastic-molded roof represents the third generation of Karmann's retractable roofing system. Currently, the new Mercedes-Benz SLK features a Karmann-designed roof opening made of steel and glass.

Of course, the final arbiters on plastic-resin roofs are OEMs, Lenz said.

``If they take our design, they could want to try plastic or go back to glass,'' he said.