Where Did the Term ‘Tonneau Cover’ Come From?

Published by Nadeem Muaddi on March 24th, 2014

Auto Upholstery - The Hog Ring - Tonneau Cover

Auto trimmers and restylers shouldn’t be surprised to learn that the number one selling aftermarket product for trucks in the tonneau cover — as many of us repair or install them on a regular basis. But how many of us ever stopped to wonder where the term comes from and why we use it?

Being the nerd that I am, I decided to find out, and was amazed by what I learned.

It turns out that tonneau covers were used long before trucks were even invented. In fact, the word “tonneau” – French for barrel, cask or container – was used for centuries to refer to the open-air cargo hull featured on many horse-drawn carriages.

To protect stored items from prying eyes or inclement weather, the French used a tarp that they placed or tied over the tonneau. This was known as the tonneau cover.

As years passed and technology advanced, the tonneau gave way to fixed-roof trunks, and eventually, carriages were replaced with cars. Because there was no longer a need for tonneau covers, they faded away into history.

It wasn’t until the 1930’s, when open-air roadsters became popular, that the term “tonneau cover” was revived. Drivers, obsessed with setting land-speed records, looked to the aviation industry for ideas on how to reduce wind drag. Seeing that pilots used canvas tarps to cover unoccupied seats, they turned to auto upholsterers to create something similar for cars. Thus, the snap-on tonneau cover was born.

Convertible tops and general advancements in vehicle aerodynamics threatened a short-lived revival of the tonneau cover, but the onslaught of pickup trucks ensured it wouldn’t disappear any time soon.

Today, tonneau covers — whether made from soft material or fiberglass; snap on, roll back or retractable — are as popular as ever. They’re also used for the same age-old purpose as when horse-drawn carriages were around, to shield cargo from prying eyes and bad weather, and just as in the 1930’s, to reduce wind drag as well.

Now that you know, why not impress your customers with a bit of knowledge. The next time a customer asks for a tonneau cover repair or install, ask: “Do you know where the term ‘tonneau cover’ comes from?

Interested in learning more about the history of industry terms? Check out The Hog Ring‘s “Etymology” section.

One Response

  1. Jeff Forss says:

    _Thanks for the back story on this.

    _You see them on roadster sports cars for the same reason as hot rods: aerodynamics, and to cover the interior of an unoccupied car. John’s MGA at my previous location.

    _Yes, “The Alignment Guy” reads an auto trimmer forum. I learn much from the business articles regarding price and quality, as well as appreciating the skills in this industry.

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