Home » Your Car Might Have A Secret Way To Manually Close A Broken Sunroof

Your Car Might Have A Secret Way To Manually Close A Broken Sunroof

Vw Sunroof Crank 2
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Sunroofs are great, but repair shops and previous owners often aren’t. Sunroof maintenance is a frequently overlooked part of owning a car with a sliding roof, from lubricating the mechanisms to cleaning the drain tubes. Over time, neglect can result in the sunroof no longer opening or closing electronically as it should, but thankfully, makers of older German cars thought about that.

See, back in the old days, when fancy motorized features were bourgeoise instead of merely expected, many sunroofs operated the same way most windows did — by crank. Manufacturers like BMW and Volkswagen didn’t forget this in the switch to motorization, and for a period of time, included emergency cranks to get owners out of the occasional bind. After all, it’s not much fun having your sliding roof panel stuck open in the rain or snow.

Vidframe Min Top
Vidframe Min Bottom

Unfortunately, I can’t demonstrate on my own car, partly because the toolkit in my 325i is incomplete and partly because if my roof spanner was in there, I’d absolutely ruin the old tabs holding my sunroof switch trim to my headliner. However, before my colleague Mercedes sold her manual-swapped diesel Passat wagon, she was kind enough to give the sunroof crank a whirl.

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In said Passat, the sunroof crank stays stashed behind a trim panel behind the fantastic rotary sunroof dial. Carefully pry off that trim panel, and you’ll find a somewhat S-shaped crank with an Allen bit on one end clipped onto the back of the panel. Take it out, then stick the Allen end in a little hole in the sunroof motor assembly and start turning to make the roof panel move without electricity. Neato.

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Oh, and Volkswagen isn’t the only marque to provide a mechanical Plan B. Older BMWs like the E39 5 Series, E46 3 Series, E90 3 Series, and E82 1 Series all should have these cranks. Older Mercedes-Benz models like the W201 190E, W210 E-Class, and W140 S-Class will have these emergency cranks too, and German marques aren’t the only ones. Here’s a listing for an Acura part that appears to do the same thing.

Normally, you wouldn’t dare touch the power sunroof on an old hooptie because trust in that mechanism is on par with trust in gas station sushi. If the mech grenades itself with the sunroof anywhere short of fully closed, you’ll be relegated to fair-weather driving only. And if you don’t have covered parking, you’ll need to get that sunroof sorted before the next rain (or procure yourself a roll of duct tape and some plastic sheeting). But if your car has an emergency crank, you are liberated. If the sunroof goes bad as clouds close in, you can just crank it like Soulja Boy, close your roof and stay dry.

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In the meantime though, if you have a sunroof, it’s likely worth opening it up, cleaning the sunroof tracks with isopropyl alcohol and a lint-free brush, and then applying a good sunroof-safe grease like Krytox. From there, push some round plastic garden trimmer string through the sunroof drains to keep them clear, then rest easy knowing that you’ve taken care of your sunroof. After all, these emergency cranks are cool, but never needing to use one is even cooler.

(Photo credits: Mercedes Streeter)

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Chronometric
Chronometric
1 month ago

The classic Golde manual sunroofs are a joy to operate.

Bizness Comma Nunya
Bizness Comma Nunya
1 month ago

Sunroofs are massively overrated. The only ones that haven’t given me grief have been from Honda and Toyota. I try my best to avoid getting that option, but it’d actually hard to spec certain vehicles without it…which sucks. I would rather have a non-opening glass roof (with a decent shade).

I’ve had sunroofs fail in multiple terrible ways on Nissans, Fords, Land Rovers, Volvos, etc…

The more annoying part is how/where they leak because of the drain tubes.

Davey
Davey
1 month ago

Our old E30 325e had a manual crank sunroof (cool) while our Nissan Multi (Stanza Wagon) was electric but would fail intermittently (not cool).

David
David
1 month ago

Sixth-gen Honda Accords have a place for this tool to snap in over the lug wrench. It’s molded into the plastic even if it’s not a convertible.

Framed
Framed
1 month ago

Having owned a convertible, I view sunroofs as annoyances. They’re not big enough to replicate the top down convertible feeling, and since I’m driving with my eyes on the road I can’t look up through them. Add on the various problems they can cause and I just prefer a car without one.

Bizness Comma Nunya
Bizness Comma Nunya
1 month ago
Reply to  Framed

Totally agree! I’d rather just have a convertible.

Crank Shaft
Crank Shaft
1 month ago

My Audi Cab has this feature, but for the sunroof. Which I discovered when manually moving the top in semi-open position to dry some trim after washing the car. Doing so caused an Improbable Sensor Position error which froze the top. I was only able to get it going by closing the top by hand, then using the included hex tool to latch the top and then clearing the error with a Vag-Com. Afterwards the sensor reset and all was good. I can’t begin to tell you how relieved I was.

Torque
Torque
1 month ago
Reply to  Crank Shaft

ZeeGerman Audi engineers clearly did not account for someone wanting to leave the roof 1/2 of the way open for cleaning 🙂

Theotherotter
Theotherotter
1 month ago

It’s not just newer cars – my 1978 BMW E12 has an electric sunroof that can be actuated manually in the same way.

Mr Sarcastic
Mr Sarcastic
1 month ago
Reply to  Theotherotter

Didn’t he write it was on older cars?

Theotherotter
Theotherotter
1 month ago
Reply to  Mr Sarcastic

No, he was referring to plain manually operated sunroofs, not mechanical backups for electric sunroofs.

Boxing Pistons
Boxing Pistons
1 month ago

Interesting. You know what else is cool? Finding emergency money in your car. I was sitting in my wife’s pre-owned Highlander a week ago and saw a little inconspicuous door on the dash next to the steering wheel I had never opened. I popped it open and found $40! I asked my wife about it and she didn’t know what I was talking about, so it must’ve been the previous owner. We’ve had the car for 4 years, so that cash has been in there for at least that long! Funny!

HumboldtEF
HumboldtEF
1 month ago

My GR86 has a secret way to open the gas flap/door when the battery dies. When the doors are locked the gas flap is locked. In the event the battery dies and the doors were locked you open the trunk and a little access panel that allows you to manually push the gas flap open.
Actually scratch that, you dont open the trunk because you cant open it with an old fashion key lol. You actually have to crawl through the cabin, fold down the seats and try to find that access panel in the dark. I guess that makes it extra secret.

Last edited 1 month ago by HumboldtEF
Jeremy Aber
Jeremy Aber
1 month ago

My 2005 Saab 9-3 convertible can thankfully be opened and closed without the hydraulics working. To latch it when it’s in the closed position, you just need an allen wrench to lock it down. In the fully open position, the tonneau cover holds it down just fine. The good news is that fixing the rubber o-rings inside the $500+ hydraulic cylinders that caused it to be manual-only was actually pretty easy, but there’s not a lot of guides online, so it took me a while to get it figured out. Also cleaning the unknown volume of hydraulic fluid that had leaked everywhere under the rear seat and in the trunk took… some time D:

Chronometric
Chronometric
1 month ago
Reply to  Jeremy Aber

The old Saab 900s had a wonderfully simple manual sunroof. Grab the handle which doubles as a latch. Pull it open as far as you wish and let go. Basically, it was a single-hung window in the roof. It didn’t need cables, pulleys, motors, or cranks.

Urban Runabout
Urban Runabout
1 month ago

There is an entire chapter in my owners manual about how to close the fully-automatic convertible top of the Mercedes when it completely fails to function any longer.

The process involves long heavy straps, and either allen wrenches or torx bits – I don’t recall which – neither of which were included in the car.

Do You Have a Moment To Talk About Renaults?
Do You Have a Moment To Talk About Renaults?
1 month ago

I had a crank sunroof fail on me in the open position, in my beloved 1989 Espace. One day I was cranking it shut, head a grinding noise, felt some unexpected crank resistance, then a snap, then the crank stopped moving altogether except for the normal play cranks have. The sunroof was stuck with a ~1cm gap that made my heart sink.

At that point I’d already realised every trip to the mechanic with that car meant a paycheck in repairs, so I didn’t take the car to the shop, but I also couldn’t muster up the courage to try and tackle it myself, so that car spent a few months with duct-taped plastic sheets “insulating” the sunroof whenever there was a chance of rain.

One day I was finally brave enough to start poking around the crank mechanism, and as soon as I finish removing the screws I hear a distinctive sound of something clicking into place. I turned the crank and it just worked. It was likely my quickest and easiest car “repair” ever… And I just felt stupid that I went months with a broken sunroof that wasn’t really broken. I guess something got stuck somewhere and eventually dislodged as soon as the crank loosened up, but to this day I have no idea what caused the issue.

Last edited 1 month ago by Do You Have a Moment To Talk About Renaults?
StillNotATony
StillNotATony
1 month ago

One does not question the blessings of the Car Gods.

One simply gives thanks and drives on.

Do You Have a Moment To Talk About Renaults?
Do You Have a Moment To Talk About Renaults?
1 month ago
Reply to  StillNotATony

That was indeed my MO with that car whenever something seemed like it was broken but I was able to find a workaround.

Hiram McDaniel
Hiram McDaniel
1 month ago

Former 99 Passat Wagon, I had to deploy the sunroof crank. when some plastic parts in the sunroof motor decided to no longer be plastic parts in their original shape, and actually decided to become plastic bit closer to dust. Had completely forgotten about that until this article triggered a memory. It was a great car. had the 1.8T with a 5 speed, dark blue with tan interior. I’d love to have that as a beater today.

Lincoln Clown CaR
Lincoln Clown CaR
1 month ago

I’ve had many sunroofs over the years. Perhaps not coincidentally the only one that ever gave me issues was German. Who knew a sunroof would have to relearn opening and closing with a secret combination of button pushes? And then there was the clogged drain. And the fancy fabric sunshade that stopped retracting.

VW people insist this is an issue with all sunroofs, but not in my experience.

Stryker_T
Stryker_T
1 month ago

on my almost 20yr old Scion tC, I’ve not once considered that the sunroof wouldn’t move when I hit the button… sure there was one time it would kick back from the obstruction protection because I needed to lube the track, but now…

Captain Muppet
Captain Muppet
1 month ago

Is it really a secret if it’s in the book they gave you with the car?

Matt Hardigree
Matt Hardigree
1 month ago
Reply to  Captain Muppet

I mean, you could put a map of where to find the Knights of the Templar’s gold in there and most people still wouldn’t read it.

Hiram McDaniel
Hiram McDaniel
1 month ago
Reply to  Matt Hardigree

fair.

Captain Muppet
Captain Muppet
1 month ago
Reply to  Matt Hardigree

I’ve done some illustrations for car manuals.

Probably the least observed artworks in history. Even I don’t have a copy to look at.

Canopysaurus
Canopysaurus
1 month ago

I’m lazy: a box of Allen bits and cordless screwdriver reside in the glove box.

Cheats McCheats
Cheats McCheats
1 month ago

Kinda need a sunroof to need the tool me thinks.

VanGuy
VanGuy
1 month ago

Truly, I don’t get their appeal if they’re another failure point. I might consider a conversion van with those fixed windows on the top, but I imagine that’s a lot easier to work with than anything that can move.

Cheats McCheats
Cheats McCheats
1 month ago
Reply to  VanGuy

I liked them when i was younger, but after having issues on a few cars with leaks, a badly sunburned head, and also really faulty T-tops, I prefer a solid roof now.

EXL500
EXL500
1 month ago
Reply to  VanGuy

I generally open the blind but not the glass. I love all the light that comes in.

VanGuy
VanGuy
1 month ago
Reply to  EXL500

That also makes sense. I assume a sunroof that is never opened does not typically develop leaks/issues like one that is opened occasionally?
(Or at least, hopefully not as frequently?)

EXL500
EXL500
1 month ago
Reply to  VanGuy

It hasn’t so far, and it’s ten years old. Then again, it’s also a Honda.

What me?
What me?
1 month ago

On my old Golf III the crank hole was behind a slide away cover, behind a trim panel. For some German over-enginering reason the slide cover also activated a kill switch which stopped electrical operation of the sunroof. So if you thought “who cares how a stupid slide cover positioned behind a trim panel” you would find out that you had to pry of the panel again to set the slide in the closed position…

JerryLH3
JerryLH3
1 month ago

In my 1991 RX-7, this tool doubled as the manual retractor for the passive shoulder belts. Which was needed often, they ended up having to recall those things. Many an S5 FC owner is on their second or third set of seat belt rails.

AlterId
AlterId
1 month ago

I never needed it, but my 1990 Mazda Protege had an emergency crank tool tucked in with the owner’s manual and a slide-open access cover on the overhead control panel.

Usernametaken
Usernametaken
1 month ago

I do have this, but the thing I love the most is the Italian level inevitability described in my Jeep Renegade manual.

Not if but “when the sunroof fails to close, the following procedure should be performed”

FlyingMonstera
FlyingMonstera
1 month ago
Reply to  Usernametaken

In a similar vein, I had to use a low cost Chinese airline the other week – confidence not boosted by the safety video “when the plane collides, adopt the brace position”. I also appreciated the sick bag marked with “open before use”.

Sklooner
Sklooner
1 month ago

My 84 Jetta had a crank only sunroof but power front windows- it was oddly optioned

Musicman27
Musicman27
1 month ago

Ooh! Ooh! Mine does! Mine Does!

’98 Honda Civic EX that came with a broken electronic unroof. Has a little quarter screw plug thing covering up a hole to close it with a little wrench.

Last edited 1 month ago by Musicman27
Balloondoggle
Balloondoggle
1 month ago
Reply to  Musicman27

broken electronic unroof” is my favorite typo now. It’s very apropos.

Musicman27
Musicman27
1 month ago
Reply to  Balloondoggle

yes it’s very apopriot

Dave mid-engine
Dave mid-engine
1 month ago
Reply to  Musicman27

First generation Prelude (78-82) had an electric sunroof with the manual crank tool. I assume later Preludes did too. I miss that sunroof. A luxury feature in an otherwise fairly basic car.

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