Why Is It Called A Tonneau Cover, Anyway?

Ever wonder how a tonneau cover got its name? Because of the French, it turns out. Oh, and in the stereotypical French fashion, it comes from the wine industry, because of course, it does. Derived from the French word meaning ‘cask’ or ‘barrel,’ the modern term ‘tonneau’ is now usually used to describe a hard or soft truck bed cover.

So how did some obscure French word used in winemaking become almost exclusively associated with the red-blooded all-American pickup truck? To answer that we need to go back to the early days of cars and the dawn on automobile racing.

In the early 20th century, car manufacturers began offering options and configurations for their models, and one popular option was the ‘tonneau.’ Initially, the term was used to designate an open, rear passenger compartment – typically rounded like a barrel. These tonneaus often included soft leather coverings to protect the compartment when not in use.

The term tonneau cover would later be adopted by racers during the early Bonneville Salt Flat days when hotrodders would cover up open areas of their vehicles to reduce wind drag. Early iterations were made from bedsheets, canvas or leather – anything they could find to get an aerodynamic edge over the competition. According to most world-record-setting drivers of the day, the addition of the tonneau cover was the primary reason records were shattered.

Image credit: Bring A Trailer

Today’s truck bed covers are used for similar aerodynamic reasons while offering plenty of other benefits like security, the ability to keep your stuff dry, and even style if we’re being honest with ourselves. Tonneau covers today have become an industry in themselves, come in a ton of different styles whether you’re looking to upgrade your old square body, add some function to your work truck, or protect your shiny new daily, our guide has got you covered.

The What, Why, and How

There’s a lot of versatility to be had here. No matter which route you go, a good tonneau cover provides weather protection, improved fuel efficiency, security, storage, and functionality.

Tonneau covers seal your truck bed from the elements, protecting anything you’re storing back there as well as the truck bed itself. Depending on the spec, most tonneau covers come with weather-stripping to keep the elements out. No need to clear out your truck bed of any dirt, leaves, snow or mud.

A tonneau cover also reduces aerodynamic drag by smoothing out the surface over your bed. At highway speeds, the reduced drag can improve fuel economy by 5-10 percent depending on type and application.

At the very least, a basic tonneau cover hides your belongings from plain sight, keeping your stuff inaccessible to passers-by. For more motivated thieves, heavy-duty covers come with key-locking dual deadbolts and hidden storage sections for maximum security.

Truck bed covers can work with tons of different storage configurations from wheel hump pockets to sliding toolboxes. This prevents your gear from sliding around while also keeping them organized them easy to access from the bedside, cab or tailgate.
Some bedcovers have added payload functionality such as racks for bikes, ATVs, snowmobiles or motorcycles. With a properly secured ramp, you can literally just drive an ATV onto a properly weight rated bed cover and strap it down with built-in anchors.

We’re Really Spoiled for Choice These Days

Remember what I was saying about these becoming an industry in themselves? Well, there are a ton of different variants, materials, and designs on the market, so choosing one to fit your needs and your style goals can be a challenge. When looking for a tonneau cover for your truck, you should consider the environment (climate) where your truck will be used.

Will it be parked inside or outside? Does it snow or rain where you live? Will you be going off-road? What kind of things do you haul with your truck? When comparing different tonneau covers, keep in mind that not all covers are created equal, meaning there is always a give and take, and you do get what you pay for.

The most affordable, simplistic bed covers are made of soft, roll-up vinyl fabric and are typically secured with Velcro or snaps. High-end vinyl fabric tonneau covers like those from WeatherTech are water-resistant and designed to stand up to extreme weather conditions. If you are frequently using your truck bed for things like tools, a rolling cover offers great accessibility, but at the cost of security.

The next step up from fabric covers are up are folding, multipiece hard tonneau covers with aluminum or hard plastic panels that fold up, typically in three pieces. Depending on spec, these locking covers can also shoulder up to 400 pounds of evenly distributed weight for truck bed “roof style” racks. Folding bed covers offer great accessibility with little required maintenance. Some manufacturers, like BAK, also make retractable, rolling hard bed covers that bridge the gap between soft vinyl rolling covers and locking, folding, hardcover.

Hinged, fiberglass tonneau covers have been around forever and have evolved over time. These covers can be custom painted to color match your truck using high-quality paint and offer a great “street-style” look to most trucks. Hinged access with gas shocks makes opening and closing these tonneau covers easy with a simple, integrated lock that works with the factory tailgate. These can be spec’d up with headliner material, lights, cargo nets, and keyless entry.

If durability and functionality are a top priority, high strength, supported diamond plate tonneau covers are worth the price. High-end products like Diamondback have a patented, multipiece cover, designed to support up to 1,600 pounds of evenly distributed weight. These are perfect for supporting off-road toys, roof-top tents and pretty much anything else you would want to haul. These covers can get heavy (over 100 pounds) so bed access is more of a challenge. Diamondback covers come in a two-piece, butterfly style opening for the front and rear of the truck bed with cross and side bins to keep your gear organized.

Spec Out Your Tonneau Cover

Now that you’ve narrowed down your tonneau cover selections, it’s time to consider additional features and accessories. Manufacturers offer hundreds of options for customizing and personalizing your tonneau cover to suit your needs. It’s best to stick with the same manufacturer when looking at accessories and options for a tonneau cover – this will ensure the best overall fitment and functionality.

In-Bed Storage Options

If you transport tools and equipment in your truck, keeping things organized can be a nightmare. Leaving items loose in your truck bed can damage both your truck and anything you are moving. Fortunately, tonneau covers come with various storage options ranging from cargo nets to metal toolboxes. Side boxes and luggage saddlebags are great for quick access over bedsides and organize smaller items without compromising the storage of your bed.

Cargo Rails and Roof Racks

Tonneau covers can be optioned with roof racks and crossbars for extra storage above the bed and cab. This is perfect for things that normally wouldn’t fit in a six-foot truck bed like kayaks, bikes, surfboards or a roof box. It’s important to note weight limits for all racks to prevent damaging your truck or personal items. If you’re off-roading with loaded up racks, remember that you’ve got a higher center of gravity!

Headache Racks

Replacing your rear cab glass is an expensive and huge inconvenience. Protect your cab with a headache rack cab guard – these are also perfect for mounting off-road lights for better visibility at night.

Truck Bed Lighting

Wireless, LED lights come with rechargeable, long-life lithium-ion batteries designed to withstand the elements. The Extang e-Light can be universally mounted and is detachable for portable use.

Installation and Maintenance

Most truck bed covers don’t require much maintenance. However, a retractable bed cover may require regular lubrication to help with movement over time. Vinyl covers may require reapplication of UV protectant. High-end covers typically come with a limited lifetime warranty, so consider that aspect before your purchase.

In addition to checking the maintenance needs, consider the installation requirements before purchasing a truck bed cover. Heavier covers may require two or three people and take up to an hour to install. Some only require hand tools while others require drilling and bed modifications. Make sure you are familiar with these requirements so that there are no unintended surprises.

Man, who would have thought there would be so much to cover here? This is a popular category, and every year these companies are coming out with ways to one-up each other and themselves, but sometimes it’s hard to improve on the old classics, hence why even today there are plenty of tonneau covers on the market that are basically the same as what the old racers used on the Bonneville Salt Flats way back when. So I guess they do in fact, make them like they used to?

ed. note: This article was provided by Auto Anything, and we felt that the editorial merit was worth sharing it with you.

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About the author

Daniel Barry

Bit by the car bug at an early age, Dan has owned a vehicle from every decade beginning with a '47 Chevy pickup purchased at the tender age of 15. He can't seem to leave anything stock and is addicted to online classifieds.
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