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If you are a truck owner you likely have heard about or used tonneau covers for your truck bed, so what exactly does the word tonneau mean?

Not many drivers or vehicle owners know about the history of the tonneau, but it is quite fascinating when you take some time to understand it. It shows the full evolution of the automobile and how far the designs have come.

By definition, tonneau means a rear seating compartment but if you trace the word back to the French origin you will find a different meaning. Originally, the word meant cask or barrel referring to the barrel shape of the rear compartment in older automobiles.

In the early 20th century, cars were seen with a new rear compartment known as a tonneau and many also included leather covers for this area of the car. The tonneau was used to store extra cargo or passengers and it even acted as an alternate entrance or exit for getting in and out of the car. This guide explains exactly what tonneau means and where it comes from.

We have compiled research to understand tonneaus and why they were developed. Keep reading to find out from industry experts about what tonneau means and why it is important to know.

Table of Contents

What Does Tonneau Mean?

Tonneau is a French word that means cask or barrel, and it became a term that was used to refer to the rear passenger compartment on an automobile because it was rounded like a barrel.

The term caught on and became the popular way to describe this area of a car. And as cars continued to get released with more advanced designs, the tonneau remained and provided plenty of use.

Whether you used this area as a rear entrance, cargo area, or extra seating area it remained known as the tonneau.

Today, we do not call the back of a pickup truck a tonneau, but the tonneau cover is the accessory used to cover the truck bed.

Tonneau also became a term used by racers because of the open areas in their race cars. This area was known to cause a wind drag that would decrease racing speeds.

Because of this, tonneau covers became even more popular and this is why more advanced tonneau covers were created.

Where Did The Word Tonneau Come From?

The word tonneau is derived from the French word for barrel or cask. This word was used to describe the open compartment in the rear of an automobile.

This compartment was rounded like a barrel on all of these early model automobiles, explaining why it became known as a tonneau.

As vehicles became more modern with the advancement of technology, the tonneau stayed, but the exact definition changed a bit.

Today, we refer to tonneaus as truck beds in many vehicles, but the term tonneau also stuck around. And with this advancement came new technology like tonneau covers to protect these areas in our vehicles.

What Is The Purpose Of A Tonneau?

A tonneau was a significant development for the advancement of automobiles, and it served as a useful accessory in many vehicles.

There were three primary purposes it served that are worth mentioning. We have listed each below.

Passenger Seating

First, it was the perfect area to seat extra passengers in the vehicle. Because it was in the car's rear, it included plenty of space for multiple passengers without an issue.

Most of the cars with a tonneau had a seating area that was comfortable as well. The old vehicle models were open with no roof or side doors around the tonneau.

The tonneau area of a car provides extra space for passenger seating. It is a feature that has been in cars for decades and is still relevant today.

Extra Cargo Space

The tonneau area can be used as a storage compartment, which makes it useful for people who need to transport large items. It was commonly used for small cargo in the early 1900s.

It is important to note that there were no side covers or doors, limiting the total space available for storing cargo. But it was still innovative and effective for traveling.

Alternate Exit & Entry Point

The early tonneau design included a rear-facing hinged door which was extremely ineffective, but soon the single and dual doors were added.

The reason this is important is because many times, the rear tonneau was used as an alternative way to enter and exit the vehicle.

It is known that when roads were wet or muddy, you could back the car up to the curb and use the rear tonneau to avoid getting dirty to get right onto the sidewalk instead.

What Exactly Is A Tonneau Cover?

A tonneau cover is a piece of equipment that covers the cargo area of a truck or SUV.

The purpose of the tonneau cover is to protect the cargo area from weather and other harsh conditions such as rain and snow. It also increases security to keep any belongings in your truck or car safe.

There are many different types of tonneau covers available in the market today. Some are made from metal, while others are made from plastic or fiberglass materials.

Tonneau covers come in different colors and shapes as well. The different styles continue to get more impressive as the top brands innovate to improve how we store cargo in our vehicles.

A tonneau cover can be installed in a variety of configurations, and it can be used to protect the cargo from weather and theft.

Why Is It Called A Tonneau Cover?

When the first tonneaus were released, the French included leather covers or tarps with the vehicle to cover the rear compartment when the car was parked or the area was not in use.

This was known as a tonneau cover, but it took a while for this name to stick in the industry. As technology advanced, major car accessory brands started building more reliable covers for the back of cars and truck beds.

The old school tonneau became a thing of the past, but the term tonneau still existed and tonneau covers became a popular item for many pickup truck drivers.

In the early 1900s tonneau covers were no longer used because of the change in vehicle designs. But in the 1930s, roadsters became popular so tonneau covers were needed again.

This revived the market for these products and they still exist today for both pick up trucks and coupes.

What Vehicles Still Have A Tonneau Today?

The design of coupé utility cars and pickup trucks still includes a tonneau in their design which is used to provide extra space for luggage.

This is not just an aesthetic feature, but it also provides extra room for passengers as well in the coupes. Pickup trucks have tonneaus in the rear and we refer to them now as pickup beds instead.

Both are modern-day examples of tonneaus and they also use different covers. You will see a larger, bulkier cover used in the back of a pickup and the one used on a coupe closely resembles those from the early days.

What Does Tonneau Mean?

About The Author

Charles Redding

Charles Redding

I've spent many years selling cars, working with auto detailers, mechanics, dealership service teams, quoting and researching car insurance, modding my own cars, and much more.

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