As enjoyable as convertibles can be on beautiful, sunny summer days, they can be a terrible burden any other time, when they are too often drafty, noisy, and vulnerable. We suspect that anyone who’s ever owned a convertible has occasionally wished they could magically transform it into a regular coupe on days when the sun is too hot or the wind too cold. Fifty years ago, the Ford Motor Company offered a car that could do exactly that, creating a piece of mechanical showmanship that has only recently been surpassed: the 1957-1959 Ford Skyliner retractable hardtop.
THE CLASS OF 1957
1957 Fords are all but forgotten these days, so it may surprise you to learn that in their day, they actually outsold that perennial icon, the ’57 Chevy. In fact, the 1957 Ford was the best-selling car in the world. Ford sales that year totaled more than 1.6 million cars, beating second-place Chevrolet by about 170,000 units and Plymouth by more than two to one.
It was a hard-won victory for Ford, which had struggled since the late 1930s to regain its traditional lead in the American low-price market. Before the mid-thirties, Fords routinely outsold Chevrolets, but by 1939, their positions had been reversed and remained that way, with few exceptions, well into the 1950s.
It was not for lack of trying on Ford’s part. The mid-fifties had seen a brutal game of one-upmanship between the two rivals, including a vicious price war that did considerable damage to their smaller competitors. Ford and Chevrolet could afford to cut prices to the bone in hopes of becoming number one, but companies like Studebaker and Hudson could not, bringing those independent automakers that much closer to extinction. Another front in that war was the field of halo cars and headline-grabbing novelties like the Corvette or fuel injection. Many of these sold in limited numbers, and how much they were actually worth in publicity value is debatable, but they were a matter of considerable corporate pride.
Ford had briefly edged ahead of Chevrolet in 1954, but Chevy moved ahead again in 1955 and 1956 despite the allure of Ford’s glamorous two-seat Thunderbird. It was not until 1957 that Ford again claimed the number-one slot.
Ford’s success that year had much to do with styling. Beloved as it is today, the ’57 Chevy was not well regarded in its time. A facelift of a two-year-old body, it was unfashionable tall and stocky by the standards of the day. The 1957 Plymouths, meanwhile, low slung and high finned, were certainly racy, but perhaps a little too racy for some customers, even before Chrysler’s problems with build quality and rust began to alienate buyers. In the best Goldilocks tradition, the 1957 Ford found the comfortable middle ground. It was noticeably lower and sleeker than the Chevy, but not as low as the Plymouth; it was modern but not radical. It was also larger than either of its rivals, which American buyers of the time still saw as a sign of value.
Beyond all that, however, Ford also offered the most show-stopping novelty item of all: the Ford Skyliner, which was, as the advertising breathlessly put it, “the world’s only Hide-A-Way hardtop.”
WHAT’S IN A NAME
Technically speaking, the Ford Skyliner was not a separate model: it was part of the top-of-the-line Fairlane 500 trim series, and thus properly known as the Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner. (If you look closely at our photo subject, you’ll see the Fairlane 500 badges on its rear fenders.)
If you’re only familiar with the stodgy, midsize Ford Fairlanes of the 1960s, the appearance of the Fairlane name may be a little confusing. From 1955 to 1961, the Fairlane was a model series of Ford’s full-size line, comparable to the Chevy Bel Air. The name was an evocative one for Ford; “Fair Lane” was the 1,300-acre (5.3 km²) Dearborn estate of the company’s late founder.
Confusingly, from 1954 to 1956, the Ford Skyliner name had been applied to a completely different concept: a hardtop coupe with a transparent roof panel. Originally introduced in the 1954 Crestline series, the Skyliner’s Plexiglas “bubble top” was suggested by either stylist Gordon Buehrig or Ford interior design chief Dave Ash, possibly inspired by the “Vista-Dome” observation cars that had become popular on passenger trains a few years earlier. Unlike the modern glass moonroof, which it superficially resembled, the bubble top was a fixed section of 0.25 in. (6 mm) thick, green-tinted Plexiglas. Also used in the contemporary Mercury Sun Valley, the Skyliner roof was a unique conversation piece, but it allowed considerable solar heat gain even with the nylon headliner closed and cast an odd greenish light on occupants. The bubble-top Skyliner sold relatively well at first, but once buyers found how miserable it could make hot summer days, interest tapered off quickly.
Undaunted, Ford offered the transparent roof again in 1955 and 1956, this time as an option on the Fairlane Crown Victoria, whose wrap-over bright metal roof trim provided a convenient boundary for the Plexiglas panel. A Fairlane Crown Victoria Skyliner cost about $70 more than a standard Crown Victoria, which probably contributed to its poor sales: only 2,602 went out the door in two model years.
After results like that, it wouldn’t have been a surprise if Ford had axed the name entirely, but someone must have thought it had a nice ring to it, because in 1957 it was applied to the new — and entirely unrelated — retractable hardtop.
RETRAC: THE 1957 FORD SKYLINER
Even in 1957, the idea of a convertible with a retractable metal roof was far from new, and for good reason. Despite its wind-in-the-hair romantic image, a true open car offered more hassles than pleasure: poor weather protection, excessive noise, and vulnerability to theft and vandalism. Fabric tops, even with proper roll-up side windows, were a half measure; easily operated, adequately padded, properly sealing soft tops were not really commonplace until the 1980s. As early as the 1910s, some buyers opted for a bolt-on “California top” for the winter months, the ancestor of the accessory hardtops offered on some later convertibles. The hardtop addressed most of the ragtop’s problems, but it was hardly convenient, since the top could generally only be removed with a wrench and had to be stored separately. The obvious solution was a hardtop that could be stored in the car itself and raised and lowered at will.
One of the first efforts at such a top — barring shade-tree improvisations lost to history — was created in the early twenties by a Salt Lake City, Utah inventor named Ben Ellerbeck, who developed a “shiftable top” for the 1922 Hudson Super Six. Little apparently came of Ellerbeck’s design. About a decade later, the French designer Georges Paulin, a part-time stylist for coachbuilder Marcel Pourtout, developed and patented a retractable roof mechanism that Pourtout subsequently licensed to Peugeot. Its first production application was the 1935 Peugeot 402BL Éclipse Décapotable, which was offered in limited numbers through 1940. In 1940, stylists Alex Tremulis and Ralph Roberts at Briggs Body Works developed a similar electrical hideaway roof for the Chrysler Thunderbolt show car, a handful of which were sold to the public.
In late 1948, Ford stylist Gilbert Spear developed a concept for a new type of retractable hardtop, inspired by a chance encounter with a prototype of Buick’s new Roadmaster Riviera hardtop coupe. Spear’s idea was subsequently developed into a 3/8ths-scale model called the Syrtis, which later came to the attention of William Clay Ford, younger brother of company president Henry Ford II and the head of Ford’s new Special Products Division. At the time, Bill Ford was planning the car that became the Continental Mark II. He was inspired by Spear’s design, which he thought would add distinction to the new Continental. In early 1953, Ford assigned a team of Special Products engineers, led by Jim Holloway and Ben Smith, to transform Spear’s concept into a production-ready design.
One of the biggest challenges of the ‘retrac’ project was the size of the roof. Both the Éclipse Decapotable and Thunderbolt designs had used tiny three-window canopies that could more easily be stowed under the rear deck. While the Continental would have a relatively short greenhouse, it was a genuine four-seater, so its roof would be significantly larger than either the Peugeot or the Chrysler, which posed stowage problems with the Continental’s short rear deck. Smith and Holloway’s eventual solution was to hinge the forward section of the roof, allowing it to fold separately and thus reducing the stowed volume of the top.
Holloway and Smith’s finished design was a thing of beauty, but it was enormously complex, using seven separate electric motors to raise the decklid and package shelf; unlock, unfold, and raise the two-section “flipper” roof; and lock the roof to the headliner. The whole mechanism was fully automated, requiring only about 40 seconds to open or close. Perhaps the development engineers’ most significant achievement was ensuring that the top mechanism was neatly counterbalanced; relatively little force was needed to move each component, allowing the motors to be lightly stressed.
Given the system’s complexity, the development was very quick and a working prototype (based on a 1952 Lincoln Capri hardtop) was ready by the fall of 1953. By early 1954, Smith’s team was readying the mechanism for the Continental, resulting in a full-size prototype called XC-1500R.
THE CONTINENTAL THAT WASN’T
By then, Henry Ford II and executive vice president Ernest R. Breech were losing enthusiasm for the retractable hardtop and for the Continental program in general. Bill Ford’s cost-no-object engineering approach was proving to be very expensive, and some senior Ford executives doubted that it would ever make any money. Even without the ‘retrac,’ the Continental’s retail price was already approaching $10,000, nearly $80,000 in modern dollars, and a towering sum for an American car of this era. Bill Ford responded with a marketing survey showing that buyers would happily pay a $2,500 premium for the prestige of the retractable hardtop, but his older brother and Breech remained unconvinced. (Their skepticism was well founded; despite the Mark II’s high price, Ford lost money on each one it sold.)
Nevertheless, Ford was reluctant to write off the $2.2 million that Special Products had spent developing the retractable roof mechanism. In November 1954, Holloway and Smith began working with engineers at Ford Division to adapt the “retrac” mechanism for the 1957 Ford line. The Ford project was approved in early 1955, about the same time the Continental retractable hardtop was finally canceled.
The 1957 Ford had not been designed with the retractable roof in mind and adapting it was a challenge, requiring many unique components. Bill Boyer’s styling team had to stretch the tail of the standard Fairlane convertible about three inches (76 mm) and raise the rear deck to allow enough room for the stowed top. The fuel tank had to be relocated behind the rear seat, while the spare tire went under the trunk floor, where the fuel tank had been. Depressions also had to be hammered into the top of each rear wheel well to allow clearance for the top mechanism; they looked alarmingly like dents, although they were both deliberate and necessary. In all, the development and tooling added $18 million to the bill for the ’57 Fords.
The 1957 Ford Skyliner bowed at the New York Auto Show in December 1956, more than a month after the rest of the Ford line, and didn’t go on sale until the spring of 1957. While its body may have looked a little ungainly, the operation of the top was dazzling. Adding to its market impact, shortly after the Skyliner debuted, Ford arranged a guest appearance on the popular I Love Lucy program, where Lucy (Lucille Ball) and Ricky (Desi Arnaz) visit a Ford showroom to see the mechanism in action.
Impressive, the Skyliner was; inexpensive, it certainly was not. With a starting price of $2,942, it was fully 20% more expensive than a Fairlane 500 hardtop, and that price did not include automatic transmission, power steering, or a radio. With a full load of options, a Skyliner would run close to $3,500, which was in the same realm as a Thunderbird.
The complex top mechanism also incurred a substantial weight penalty. The Skyliner weighed 380 pounds (176 kg) more than a normal Sunliner convertible: well over 4,000 pounds (1,820 kg) fully equipped. With so much weight, even the largest available engines had their work cut out for them. Although we found no instrumented contemporary road tests of the Ford Skyliner, Motor Trend‘s 1957 Ford Fairlane 500 sedan with the optional 245 horsepower (183 kW) 312 cu. in. (5,111 cc) engine and Fordomatic required more than 11 seconds to reach 60 mph (97 km/h). A similarly equipped Skyliner, weighing 530 lb (240 kg) more, would be decidedly slower — even more so with the standard 212-hp (158 kW) 292 cu. in. (4,778 cc) engine. The extra weight also served to make the big Ford’s handling and braking even more ponderous than usual.
Despite the modest performance, the Skyliner was more practical than the Thunderbird and outshone even the T-Bird in its ability to awe passerby. Sales of the two cars for 1957 were actually very similar: 20,766 Skyliners, 21,380 Thunderbirds, the latter’s sales were inflated by an unusually long model year. The Skyliner accounted for less than 2% of total Ford sales in 1957, but it undoubtedly brought many curious buyers to showrooms, just for a chance to see it in operation.
SKYLINER’S SOPHOMORE SLUMP
It seems to be a perverse natural law that the most elaborate and extravagant products appear just as the economy turns sour. The “Eisenhower recession” began shortly before the 1958 Fords went on sale, taking a serious bite out of mid-price car sales. A hike in the Skyliner’s base price to $3,163 did not help; Ford Skyliner sales fell by 30% to 14,713.
1958 proved to be a bad year for Ford in general. Buyers were not enamored of the 1958 facelift, which added trendy quad headlamps. Ford’s total volume plummeted by more than 40% from its 1957 height, despite the introduction of the popular new four-seat Thunderbird.
That might well have been the end of the line for the ‘retrac,’ which was as expensive to produce as it was to buy, but the Skyliner had an unexpected supporter in Ford Division general manager Robert McNamara. Ordinarily, McNamara had limited interest in high-priced, low-volume prestige cars, but he thought the retractable hardtop was a good gimmick with obvious showroom appeal. At his behest, the Skyliner earned an encore appearance for 1959, becoming part of the new top-of-the-line Galaxie series midway through the year.
Although Ford’s overall sales improved markedly in 1959 — thanks in part to buyer distaste for the gaudy “batwing” ’59 Chevrolet — Ford Skyliner sales slipped further to 12,915. The Skyliner did make one other important contribution to the ’59s, however; its squared-off, “formal’ roof shape was adapted for the rest of the Galaxie line, which accounted for an impressive percentage of Ford’s total sales that year.
McNamara was apparently prepared to sign off on a fourth year for the Skyliner, but the 1960 big cars had a new semi-fastback roof that would have been a challenge to adapt to retractable form. With such modest sales, it didn’t make sense, and 1959 would be the end of the line. Many aspects of the top mechanism were subsequently reused for the convertible versions of the Lincoln Continental and Ford Thunderbird, albeit with a canvas top.
It took many years for the retractable hardtop to make a reappearance. Buyer enthusiasm for open cars in general waned throughout the sixties. With new safety regulations threatening the existence of all convertibles, the expense and complexity of a ‘retrac’ were hard to justify and buyer interest turned to sunroofs.
When convertibles began to make a comeback in the mid-eighties, manufacturers farmed out much of the work to independent specialists like the American Sunroof Company (ASC). In the early 1990s, ASC president Heinz Prechter approached the Japanese manufacturer Mitsubishi about producing a retractable hardtop version of the 3000GT sports coupe.
The resultant 3000GT Spyder debuted in 1994. It was conceptually similar to the old Skyliner, although its roof mechanism used hydraulic pumps as well as electric motors and was controlled by a computer chip. It was faster than the Ford system, capable of raising or lowering in only 19 seconds. It was still heavy, however, adding more than 300 pounds (136 kg) to the car’s already bulky curb weight. The retractable hardtop also nearly doubled the 3000GT’s sticker price, which reached a towering $65,424 in turbocharged VR4 form.
The 3000GT Spyder was short-lived, lasting only two model years and accounting for a mere 1,034 sales, but it made quite a splash. From a technological standpoint, it was more impressive than Mercedes-Benz’s SL roadsters, which, despite their fully automated operation, were only softtops (with Mercedes’ customary detachable hardtop). That was not a challenge Daimler-Benz was prepared to take lightly. In 1997, they responded with the SLK230, a compact roadster with a neatly packaged folding steel roof. The SLK was not cheap, starting at around $40,000 in the U.S., but it was significantly cheaper than the Mitsubishi and relatively attainable.
The Mercedes SLK soon opened the floodgates. In 2001, Peugeot introduced a hardtop convertible version of its 206 compact, the 206CC (for “Coupé Convertible), ostensibly based on the old Georges Paulin Éclipse Décapotable system. The 206CC was the first retractable hardtop in many years to be priced within the reach of mere mortals. It was followed by a host of “CCs” from Lexus, Volvo, Daihatsu, Mazda, Opel, Chrysler, Pontiac, Cadillac, BMW, and others. Even Ford has recently returned to the retractable hardtop game with the Pininfarina-styled Focus CC, although it isn’t currently slated for U.S. sales.
As with the original Ford Skyliner, the modern ‘retracs’ offer top-down convenience and top-up security, but with substantial penalties in cost, weight, and complexity. Cunning engineering has addressed some of the Skyliner’s packaging issues, but at a considerable cost, and when the clever mechanisms go awry, fixing them is daunting. (Observe the rotating backlight glass of the current Mercedes SL and imagine what would happen if it jammed at the wrong moment.) Most also incur substantial weigh penalties: in the case of Volvo’s C70, for example, some 440 pounds (200 kg). Such extra mass is enough to significantly harm both performance and fuel economy (and consequently carbon dioxide output). The “CCs” are also expensive, at a time when the economy is again going to pot.
In the last decade, however, the retractable hardtop has gone from oddity to ubiquity. The 1957-1959 Skyliner never really had a chance to establish a market niche for itself after the initial novelty wore off. Today, there are enough retractable-hardtop models that even if many of them fail, they have probably established buyer expectations that will ensure the survival of the genre.
We are not terribly fond of retracs or of convertibles in general — we’d rather see a broader return of the lighter, more attractive, more sensible pillarless hardtop coupe — but it seems that the old Skyliner is an idea whose time has finally come.
In May 2009, we licensed a condensed version of this story to Clearwire Corporation’s Clear 365 channel. However, Clearwire had no connection with the original article.
NOTES ON SOURCES
Our principal sources for this article were Jim and Cheryl Farrell, Ford Design Department: Concept & Showcars 1932-1961 (Roseburg, OR: Jim and Cheryl Farrell, 1999); Tim Howley, “1957 Ford Skyline Retractable Hardtop,” Special Interest Autos #168 (November-December 1998), pp. 26-33, 66-68; Jack Nerad, “Ford Skyliner,” Driving Today, n.d., www.antiquecar. com, accessed 22 April 2009; Ray Thursby, “Retracing the Retractable’s Steps: The Tale of Ford’s 1957-1959 Skyliner,” Collectible Automobile Vol. 20, No. 1 (June 2003), pp. 8-23; and the International Ford Retractable Club website (www.skyliner. org, accessed 22 April 2009). We also consulted an untitled and uncredited 1957 Ford road test in the January 1957 issue of Motor Trend, reprinted in Ford Automobiles 1949-1959, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, Surrey: Brooklands Books Ltd., 1990).
Additional background came from the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, “1957-1959 Ford Styling,” HowStuffWorks.com, 29 October 2007, auto.howstuffworks. com/ 1957-1959-ford-styling.htm, accessed 22 April 2009, and Encyclopedia of American Cars: Over 65 Years of Automotive History, (Lincolnwood, IL: Publications International, 1996); John Gunnell, ed., Standard Catalog of American Cars 1946-1975, Rev. 4th Edition (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 2002); Michael Lamm, “Fishbowl: 1955 Ford Crown Victoria Skyliner” from Special Interest Autos #37 (November-December 1976), reprinted in The Hemmings Motor News Book of Postwar Fords: driveReports from Special Interest Autos magazine, ed. Terry Ehrich (Bennington, VT: Hemmings Motor News, 2000); and Tim Howley, “1954 Mercury Sun Valley: Let the Sunshine In,” Special Interest Autos #113 (September-October 1989), reprinted in The Hemmings Book of Mercurys: driveReports from Special Interest Autos magazine, ed. Richard A. Lentinello (Bennington, VT: Hemmings Motor News, 2002).
Background information on the Mitsubishi 3000GT Spyder came from Mark Vaughn, “Stow-Away,” Autoweek April 1994; Kevin Smith, “Mitsubishi 3000GT Spyder,” Car and Driver June 1994; and Steve Spence, “Mitsubishi 3000GT VR4 Spyder,” Car and Driver November 1995.
Additional background on the Peugeot 402BL and other early retractable hardtops came from “1938 Peugeot 402 BL Eclipse Decapotable,” Conceptcarz.com, n.d. www.conceptcarz. com, accessed 22 April 2009; Giuseppe Guzzardi and Enzo Rizzo, Convertibles: History and Evolution of Dream Cars (New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1998); Michael Sedgwick, Classic Cars of the 1930’s and 1940’s, Second Edition (Twickenham, United Kingdom: Tiger Books International PLC, 1997); and Wikipedia® (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Convertible, accessed 22 April 2009).