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 unfashionably 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 Chevrolet 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. Less than a decade later, Frenchman Georges A. Paulin, who moonlighted as a stylist for coachbuilder Marcel Pourtout, developed and patented a electrically retractable rigid roof mechanism that Pourtout subsequently licensed to Peugeot. The first production application was the 1934 Peugeot “Éclipse Décapotable,” variations of which were 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 3 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.
From 2012–2014, the author worked with former Ford executive Chase Morsey Jr., who was involved with the development of the Skyliner, on the writing of Mr. Morsey’s memoir, The Man Who Saved the V-8, which also discusses the Skyliner. This article was published prior to (and separate from) that project.
NOTES ON SOURCES
Our principal sources for this article were 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); Automobile History USA and V. Romano of the Romano Archives, “I Love Lucy” ad, YouTube, https://youtu.be/zn_Zo62a79I, uploaded 21 July 2008, accessed 22 April 2009; 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, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 1990).
Additional background came from 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 Douglas Kott, “Opening Act,” Road & Track August 1995; the Mitsubishi 3000GT Spyder Megasite (3000gtspyder.com, accessed 22 April 2009; Kevin Smith, “Mitsubishi 3000GT Spyder,” Car and Driver June 1994; Steve Spence, “Mitsubishi 3000GT VR4 Spyder,” Car and Driver November 199; and Mark Vaughn, “Stow-Away,” Autoweek 4 April 1994.
Additional background on the Peugeot 402BL and other early retractable hardtops came from “1940/1941 Chrysler Thunderbolt,” Imperial Web Pages/Online Imperial Club, 22 March 2006, www.imperialclub. com/Yr/1941/ thunderbolt/ index.htm, accessed 22 April 2009; Giuseppe Guzzardi and Enzo Rizzo, Convertibles: History and Evolution of Dream Cars (New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1998); Alan M. Pavlik, “White Cars,” Just Above Sunset Vol. 5, No. 10 (11 March 2007), www.justabovesunset. com, accessed 22 April 2009; Georges Auguste Paulin, “Vehicle body top capable of being stowed away,” U.S. Patent No. 2,007,873, filed 15 December 1932, issued 9 July 1935, and “Convertible body for vehicles, and particularly for motor vehicles,” U.S. Patent No. 2,105,293, filed 11 January 1934, issued 11 January 1938; Michael Sedgwick, Classic Cars of the 1930’s and 1940’s, Second Edition (Twickenham, United Kingdom: Tiger Books International PLC, 1997); Daniel Vaughan, “1938 Peugeot 402 BL Eclipse Decapotable,” Conceptcarz.com, 2007, www.conceptcarz. com, accessed 22 April 2009; and the Wikipedia® entries for “Convertible” (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Convertible, accessed 22 April 2009) and Georges Paulin (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Georges_Paulin, accessed 22 April 2009).
28 CommentsAdd a Comment
Many people don’t know that Ford was good in technology or gimmickry. The Ford Skyliner could be called a landmark of a car for Ford.
I was just wondering… I’ve heard that the Skyliners’ rectrac mechanism are very unreliable, with the the electric motors and things like that could break down, or come to be jammed… Well that’s what some people tell me.
My understanding is that the Skyliner mechanism was surprisingly reliable, particularly given its era. It was complicated, but the motors were lightly stressed, and the mechanism was easy to access. (If you look at the photos, you’ll see that most of the components are fairly easy to reach.)
I’ve heard that about 2,500 of the 50,000 or so Skyliners made still survive, which isn’t a bad total.
Patty, I have personally owned and loved a 1957 Skyliner since 1966. I estimate that I have probably cycled that top over 10,000 times in that period. I have had 3 instances out of that 10,000 that the top had a problem that required repair. Actually the top mechanism has been the most reliable part of this magnificent automobile.
Thanks for another great article! The Skyliner retractable was an instant classic.
When you started talking about modern HT convertibles, you did not mention the Lexus SC430. I attended the Paris auto show in 2000 and vividly remember seeing the SC430 on display – I believe it’s introduction was at this show. About every 15 minutes or so a booth bunny would come out and cycle the top. A crowd would immediately swarm around the display staring in amazement. Unlike the SLK, the SC430’s top was pretty reliable and probably did more to reestablish the viability of the HT convertible than any of the Euros.
[quote]When you started talking about modern HT convertibles, you did not mention the Lexus SC430.[/quote]
True — that one slipped my mind when I was contemplating the long list of modern retracs.
I think the Peugeot 206CC was more important, though. Its top wasn’t as reliable (something they’ve apparently fixed by now), but it really established the commercial viability of a mass-market retractable hardtop. The SC430 was well engineered, but it was also a $56,000 car, sold in very modest numbers. If it had been the only retractable hardtop on the market besides the SLK, I don’t know that it would have been that influential — once it died out, it might not have prompted a successor.
(I must admit I’m biased, because I really liked the original Lexus SC/Toyota Soarer, and I found the SC430 aesthetically dubious. But then, I’m not very fond of convertibles.)
This is a great article. I saw a Skyliner at White Post many years ago and I was very impressed. I am wondering why no automaker has tried a “tambour” top that would retract like a tambour door, along fixed rails like the old Nash convertibles. Modern materials could make this safe and it might be possible to retract in motion, although that might not be safest approach.
The problem with roll-up tambour-style tops, as Studebaker discovered with the Lark Wagonaire in the early sixties, is that top sealing is a real problem. Studebaker could never solve it, and owners of survivors just accept that the wagon WILL leak when it rains. A canvas top like the Nash Rambler Custom Landau won’t necessarily leak (because a lot of the issue is between the segments of a Wagonaire’s steel roof), but I guess it seems less practical than the oversize moonroofs that have become popular in recent years — many of the problems of a convertible without the open-air feel.
It’s an obscure fact for sure about the engines.
Ford used to use some great names for the engines, and virtually every year changed to add new marketing appeal. The 272 was called the “Ford V-8”. The 292 was the “Thunderbird V-8”, whilst the 312 was the “Thunderbird Special V-8”. Although 1957 was relatively straightforward in this approach, in subsequent years the term “Thunderbird” was applied to many engines that were never installed in Thunderbirds; that word became a marketing highlight of its own irrespective of the car from which its name was derived.
Fascinating article. Your discussion of MB at the end got me to thinking this is a classic example of runaway technology.
There are some tech bulletins on the web, explaining what to do if a top gets stuck partway open. It involves tools, over-riding sensors and lots of warnings… the upshot is that you’d better accept that the car is going to get wet (often the reason for putting a top up out on the road) and you’d better wait for the dealer tech to arrive. I alwo wonder how well these hold out rain when the seals age.
My wife has an 87 SL. It is a marvel of simplicity… a mechanical (no motors) soft top which takes under 30 seconds to put up or down. There is nothing, nothing to go wrong except perhaps a tear in the fabric… duct tape will at least get you home. Even replacing the soft top is not that expensive.
We have the hard top too, which spends the summer on the rack I built in the back yard (next to my Wranger hard top), it’s completely unnecessary in the summer anyhow, yet it provides complete weathertight driving during the winter months.
Alas, I believe MB has lost their way. Back in the 60s they represented very high quality and superb engineering, but no fluff. The gimmicks were left for Cadillac and Lincoln. But for the last couple of decades, I don’t think there is more gadget ridden car on the market.
The 272 V-8 was not available in the Skyliner, or any other Fairlane/Fairlane 500/Station Wagon models for 1957. The 272 V-8 was optional for and available only on the Custom and Custom 300. The 292 V-8 was optional on all Fairlane, Fairlane 500, and Station Wagon models except the Skyliner – it was the standard base engine on the Skyliner. The 312 engines (4V, 2-4V, and Supecharged) were optional on all 1957 Ford Custom/Custom 300/Fairlane/Fairlane 500/Station Wagon models. The 223-cubic inch "Mileage Maker Six" was standard on all 1957 Fords except for the Skyliner.
Ah, I hadn’t realized the 292 was standard on Skyliners. I made that correction.
The Skyliner top mechanism was very reliable. It had been tested for over a year before it was marketed. The problems came about from over-enthusiastic and proud owners who would stop the mechanism half-way through a down-or-up cycle, and then reverse it. The procedure was to let it complete a cycle first. Likewise when we see dramatic pictures of Skyliners with their tops in "still motion" the car is having undue stress put upon the system.
When operated according to directions and serviced by maintenance personnel who follow the guidelines, the Skyliner is very reliable and performs just as it was engineered to do. The really remarkable thing about the Skyliner was not necessarily the top works itself, but rather that it was priced within reach of 80% of the car buyers in 1957. Introduced in April 1957, six months after the start of the mode year, it captured 4th place among all "convertible" sales.
The basic concept of the Skyliner’s top was incorporated into the 1958-1966 Thunderbird and 1961-1967 Lincoln Convertibles. 1958-1960 Lincoln Convertibles were even more unique with their power-operated glass reverse slant back window and special fully-automatic self-storing top compartment.
See http://www.lovefords.org for more information and pictures about all the Disappearing Top cars from Ford.
I wonder if the relatively modest price of the Skyliner is part of the reason it didn’t last very long — given its complexity, its production cost was undoubtedly very high.
I think its greatest problem for owners, ultimately, was the limited practicality, which is a problem for the Thunderbird convertible, as well — with the top down, there’s almost no usable trunk space at all.
The main reason for the Skyliner not being built in 1960 (and beyond) was that the new body style would not handle the Skyliner’s mechanism which needed extra length and a shortened passenger compartment. The tooling for a second size Ford was not deemed cost-effective for 1960, especially with the Falcon being introduced and completely new Thunderbird and Lincoln cars already planned for the following year.
Trunk space is a worthy observation however not really a factor. Few people went on long trips where they needed full trunks and then drove with the top down. Still it was a popular criticism of the day, mostly by GM and Chrysler fans who had nothing to write home about.
I agree with John. The luggage space is not as big “problem” as many seem to think. We have done long roadtrips in a Skyliner, two adults and two kids with luggage for several days and still had opportunity to drive top down. It’s just a matter of packaging and having a right size luggage that fits in the luggage tub leaving no wasted space ;)
Families have long traveled and vacationed in various tiny little cars, so it’s not that it can’t be done. It’s just a tad silly to have to approach it like backpacking in a car this big!
I could go on for hours about this amazing car, but you would be better served to check out its webpage for tons of retractable hardtop information.
I believe the ’57 Police Interceptor engine was the same as the E-code Thunderbird Super V-8 optional on ’57 T-Birds. It was a 312 with two four-barrel carburetors and a hotter solid-lifter cam; I think there may also have been some cylinder head changes for better breathing. It was rated at 270 gross horsepower, up 25 from the single-quad 312.
As far as I know, the E-code engine was quite rare, probably added mainly to homologate the dual four-barrels for racing. I believe it was listed on the Thunderbird option list, but on the regular car line, the E-code was a special-order item and might have taken some arm-twisting to get if you were not a buyer for the California Highway Patrol or the like.
There were a few F-code (single four-barrel/supercharged 312) Skyliners and I’ve seen at least one advertised as a factory E-code car. However, except from the obvious collector rarity standpoint, the E-code doesn’t sound like a great choice for the Skyliner. The E-code’s cam and carburetion were set up for high-end power: the 8V engine has only 4 lb-ft more torque than the milder 312/4V and the torque peak is more than 1,000 rpm higher. That doesn’t sound like a good combination for the heavy Skyliner with Fordomatic.
I have a 1959 skyliner with ps, pb, ps and air by Ford. How can I find out how many of these were made?
Did you know that the 57 Ranchero was made to help offset the cost of the Retractable and cost Ford nothing to make as it was made from the 2 door wagon Australia has been making sedan utes since 1932 . And thanks to Ford USA FORD AUSTRALIA STOPS MAKING CARS FROM OCTOBER 2016 .
The FORD retractables were an are a great car.my first retractable was a new 59 red an ivory beauty in dec1959..i drove it 5 years as a regular car but our salty winter roads took its toll..i still have stored here in my garage. an all the parts to restore it.in the meantime I purchased a beautiful turquoise an white retractable from California..i practically had to sign my life away as the owner loved the car an wanted to know ifs future life..i send a sworn statement as to its future an he greatly reduced the price. its a showpiece with most options..
Great article! I’ve always been keen on these Fords. Especially the ’59, the most aesthetically pleasing to my eyes.
A few additional remarks re: the Paulin/Pourtout “original” retractable tops. Pourtout used this invention on several chassis in 1933-34, including Panhard and Lancia. There was also a Hotchkiss four-door Eclipse made in 34. These were all one-offs.
The Peugeot Eclipse though started in 1934 on the “01” series. The 301, the 401 and 601 all had Eclipse versions made. It seems 79 Eclipse 401s and 21 Eclipse 601s were built (plus a special pontoon-styled 601 streamliner; no data on the 301s) before Peugeot switched to the 402.
The 402 Eclipse itself went through several iterations, being initially sold on the standard sedan wheelbase and with an electrically-operated top in 1935. It was a two/three seater.
In 1936, the 402 Eclipse was completely redesigned and sat on the LWB limousine chassis. The longer roof allowed for a 2nd row of seats and rear quarter windows, but was no longer electrically assisted.
Only 580 Eclipses were made on from 1935 to 1939, out of over 75 000 402s. Hardly in the same league as Ford two decades later, but Peugeot did give it a shot…
Thanks for the info! I’ve amended the text. My knowledge of prewar Peugeots is spotty, although I was dimly aware that the Éclipse Decapotable’s electric operation was eventually deleted.
Back in the mid 1970’s, there was a want-ad in the Detroit Free Press for a 1958 Thunderbird retractable for $2,400. It was described as very rusty, but stated that the top still worked. I begged my wife, to no avail :(…. Many years later, when someone told me that no such car ever existed, I entered a query into Mosaic (no Google yet) and it returned that there had been 3 of them made. :……..(
As a owner of both ’59 Skyliner and a ’60 T-bird I think there is a misunderstanding about the 1958 Thunderbird “Retractable”. Probably the ad and search results Tom refers were about a custom made convertibles with optional metal roofs.
There have been few 2nd generation Thunderbird convertibles around with both metal hardtop and a soft ragtop but you have to remove and install the metal roof manually and it does not fit inside the trunk when removed. And the cloth top operates just like the normal Thunderbird convertible does.
One well known such conversion is often referred as a “Zipper Top Thunderbird” and some pictures can be found with Google. These conversions are not made by Ford.
1958-60 Thunderbirds have a self-supporting unibody structure and a very low and short trunk. There is absolutely no way to have a true retractable roof mechanism with metal roof installed on these cars as even the cloth top mechanism uses almost all of the trunk space.
I think the confusion stems from the fact that four-seat Thunderbird convertibles (and the 1961–66 Lincoln Continental convertible) borrowed some of the top mechanism from the “retrac,” albeit with a fabric top. So, there is some commonality.
It may only be a brush spring problem in the motor. Essy to fix in any corner electric motor shop.