Ford Skyliner is First Produced

The Ford Skyliner was an innovative full-size automobile with a retractable hardtop produced by the Ford Motor Company in the late 1950s.

Based on the North American Ford Fairlane, the Skyliner had a complex mechanism which folded the front of the roof and retracted it under the rear decklid. This mechanism was prone to failure, and the large top took up vast amounts of trunk space, limiting the car's sales. The retractable hardtop would surface again in the 1990s in vehicles such as the Mitsubishi 3000GT Spyder, Peugeot 206 CC and the Mercedes-Benz SLK.
The Skyliner, which was produced for model years 1957, 1958, and 1959, had a squared-off roofline style that was admired by the public and found its way onto most Ford two-door hardtops until 1965, including the Thunderbird, Galaxie, and Fairlane.
The Skyliner name was previously applied to another Fairlane derivative, the Crown Victoria Skyliner. This vehicle had a clear acrylic glass roof panel over the front row of seats.
Today, the Skyliner has become a very valuable collectible car, with high-point restored specimens costing upwards of $50,000 (2006).

Ford's '56 line featured the expected mild facelift, plus more-potent engines and two new models: a Customline Victoria and the division's first four-door hardtop, the Fairlane Town Victoria.

Ford also began selling "Lifeguard Design" safety features, equipping all models with dished steering wheel, breakaway rearview mirror, and crashproof door locks; padded dash and sunvisors cost $16 extra, factory-installed seatbelts $9.

Buyers responded early in the model year, but the rush to seat-belts overtaxed Ford's supplier, so only 20 percent of the '56s got them. Ford continued to stress safety for a few more years, but put more emphasis on performance. Speaking of which, the 272 V-8 delivered 173 horsepower as a '56 Mainline/Customline option. A new 312-cid "Thunderbird" unit with 215/225 horsepower was optional across the board, and a midrange 292-cid V-8 offered 200 horsepower.

Ford offered several models with V-8 power, including this 1957 Fairlane 500
Skyliner retractable convertible.
The 1957 Fords were all-new, offering a vast array of V-8s from a 190-bhp 272 up to a 245-bhp 312. The 223-cid six was standard for all but one model. There were now two wheelbases and no fewer than five series: 116 inches for Station Wagon and Custom/Custom 300 sedans (replacing Mainline/Custom line), 118 inches for Fairlane and the new line-topping Fairlane 500.

All were available with six or V-8 power. Both Fairlane series listed two- and four-door Victorias, plus thin-pillar equivalents that looked like hardtops with windows up. The glamorous droptop Sunliner was now a Fairlane 500 and came with the base V-8. Haulers comprised plain and fancier Del Rio two-door Ranch Wagons, a pair of four-door Country Sedans, and the wood-look four-door Squire -- Ford's priciest '57 wagon at $2684.

Ford's '57 styling was particularly simple for the period: a blunt face with clean, full-width rectangular grille; tasteful side moldings; and tiny tailfins. More importantly, it was new against Chevy's second facelift in two years. Unfortunately, the Fords had some structural weaknesses (principally roof panels) and were prone to rust, one reason you don't see that many today.

But though Plymouth arguably won the styling stakes with its finned "Forward Look," 1957 was a great Ford year. In fact, the division scored a substantial win in model-year output with close to 1.7 million cars to Chevy's 1.5 million. Some statisticians also had Ford ahead in calendar-year volume for the first time since 1935, though the final score showed Chevy ahead by a mere 130 cars.

The Skyliner name returned in mid-1957, but on a very different Ford: the world's first mass-produced retractable hardtop. An addition to the Fairlane 500 series, it stemmed from engineering work done a few years before at Continental Division, which had considered, but didn't produce, the 1956 Mark II as a "retrac."

Ford sold 20,766 Skyliners for '57, but demand fast tapered to 14,713 for '58, then to 12,915. The model was duly axed after 1959, a victim of new division chief Bob McNamara's no-nonsense approach to products and profits. Skyliner "retracs" became prime collectibles, and the retractable-hardtop concept made a comeback in the new millennium.

For 1958, Ford countered all-new passenger Chevys and modestly restyled Plymouths with a glittery facelift featuring quad headlamps and taillamps, a massive bumper/grille a la '58 Thunderbird, and more anodized aluminum trim. V-8 choices expanded via two new "FE-series" big-blocks: a 332 offering 240/265 horsepower, and a 300-bhp 352. A deep national recession cut Ford volume to just under 988,000 cars. Chevrolet sold over 1.1 million, but spent much more money to do so.

Chevy then unveiled an all-new line of radical "bat-fin" cars for 1959. Ford replied with more-conservative styling that helped it close the model-year gap to less than 12,000 units. A major reskin of the basic 1957-58 bodyshells brought square lines; simple side moldings; a heavily sculptured "flying-V" back panel; and a low, rectangular grille filled with floating starlike ornaments.

All previous models continued, though now on the 118-inch wheelbase. Come midseason, a new Galaxie series of two- and four-door pillared and pillarless sedans generated high buyer interest and strong sales with their square but stylish Thunderbird-inspired wide-quarter rooflines. At the same time, the Sunliner convertible and Skyliner retractable gained Galaxie rear-fender script (but retained Fairlane 500 ID at the rear).

V-8s were down to a 200-bhp 292, 225-bhp 332, and 300-bhp 352. Also carried over from '58 was Cruise-O-Matic, Ford's smooth new three-speed automatic transmission that proved a sales plus against Chevrolet's Powerglide, if not Plymouth's responsive three-speed TorqueFlite.

For Ford Motor Company as a whole, 1959 seemed to justify the strenuous efforts of Henry Ford II and board chairman Ernest R. Breech. Assuming control of a third-rate company in 1945, they'd turned it into something approaching General Motors in less than 15 years.

Ford's path through the 1960s closely parallels that of rival Chevrolet. At decade's end, it was also selling only about 400,000 more cars per year than in 1960 -- despite expansion into important new markets: economy compacts, intermediates, and sportier standard-size models. Also like Chevy, Ford built these diverse types on relatively few wheelbases. (See separate entries for the stories on the personal-luxury T-Bird and the new-for '65 Mustang "ponycar," the two most-specialized Fords of this period.)

How the dreams of youth become the mundane remnants of middle age. So it is with the retractable hardtop, a phenomenon that made the mid-1950's boy think that in America everything is possible, from putting a satellite up in space to creating a convertible out of a sedan before one's very eyes. Sadly, today the retractable hardtop car, like many of our youthful icons, has lost its novelty. In fact, they are getting to be more common than the canvas-topped convertibles of old.
Mitsubishi was the car company that started the latest retractable top trend. It began selling its 3000 GT Spyder with its ever-so-tiny folding hardtop in 1994. Mercedes-Benz then threw its vaunted engineering prowess into the fray with its SLK, which came into the market in 1996. Lexus began offering its SC 430, and the floodgates seemed to open up. The marketing geniuses at Chevrolet (Chevrolet?) decided that a disappearing hardtop pickup truck was just what General Motors needed to buoy its dipping fortunes, while Cadillac topped its version of the Corvette (called XLR) with a collapsing hardtop.
That the American car makers latched onto the retractable hardtop is not surprising when one considers that it was an American named Ben p. Ellerbeck who is credited with conceiving the first practical (?) retractable hardtop system way back in 1922. Ellerbeck's system on a Hudson coupe required manual operation, but even with the top down one could still use the rumble seat unimpeded. Find us a Mercedes-Benz or Lexus that can make that claim.
Then the French got into the act, and one would have to admit that Georges Paulin's Eclipse system, which saw its ultimate expression in the Peugeot 402 "fuseau sochaux," out-did the Ellerbeck system. The first of these Eclipse 402s offered a power-retractable top, but a year later, in 1936, that mechanical nightmare was replaced by a manually operated version on a stretched chassis. It continued to be built in limited numbers until World War II engulfed Europe. We Americans had another run at the concept in the form of the Chrysler Thunderbolt "dream car" circa 1941, but World War II also knocked that one out of the box, and it would take a decade and a half before the pendulum would swing back toward the concept.
All of which is simply meaningless prologue, because to those of us who grew up in the Fifties (you know who you are, aging Baby Boomer) the one, the only, the original retractable hardtop car was the 1957 Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner. How do we know it? Because Ford Motor Company told us it was when they introduced it. And those of us who saw the initial TV commercials for the car could scarcely believe our senses. Just watching that gigantic steel roof disappear into that giant trunk was cooler than any Sputnik those Godless communists could build.
Actually, the retractable roof idea had originally been floated at Ford Motor Company design staff as a good gimmick for Lincoln, which was in need of a distinguishing feature to battle Cadillac's tailfins. A considerable amount of work (and an estimated $2 million) went into the project, including the construction of a Continental Mark II with a servo-operated retractable roof. The thing worked great, but the Continental Mark II was already priced beyond mid-Fifties reason, so the project was shelved.
But not for long, as it turned out, because in the summer of 1955 Ford and arch-rival Chevrolet were locked in a dog-eat-dog battle for the U.S. sales championship. And each company was prepared to pull out all the stops to gain bragging rights and market share. Witness the birth of the Ford Thunderbird, Chevrolet Corvette, Chevrolet Nomad and Chevrolet Cameo over a few short years. None of these vehicular extravaganzas promised to make their respective divisions much money, but each of them sure got people talking...and visiting showrooms. So Ford brass decided to pull the trigger on the ultimate showroom "loss leader" in the form of a retractable hardtop they called the Skyliner. Ironically, it was built on the chassis of another traffic-builder, the Ford Sunliner, with its Space Age transparent top.
In everything but its roof mechanism the Skyliner was a very conventional American car of the mid-Fifties era. Its finned body sat on a muscular frame that featured an independent front suspension and a live rear axle located by leaf springs, not unlike a Ford F150 pickup truck of today. Also like the current Ford pickup, it sported a V-8 engine. Initially, the Skyliner offered a 272 cubic inch overhead-valve V-8. A 292 cubic inch V-8 was the standard powerplant in 1958 and 1959, and engine options included 312, 332 and 352 cubic inch marvels of cast iron. The 272 cubic inch engine delivered 190 horsepower, and at the other end of the chain the 352 offered an even 300. Even packing 300 horsepower, though, the heavy Skyliner was no speed demon. The lope from zero to 60 miles per hour took a leisurely 10 seconds.