The notion of a car with a steel roof that folds down as easily as a canvas one is straight out of the Rube Goldberg playbook as interpreted by Dr. Seuss. Yet postwar America, with its if-you-can-think-it-we-can-build-it attitude, was the place where, however briefly, this phantasmagorical dream was fully realized.
Ford had been caught flat-footed in the wake of the hardtop craze spawned by General Motors in the late ‘40s with the introduction of pillarless two-door models that mimed the profiles of true convertibles. In 1954, Ford trumped the industry with the Crestline Skyliner, a hardtop that featured a tinted Plexiglas roof section. The glass top option continued for three years, but fewer than 25,000 of Ford’s rolling terrariums (plus about 12,000 of Mercury’s Sun Valleys) found buyers.
Despite the public’s indifference, the company’s R&D in roof and greenhouse design continued at the newly established Continental Division, where a revolutionary concept was, quite literally, unfolding. It was there that a thirty-year-old draftsman named Ben Smith came, in 1953, to head up a project that would later be the basis for the Ford Skyliner, the first mass-produced car with a fully retractable steel roof. The idea was to develop a button-operated “convertible hardtop” for the Continental Mark II, an ultra-luxury coupe that made its debut in 1956 with a timeless shape, an exorbitant price, and, as it happened, a fixed steel roof.
Continental had passed on the idea of the retractable hardtop despite the fact that it had been perfected over the course of three years of intensive development by Smith’s team. The Ford Division appropriated the technology for its “aura” model in the totally redesigned ’57 line.
The retractable, using the Skyliner name, was an engineering tour de force, but it never quite caught on with the buying public. Concerns about the mechanism’s reliability – after all, it was strung together by more than 610 feet of wiring connecting seven electric motors, ten power relays, and eight circuit breakers – limited first-year sales to more than 20,000. The recession of 1958 caused sales of the second-year Skyliner to slump below 15,000. In ’59, even the addition of the Galaxie name couldn’t turn the tide. Ford decided to forgo the expense of adapting retractable mechanicals to the all-new ’60 line, ending the short and glorious run.
Today, it’s still a thrill to behold a Skyliner in action. The rear-hinged trunk lid, activated by a switch on the steering column, opens as the roof unlocks and rises while the top’s front section swings down on its hinges. The whole shooting match magically finds a hiding place in the trunk as the lid secures itself, yielding a perfectly smooth surface aft the rear seat. In about a minute, the whole process is over, a phenomenon not to be repeated on a series of production car until the introduction, three decades later, of the short-lived Mitsubishi 3000GT Spyder and the current Mercedes-Benz SLK.
Today, Skyliners are surprisingly affordable, and the top mechanism has proven to be reliable and easy to service. In the rare instances when the top gets hung-up – or down – you can readily access the relays behind the rear seat to reset them, usually fixing the problem. The big issue for any prospective Skyliner owner is rust, as cars exposed to harsh winters and excessive road salt tend to decompose over time. There are an estimated 2500 survivors still flipping their lids, and it’s wise to seek out a car manufactured in San Jose (assembly plant code R), on the logical assumption that West Coast vehicles are less likely to have been exposed to rot-inducing conditions.
The international Ford Retractable Club serves as a helpful conduit for parts and maintenance support. IFRC president Jerry Huggins says that, except for the very rare supercharged F-series option offered only in the first year and installed on as few as nine units, “strong drivers” can be found for less than $20,000, That’s not a lot more than a soft-top Sunliner brings, and, for a certified Milestone car, it’s something of a bargain. With lots of specialized parts available from both general Ford and Skyliner-specific sources, it’s not all that difficult to keep one in excellent roof-raising condition. Imposing Continental kits considerably extend the already disproportionately large rear quarters, while fender skirts, air conditioning, a choice of four V-8s, and myriad interior and paint combinations keep things interesting beyond the trick top.
The primary appeal of any Skyliner is experienced at a standstill: in fact, the top won’t operate unless the car is stopped. They’re solid cruisers, so it’s not unusual for an IFRC member to drive 2000 or so miles to a meet. Still, this is a heavy vehicle, and, at two tons, it’s almost 500 pounds heavier than conventional Ford convertibles of the era. Skyliners have a modicum of go, but the main attraction is the space-age flip top and the cachet of owning something that is a vision of the future from the past.
$15,000-$25,000 for good to fine examples. Three times as much for a supercharged ‘57
International Ford Retractable Club, PO Box 289, Brockport, New York, 14420 (716-395-0453; www.skyliner.org); Ford Skyliners of Northern California, PO Box 577919, Modesto, California 95357 (209-526-8956;www.skylinersofamerica.com)
Dennis Carpenter Reproductions, PO Box 26398, Charlotte, North Carolina 28221 (704-786-8139; www.dennis-carpenter.com); Ford Reproduction Parts Store, 110 Ford Road, Bryan, Ohio 43506 (419-636-2475; www.fordpartsstore.com)
MEET THE AUTHOR
Author of this review, Bob Merlis, is an automotive journalist whose writing has been published in both general interest and enthusiast periodicals. He is a frequent contributor to Automobile Magazine. He is currently a continuing contributor to Details Magazine and has seen his pieces published in Car and Driver, Los Angeles Magazine and LA Style where, for four years, he served as Car Culture editor. He is a consultant to the Petersen Automotive Museum in the area of exhibit development. He is a member of the Motor Press Guild, Society of Automotive Historians, Studebaker Drivers Club, Avanti Owners Association International, Alfa Romeo Owners Club and International King Midget Car Club.