The American Auto Club UK

General Interest Articles

Ford Skyliner (retractable hardtop), 1957-1959 - A true hardtop convertible

A true hardtop convertible offers the full open-air motoring of a convertible with the snugness of a hard top. The world's first production hardtop convertible was offered by France's Peugeot in 1937.

The recent rebirth of the convertible hardtop was started by the Mercedes-Benz SLK sports car that arrived in 1997. Since then, others have followed, including the Cadillac XLR, Mercedes-Benz SL, Lexus SC 430, Pontiac G6, Volvo C70, and Volkswagen Eos.

True hardtop convertibles should not be confused with the ersatz variety, also called pillarless hardtops, whose roofs gave the illusion of a convertible, but didn't actually fold down. They came on the scene in the 1949 Cadillac Coupe de Ville, Buick Roadmaster Riviera and Oldsmobile 98 Holiday Coupe, and soon became available on lower priced cars like Chevrolets. The hardtop convertible was a popular body style for several years.

The genuine hardtop convertible has a rigid top that folds down just like that of a soft-top car. The most popular and most intricate of the type was made by the Ford Motor Company from 1957 to '59. Called the Skyliner, it was the world's first mass-produced retractable hardtop. The Skyliner name had been used by Ford from 1954 to '56 on a car with a see-through, green-tinted plexiglass panel replacing the front half of the roof, but the "retrac" gave the name real meaning.

Ford's retractable hardtop had originally been planned for the 1956 Lincoln Continental but the development costs of the roof went so high that Ford management realized they could not be amortized over the Continental's small production run. Ford division, therefore, got the roof by default.

In its move to break out of the low cost end of the market and begin challenging the mid-range segment, the '57 Ford was longer and lower, and had a wider trunk that could accommodate the retractable top and folding mechanism without massive alterations.

Fords came in two wheelbases that year, 2,946 and 2,997 mm (116 and 118 in.). The Skyliner retrac was fitted to the longer wheelbase Fairlane 500 model, but did not replace the regular Sunliner soft-top convertible, which continued.

The folding-top mechanism was a real Rube Goldberg operation, a mass of motors, circuit breakers, limit switches, and relays, all connected by some 183 metres (200 yards) of wire. They operated in series, so that if one failed, the whole operation ceased. There were also all of the associated stays, braces and cables necessary to keep everything in place.

Engaging the retracting mechanism started an intricate series of events. First, the front corners of the rear-hinged deck lid were released and it rose to an almost vertical position. At the same time, the rear package tray was extended.

The front corners of the top were then released and it glided upward and back. Because the roof was too long to fit into the trunk, a 254 mm (10 in.) long front section folded and tucked under as the roof was making its rearward journey. After the roof had settled into the trunk the last step was closing and locking the rear deck.

The whole process took approximately a minute. In the event of mechanical failure, the operation could be done manually with a crank, albeit slowly, so that one didn't need to drive home in the rain.

One of the big disadvantages was the small luggage space with the top down. This amounted to a 610 X 762 X 381 mm (24 X 30 X 15 in.) rectangular "tub" in the middle of the trunk floor. In addition to being small it was awkward to load due to the rear-hinged deck lid. To add to the inconvenience, the spare tire was stowed under the tub. When the top was up, luggage capacity was similar to the regular Ford.

A prototype Ford Skyliner was introduced at the 1956 New York Auto Show. It became available to the public on April 14, 1957, with then-President Dwight Eisenhower taking delivery of the first one.

The Skyliner was a novelty showroom attraction for Ford, even overshadowing the two-seater Thunderbird, which was in its last year. And despite its shortened model-year run and a price some $400 above the regular $3,000 Sunliner convertible, 20,766 Skyliners were sold. It helped Ford beat Chevrolet in sales for the first time in almost 30 years.

Novelty cars tend to lose their appeal quickly, and sales of the '58 Skyliner slipped to 14,713. When they sagged to 12,915 for 1959, Ford decided to discontinue the model and allow it to slip into history.

The retractable hardtop Skyliner had the distinction of being the first mass production, true hardtop convertible. An example of the "do-anything" optimism of the 1950s, it is a sought-after collectible today.

The price for a # 1 excellent vehicle will run you around $42,000 US dollars as a close British pound price this would be about 30,000 for a 1957, for a '58 27,000 and a 1959 would be 32,000 British pounds.

© 2021 American Auto Club UK :: An AreArt Website