Back in the days when Dwight D. Eisenhower was president, the 1957-1959 Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner retractable hardtop was a sensation of the first order, so much so that "Ike" even ordered an early example for himself. One wonders how often he and Mamie sneaked down to the garage just to watch the big steel roof and rear-deck panels, operated by a bevy of servo motors, relays, screw jacks, assorted cables, springs, and pivoting arms, do their stuff.

1957 Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner full view
Ford honchos thought the best chance for commercial
success with a retracting hardtop was as a lower-cost
Ford. Out it came in 1957 as the Skyliner.

What was perhaps a novelty at purchase time is now a familiar feature, of no more interest than the remote-locking buttons on today's keyfobs. How times have changed.

The Eisenhowers, and all the other good American citizens who flocked to Ford showrooms back in 1957, can be forgiven for thinking Ford had invented something new and startling. In fact, the original retractable went on sale in France some 23 years earlier.

The 1934 Peugeot 601 series debuted a car with a power-operated retractable metal top, conceived by Georges Paulin. The idea was continued the next year in the new Peugeot 402, a line of streamlined cars in the Chrysler Airflow mold that included the Eclipse, a three-passenger coupe with a steel top that disappeared into a rear-hinged trunk compartment.

When the Eclipse was enlarged into a six-passenger car in 1937, powered top operation was dropped to keep costs down, but the manual mechanism was so well-balanced and easy to use that it was perfectly acceptable to most customers.

The Eclipse and its 402-series stablemates were victims of World War II; production ended after a mere five years. Another retractable, Chrysler's 1941 Thunderbolt, never got past the show-car stage. A few further attempts by smaller manufacturers fared no better.

In an era of flamboyant styling and "gee-whiz" engineering features, Ford may have put the "topper" on the period when it introduced the Skyliner retractable hardtop in 1957. Practicality be damned; this one was for stopping the neighbors in their tracks.

Even though the public didn't seem to be clamoring for cars that combined the attributes of hardtops and convertibles, the idea began to reassert itself in the early 1950s in the mind of Gil Spear, head of Ford's Advanced Design studio.

Spear built a scale model of his concept, which caught the eye of styling executive Gene Bordinat. After word of Spear's model -- dubbed the Syrtis with "Roof-O-Matic" -- reached higher-ups, the company approved more than $2 million to further develop the idea. Work got under way in 1953.

1957 Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner rear view
The Fairlane's stowaway steel roof made it a
"dream car" for the masses.

Those were heady days at Ford. The company had shaken off the stagnation of Old Henry's day and, under his grandson, Henry II, was home to some ambitious projects. One was the two-seat Thunderbird "personal car." Another was the revival of one of the late Edsel Ford's favorite cars, the Continental.

The original Lincoln Continental, built in limited numbers between 1940 and 1948, had already achieved classic status in the minds of many enthusiasts, so a "Mark II" version seemed a natural "halo" car for Ford. And what would be a better companion for the upcoming luxury hardtop coupe than a retractable-top version?

Learn how the retractable top went from concept to reality on the next page.

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