Introduction to the 1957-1959 Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner

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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Ford's Retractable-Top Concept Phase

Ben Smith, a young GM engineer, was lured to Ford and put in charge of making the retractable-top concept a reality. It would be a major test of Smith's ingenuity, as he was given a mere 18 months to have the concept ready for production.

1957 Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner full view
There was a lot more involved in the creation of the
Skyliner than figuring out how to make the metal top
withdraw into and emerge from the rear of the car.

Initially, some thought was given to a hydraulically operated mechanism, but Smith pushed for electric motors, and prevailed. Whether he had inspected a Peugeot 402 top is unknown, but he did decide to go the Eclipse one better, and make the raising and lowering processes fully automatic.

A Peugeot owner had to unlatch the roof at the windshield header and open the decklid manually; a Continental retractable's driver would be able to sit back and watch while the car did all the work.

Figuring out the sequence of events the system would follow was simple enough. The machinery would have to unlatch and raise the rear deck, unlatch and raise the top, pivot the top back and down into the space provided for it, then close and latch the decklid. Making all this happen was the hard part.

Smith was very familiar with powered convertible tops from his GM days, but the hardtop offered new challenges. It was obvious, for example, that no reasonably proportioned decklid could cover a full-length top; some of the project engineers wanted to cut and hinge the top midway through its length, a solution Smith rejected. Instead, he specified a separate front section roughly 10 inches long, later called a "flipper," that would fold and tuck itself under the main part of the top when stowed.

Though it may have looked simple from the outside, the retractable mechanism that evolved was fiendishly complex. Seven purpose-built electric motors, each with its own circuit breaker, were needed to operate the screw-type decklid and roof locks (two for the former and four on the latter), and the screw jacks that moved the decklid and roof.

Packaging concerns made it necessary to have the motors do their work through flexible drive cables. In the case of the locking screws, this meant that small right-angle gear drives had to be designed. Folding and unfolding of the flipper panel was accomplished by a pair of mechanical pull-arms; this was the sole function not requiring a motor.

Since the various operations had to take place in a fixed sequence, the motors were controlled by a cycling switch, 10 limit switches, and 10 relays. All in all, the motors, relays, and switches for the top were connected by some 610 feet of wire, probably not including the line to the red warning light on the dashboard that showed the driver the ponderous operation was in progress. Elapsed time from top-down to top-up (or vice versa) was less than a minute.

By the end of 1953, Smith had a 3/8-scale working model of the top ready for management review. Despite a more dramatic demonstration than was intended -- the model's decklid supposedly flew off its pivots and was caught by a couple of engineers -- approval was given for work to continue, and a 1952 Lincoln hardtop was handed over for conversion. This carried a basic version of the finished system.

A second prototype followed in 1954. It was visually similar in many respects to the finished Continental and had a top mechanism more closely related to the final production setup. These were tested rigorously on the road while a complete top unit mounted on a static rig was put through its open-and-close cycle more than 10,000 times.

Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner retractable view
This time-lapse photograph shows the Skyliner roof
going through its electrically induced paces.

Ford's top brass were still enthusiastic about the retractable project but were less sanguine about its use in the Continental program. One explanation given by some historians was the difficulty in amortizing the extra development and manufacturing costs over what all within the company agreed would be a relatively small annual production run.

But Ford's own surveys of likely Continental buyers indicated that they would be willing to spend as much as $2,500 more than the coupe's projected price for a retractable top. In other words, they were ready to shell out a sum greater than the base price of any 1955 Ford on top of the nearly $10,000 charged for a fixed-roof Continental. The fundamental reason why the retractable program was taken away from the Continental Division appears to have been somewhat more deeply rooted.

Simply put, Henry Ford II and some other members of Ford management were preparing to kill off the Continental even before it went into production. The enthusiasm that had propelled the company though the late 1940s and early '50s was vanishing into jealousy and occasional acrimony as members of the "Whiz Kids" management team (brought in by Henry II in 1946 to help him resuscitate the company) jockeyed for power.

It was a process perhaps inevitable in so large a business with an autocrat at its head; the whole story -- as much of it as anyone except the people involved knows, anyway -- is too complex to recite here. Suffice it to say that in the various shifts of power, the Continental Mark II was sacrificed and the Edsel was born.

Check out the next page for the 1957 Ford model lineup.

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1957 Ford Model Lineup

In November 1954, the final clay models for the 1957 Ford line were approved, and one of the versions given the green light was a retractable hardtop. For Ben Smith and his crew at Special Products Division, this meant little more than resculpting their Continental clay model until it looked like a Ford. In fact, the larger Ford may well have helped to solve some of their packaging problems.

Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner rear view
Though it shared the 118-inch wheelbase of other
Fairlane 500s, the Skyliner had a lengthened and
revised frame with more body mounts.

Surprisingly one of the major boosters of the retractable at this point was "Whiz Kid" Robert McNamara. His personal taste in automobiles was better reflected later by the plain Falcon compact, but he had good reasons for supporting the frivolous flip-top: As a contender for the top job at Ford Division -- a plum he would later receive -- McNamara wanted to provide every possible inducement for buyers to pick a Ford and not a Mercury or Lincoln (or, later, an Edsel). After all, there were others who wanted the same job, and some worked for the company's other divisions.

That being the case, McNamara was more than happy to approve not only the retractable, but the complete longer, lower, wider, and fancier 1957 Ford line. He would remain a staunch defender of the retractable right up to, and beyond, its bitter end.

The 1957 Fords were fancy indeed. For the first time, the division offered two wheelbase lengths, the 116-inch Custom/Custom 300 and 118-inch Fair-lane/Fairlane 500 series. Moreover, a host of stylists that at times included Franklin Hershey, Joe Oros, Bob Maguire, Bill Boyer, Chuck Mashigan, Gale Halderrnan, Damon Woods, A. J. Middlestead, and L. David Ash gave the new bodies a crisp, sweeping look.

Some basic visual elements, such as the side spears and large, round taillamps, were continuations of earlier themes, but the overall look was very different. A new chassis design allowed the longer new Fords to be lower, too.

With the exception of engines and transmissions, the 1957s were genuinely "all-new," a good thing indeed in a year when many competitors were bringing out fresh designs.

Considering the cost of the model changeover, the few extra millions needed to bring the retractable to market were a comparatively minor item. But the changes necessary to transform a standard two-door Fairlane into a retractable were in no way trivial.

The latter required its own rear fenders, decklid, tail panel, trunk floor, internal structural members, and gas tank. And, of course, the top itself was a unique item, right down to the rear window.

As part of the Fairlane 500 series, retractables were built on the longer of Ford's two wheel-bases. Even so, changes were made: Compared to a regular fabric-top convertible, the retractable's frame was longer (by six inches); narrower in the rear; had a repositioned X-member; and carried more body mounts, a total of 18. Since the retractable weighed nearly 500 pounds more than a conventional Ford convertible, it rode on heavy-duty steel wheels with rims a half-inch wider than standard.

In consideration of its two tons of road-hugging weight, Ford wisely forbore offering its inline six-cylinder engine in the retractable. Instead, buyers could choose either a standard 272-cid V-8 developing 190 horsepower, a 212-horsepower 292, or 312s rated at 245 and 270 horsepower -- the latter with dual four-barrel carbs. All were derivatives of the over head-valve "Y-block" unit introduced in 1954.

For a time during the 1957 model year, retractables could be ordered with the "F-Code" powerplant, a 312 that made a conservatively rated 300 horsepower thanks to the addition of a McCulloch supercharger. Calling for the blown engine meant doing without the optional air-conditioning system, but some owners took the plunge anyway, and at least six supercharged retractables are known to survive today.

All engines were available with a choice of three-speed manual, manual with overdrive, or Fordomatic automatic transmission.

Take a closer look at the 1957 Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner in the next section.

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1957 Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner

Of course, in a day when Victorias, Country Squires, Sunliners, Rancheros, and sedans in Tudor and Fordor form filled the sales catalogs, the retractable hardtop needed a catchy name of its own.

Ford's marketing department came up with a list of more than 120 possible names for executive review; while none quite reached the flights of fancy as those tossed into the hopper for the Edsel (come to think of it, poet Marianne Moore's "Utopian Turtletop" might have suited the retractable rather well!), they did include such gems as "Liberator," "Caprice," "Spectacular," "Hida-Top," and "Telecoupe."

1957 Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner full view
Skyliner buyers could easily exceed the $2,942 base
price by ordering some of the options seen here,
such as a grille guard and rocker-panel trim.

Unimpressed, management chose to hang on to the moniker from the recently discontinued Plexiglass-roof hardtop coupe and called the retractable "Skyliner." Gold-toned name scripts appeared on the wide trim bands at the base of the hardtop roof pillars.

A separate production line was set up for the Skyliner so that workers could concentrate on the somewhat delicate alignment and adjustment processes required by the retractable roof. Many cars apparently needed some post-assembly fiddling, but their reliability record in customer hands was better than one might think, considering the possible consequences of a misplaced limit switch or out-of-line pivot arm.

Unusually detailed service manuals were prepared for dealer service departments; an engine tune-up was a far less-complicated operation than troubleshooting all those switches, relays, motors, gearboxes, and cable drives.

1957 Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner engine view
The retracting roof wasn't the only trick in Ford's book
in 1957; so was a supercharged V-8.

Some six weeks after the start of production, a dignified black Skyliner was built and dispatched, with a $3,053.70 invoice, to Washington, D.C. The president's reaction to it is unrecorded, but he is certain to have had one complaint: His golf bag would have been next to impossible to stow in the car's trunk.

This, in fact, was the Skyliner's biggest drawback. Despite the promise of a huge cargo space under the expansive decklid, any items carried there had to be fitted within a smallish square metal box or, if the top happened to be up, could be laid atop the screw jacks, which rested flat on the trunk floor.

A related, and perhaps worse, Skyliner negative was the routine faced by a motorist with a flat tire. He had to remove the luggage box to gain access to the wooden panel under which the spare rested. Naturally, if the top was down it had to be raised to reach the luggage box in the first place, and if there was anything in the box, that had to be unpacked as well. At least Ike probably didn't have to worry about changing his own tires.

As might be expected, the Skyliner had plenty of room in the passenger compartment for four or five people -- even if they had to pack lightly. Most of the interior was made up of standard production hardware, except for the rear seat, which was narrower and had both a shorter cushion and a bolt-upright backrest. Thanks to the smaller seat, head and leg room were equal to that found in 1957 Ford hardtops, even though the seat itself was placed three inches further forward in the car.

1957 Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner retractable top view
Sales of the 1957 Skyliner neared 21,000 despite
luggage space that was confined to a small pen
that was inaccessible when the top was down.

In all, 20,766 Skyliners were sold during the 1957 model year. Almost four times as many conventional Sunliner convertibles were produced, but it was still an impressive number for Ford's costliest family car (base price: $2,942), and boded well for the future.

Check out the next page for details on the 1958 Skyliner.

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1958 Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner

Ford offered a modest but very noticeable facelift of its entire passenger-car line for 1958. Like the rest of the industry, it made the switch from dual to quad headlights as soon as vehicle codes allowed and had to redesign headlight pods to accommodate 1958's hottest design feature.

1958 Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner front view
The 1958 Ford design called upon the new Thunderbird
for styling ideas like a dummy hood scoop,
trapezoidal grille opening, and oblong taillight clusters.

Overall, design cues for the 1958 Skyliner appear to have been inspired by the shape created for the new four-seat Thunderbird. Hood, decklid, bumpers, side trim, and taillight clusters were new.

The supercharged engine was no longer offered, but customers could still get a 300-horsepower engine, a normally aspirated unit of 352 cid that sat atop a new line of "FE" V-8s. A related 332-cube engine of 265 horsepower was another option to the base V-8, which was now the 292. A new Cruise-O-Matic three-speed autobox was the alternative to manual transmissions and the simpler Fordomatic.

1958 Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner retractable top view
A vast array of wiring, motors, and other hardware
snaked its way through the Skyliner's insides.

Another hot item in the industry for 1958 was air suspension. Almost everyone offered the extra-cost pleasure of riding on pressurized rubber bags, and Ford was no exception. Skyliner buyers could ask for that as well, receiving a system consisting of compressor, pressure tank, airbags, and automatic leveling valves front and rear. Few orders were taken for the Ford-Aire option in any model, so it ended up being a one-year wonder.

Not as many people as expected bought 1858 Fords. In hindsight, some have suggested that styling hurt sales, but a nationwide economic downturn was the prime culprit.

The Skyliner suffered a substantial decline in demand. The novelty was beginning to wear off; almost one-third fewer retractables -- a mere 14,713 - -were built in 1958. It couldn't have helped that the starting price ballooned to $3,163.

1958 Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner interior view
The dash for the '58 Skyliner was a retrimmed
reprise of the 1957 model.

See the next section to learn about the Skyliner's final production year, 1959.

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1959 Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner

Despite a poor showing in 1958, when the redesigned 1959 Fords were introduced, the Skyliner was still available. The Skyliners was still built on the 118-inch wheelbase that now served all Fords and shared new exterior panels and a fresh interior with them. They were also substantially improved in the areas of ride, handling, and build quality.

1959 Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner full view
The more conservative design of the 1959 Fords
included a return to a full-width grille and round taillamps.

As before, the Skyliner required its own rear sheetmetal, but improvements to the top's operating mechanism allowed it to work with one fewer electric motor. The main roof assembly was identical to that used in 1957 and 1958, but had a new, shorter flipper section.

Midway through the model year, a new Galaxie series became the top-line Ford. The Sunliner and Skyliner migrated over from the Fairlane 500 ranks. Naturally, the Galaxie Skyliner was the centerpiece among these loaded luxury cruisers, the most expensive car (apart from Thunderbirds) in the 1959 Ford catalog. Its price increased again, though not so drastically, to $3,346 without options. As such, the retractable cost $507 more than the Sunliner convertible.

Sales of many Fords were better than they had been in 1958, but the Skyliner once again posted a drop in deliveries, down to 12,915. The decline didn't faze Robert McNamara, who wanted the Skyliner to be continued for 1960. But to do so with the all-new body and frame scheduled for that year would have required some serious development, and the team that had made the first retractable work had been broken up. Ben Smith had been sent to Ford's operation in Argentina, and some of the other engineers who had worked with him were involved in other projects.

After six months of work and some $1 million had been expended in preparation for a 1960-1961 retractable, the program was ended.

Smith never lost interest in the retractable idea. He had proposed a luxury station wagon with a lifting rear-roof section using retractable hardware in 1958 and had built a fully functional prototype on a standard 1958 Lincoln. It was interesting, but bizarre.

Much later, he would champion the idea of a retractable hardtop for the Mustang, but this, too, was never taken seriously by Ford management. The company did make some further use of the retractable's engineering for stowing the convertible tops of "Squarebird" T-Birds and, most notably, 1961-1967 Lincoln Continentals.

Clever as it may have been, the Skyliner was really nothing more than a fad, a four-wheel Hula Hoop that caught the public's fancy for a brief time and quickly faded away. It was no more luxurious, comfortable, or faster than other Fords of its day. Nor was it more stylish; in fact, designers had done all they could to make it appear to be just another hardtop.

It was expensive, complex, and was handily outsold by both coupe and convertible Fords during each of the three years it was offered.

1959 Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner rear view
With its top up, the 1959 Skyliner looked quite a bit like
the other Galaxie closed cars, which used roofs
with wide rear pillars.

The real pleasure of owning a Skyliner was inviting friends over to watch as the mechanism did its thing, waving its decklid in the breeze as the top rose, folded, and disappeared into the vast open area behind the rear seat, complete with lots of whirring noises from the drive motors. And that, for a relative handful of buyers back in the 1950s and the collectors of today, is enough to make the Ford that flipped its lid something special.

Find a breakdown of the positive and negative aspects of the 1957-1959 Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner in our final section.

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Pluses and Minuses of the 1957-1959 Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner

The 1957-1959 Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner was the world's first production retractable hardtop-convertible. It seemed like a good idea at the time (and a typically 1950s one at that), but proved to be a complicated beast with a lot to go wrong. The Skyliner was also expensive at $400 more than the conventional Sunliner soft top. Both factors put the crimp in sales.

1957 Ford Fairlane 500 Skylliner retractable convertible coupe, part of the 1957-1959 Ford Fairlane 500 line
The 1957 Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner retractable
converti­ble coupe. See more pictures of Ford cars.

Stylists of the vehicle did the best they could to provide enough room for that big roof to slide back into the trunk area. But even though the roof was shorter than on other models and its front section hinged for more compact storage, the Skyliner still ended up with a higher, longer rear deck and bulgier "bustle" rear panel.

It also differed from other Fords in having a standard V-8, a relocated gas tank (behind the back seat instead of under the trunk floor), and little luggage space with the top down. The 500 Skyliner was heavily restyled and re-engineered for 1959, and officially part of that year's new top-line Galaxie series, though it continued to wear Fairlane 500 script.

In the end, the 1957-1959 Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner is an interesting car and a reminder of that age when Detroit thought it could do anything.

Pluses of the 1957-1959 Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner:

  • A crowd-pleaser
  • Good appreciation potential
  • Less troublesome than most people think
  • Milestone car status
  • Technical fascination

Minuses of the 1957-1959 Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner:

  • Clumsy rear styling
  • Mechanical/electrical gremlins
  • Shares a great deal with ordinary Fords

Production of the 1957 Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner:
20,766

Production of the 1958 Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner:
14,713

Production of the 1959 Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner:
12,915

Specifications of the 1957-1959 Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner:
Wheelbase, inches: 118.0
Length, inches: 210.8/208.1 (1957-1958/1959)
Weight, pounds: 3,916/4,069/4,064 (1957-1959)
Price, new: $2,942/$3,163/$3,346 (U.S.)

Engines for the 1957-1959 Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner:

TypeSize
Horsepower
Years
ohv V-8
272 cid
190
1957
ohv V-8
292 cid
200/205/212
1957-1959
ohv V-8312 cid
245
1957
ohv V-8332 cid
225/240/265
1958-1959
ohv V-8
352 cid
300
1958-1959

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