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1957-1959 Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner

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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