1957-1959 Ford Styling

The Ford Skyliner: Superiority Complex

The 1957 Ford Skyliner was an exercise in innovation. In the late Fifties, American technology was the envy of the world and the Ford Skyliner its perfect symbol. Oh sure, the Russians led the "space race" with the first artificial Earth satellite, but we had the first retractable hardtop.

1957 Ford Skyliner
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.
This 1957 Ford Skyliner has its retractable hardtop tucked away in this photo.

Well, not really. Peugeot of France offered its Eclipse way back in 1936, and Chrysler's 1940-1941 Thunderbolt show cars also boasted a hide-away hard top. But Ford was the first and only manufacturer to try selling "retracs" in volume.

It all started with company stylist Gilbert Spear, whose design concepts intrigued William Clay Ford, the younger brother of company president Henry II. At the time, Bill Ford headed the firm's Special Projects Division, then preparing the Continental Mark II for 1956. A hardtop coupe that could magically transform itself into a convertible seemed like the perfect companion for the new ultra-luxury flagship, so the firm set aside $2.19 million for development, and Special Projects built a working prototype from a 1952 Lincoln Capri convertible. Since this was nominally a six-passenger car like the forthcoming Mark, its top was too big to fit even the large Lincoln trunk, so the roof was hinged 10 inches from the front to create a "flipper" that tucked under the main section for more compact stowage.

By mid-1955, the idea had been fully tested (like 10,000 times). But then the accountants realized that Ford could never recover its investment with the Mark II's low projected volume. Thus, the retractable was turned over to Ford Division, which spent another $18 million on a crash program to make it part of the all-new 1957 line, then less than two years away. As a result, the Skyliner (reviving the name of Ford's 1954 Plexi-roof hardtop coupe) arrived slightly behind the rest of the fleet, introduced at the New York Auto Show in December 1956 along with the Ranchero car/pickup.

Stylist Bill Boyer recalls some of the problems: "We had to extend the rear quarter panels...another three inches and design a decklid that would hinge from the back. We moved the gas tank behind the rear seat and put the spare tire in [its place]. We had a lot of trouble with the rear seat. [Its] position and angle [are] such that it stands practically straight up." The designers also made room by raising the deck, blunting the back panel, and reshaping the beltline -- which made the stern ungainly at best.

Continue to the next page to learn about the Ford Skyliner's short-lived time in the sun.

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