Retractable hardtops are a commonplace design in this day and age, but their history stretches back further than the Mercedes SLK. While that car was the first mass-produced retractable roadster that sold in large numbers in the United States, it wasn’t the first convertible with a folding metal top. Ford was the first to bring the retractable hardtop to the United States nearly fifty years earlier.
Ford was working overtime to get itself ahead of General Motors in the late 1950s, mainly because of GM’s dominance in the market. The Ranchero, introduced in 1957, was the first American car-based pickup, and the Thunderbird’s combination of two seats, rear-wheel-drive, and a punchy V8 engine beat the V8 Corvette to the market by at least a year. Meanwhile, the humble little Fairlane got a halo of its own, in the form of a complicated roof design. Design work began in the early 1950s, and the finished product was attractive enough that even President Eisenhower purchased one as a personal car at its launch.
The Skyliner name was not new for Ford. Up until this point, the name referred to a full-sized Ford product with a clear roof panel, introduced in 1954 on the Crestline and continued on the Crown Victoria model line through 1956. In ’57, Ford made a big change. The new roof mechanism was unheard of at the time, featuring a massive amount of wiring and mechanical know-how. Like modern folding hardtops, the roof stole a significant amount of trunk space when stored. The fuel tank was even moved to under the front seat, to provide extra space.
The mechanism folded the front part of the roof under the larger rear part, and slowly maneuvered the entire assembly rearward to the trunk. The amount of electronics required to move the roof panel was beyond anything else at the time as well, requiring a total of three roof drive motors, four lock motors, and over 600 feet of wiring. The car itself wasn’t cheap either, costing a good $3,000 or more back in 1957. Trunk space was limited to a small box under the roof panel, and due to its clumsy location, not only was it small in size, but hard to reach as well. The spare tire was an even bigger issue, being mounted just ahead of the cargo box. Thanks to these and other minor shortcomings (including a huge rear deck to accomadate the roof), sales of the big Skyliner were slow, and the collector value is therefore high. While over 20,000 were sold in 1957, less than 50,000 were built and not many remain. If you love innovation and want a good look at just how much imagination was going on at the Ford design studio in the Fifties, though, look no further.