How the dreams of youth become the mundane remnants of middle age. So it is with the retractable hardtop, a phenomenon that made the mid-1950's boy think that in America everything is possible, from putting a satellite up in space to creating a convertible out of a sedan before one's very eyes. Sadly, today the retractable hardtop car, like many of our youthful icons, has lost its novelty. In fact, they are getting to be more common than the canvas-topped convertibles of old.
Mitsubishi was the car company that started the latest retractable top trend. It began selling its 3000 GT Spyder with its ever-so-tiny folding hardtop in 1994. Mercedes-Benz then threw its vaunted engineering prowess into the fray with its SLK, which came into the market in 1996. Lexus began offering its SC 430, and the floodgates seemed to open up. The marketing geniuses at Chevrolet (Chevrolet?) decided that a disappearing hardtop pickup truck was just what General Motors needed to buoy its dipping fortunes, while Cadillac topped its version of the Corvette (called XLR) with a collapsing hardtop.
That the American car makers latched onto the retractable hardtop is not surprising when one considers that it was an American named Ben P. Ellerbeck who is credited with conceiving the first practical (?) retractable hardtop system way back in 1922. Ellerbeck's system on a Hudson coupe required manual operation, but even with the top down one could still use the rumble seat unimpeded. Find us a Mercedes-Benz or Lexus that can make that claim.
Then the French got into the act, and one would have to admit that Georges Paulin's Eclipse system, which saw its ultimate expression in the Peugeot 402 "fuseau sochaux," out-did the Ellerbeck system. The first of these Eclipse 402s offered a power-retractable top, but a year later, in 1936, that mechanical nightmare was replaced by a manually operated version on a stretched chassis. It continued to be built in limited numbers until World War II engulfed Europe. We Americans had another run at the concept in the form of the Chrysler Thunderbolt "dream car" circa 1941, but World War II also knocked that one out of the box, and it would take a decade and a half before the pendulum would swing back toward the concept.
All of which is simply meaningless prologue, because to those of us who grew up in the Fifties (you know who you are, aging Baby Boomer) the one, the only, the original retractable hardtop car was the 1957 Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner. How do we know it? Because Ford Motor Company told us it was when they introduced it. And those of us who saw the initial TV commercials for the car could scarcely believe our senses. Just watching that gigantic steel roof disappear into that giant trunk was cooler than any Sputnik those Godless communists could build.
Actually, the retractable roof idea had originally been floated at Ford Motor Company design staff as a good gimmick for Lincoln, which was in need of a distinguishing feature to battle Cadillac's tailfins. A considerable amount of work (and an estimated $2 million) went into the project, including the construction of a Continental Mark II with a servo-operated retractable roof. The thing worked great, but the Continental Mark II was already priced beyond mid-Fifties reason, so the project was shelved.
But not for long, as it turned out, because in the summer of 1955 Ford and arch-rival Chevrolet were locked in a dog-eat-dog battle for the U.S. sales championship. And each company was prepared to pull out all the stops to gain bragging rights and market share. Witness the birth of the Ford Thunderbird, Chevrolet Corvette, Chevrolet Nomad and Chevrolet Cameo over a few short years. None of these vehicular extravaganzas promised to make their respective divisions much money, but each of them sure got people talking...and visiting showrooms. So Ford brass decided to pull the trigger on the ultimate showroom "loss leader" in the form of a retractable hardtop they called the Skyliner. Ironically, it was built on the chassis of another traffic-builder, the Ford Sunliner, with its Space Age transparent top.
In everything but its roof mechanism the Skyliner was a very conventional American car of the mid-Fifties era. Its finned body sat on a muscular frame that featured an independent front suspension and a live rear axle located by leaf springs, not unlike a Ford F150 pickup truck of today. Also like the current Ford pickup, it sported a V-8 engine. Initially, the Skyliner offered a 272 cubic inch overhead-valve V-8. A 292 cubic inch V-8 was the standard powerplant in 1958 and 1959, and engine options included 312, 332 and 352 cubic inch marvels of cast iron. The 272 cubic inch engine delivered 190 horsepower, and at the other end of the chain the 352 offered an even 300. Even packing 300 horsepower, though, the heavy Skyliner was no speed demon. The lope from zero to 60 miles per hour took a leisurely 10 seconds.
But nobody bought the Skyliner for its on-road performance. The only performance most buyers were interested in was the one they could demonstrate in their own driveway. By flicking a switch they could activate 10 power relays, 10 limit switches, four lock motors, three drive motors and eight circuit breakers all attached with a staggering 610 feet of electrical wire. This is what made that big steel top vanish into the outsized, rear-hinged trunk or come back out again.
As befitting the top of the Ford line, the Fairlane 500 Skyliner was well-finished inside with luxurious bench seating for six. While the interior was roomy, luggage space was limited to a bin-like container that sat in the middle of what otherwise would have been a huge trunk, and if you as a buyer went all the way you would also buy the fitted Ford luggage that maxed out the small cargo area. And the tiny cargo area was incongruous because, make no mistake, the Skyliner was a big car. Riding on a 118-inch wheelbase, it was 210 inches long -- slightly longer than the typical Ford two-door of the era with the added length coming in the rear deck.
Amazingly, 20,766 souls purchased 1957 Skyliners, considerably more than purchased 1957 Corvettes. Perhaps on the strength of the publicity generated by the Skyliner, Ford beat Chevrolet for the sales leadership title that model year, despite the fact that '57 Chevies are now considered prized possessions, while most collectors look askance at the '57 Fords. The exception to that rule is the Skyliner, which has gained a significant cult following. For the next model year, the Skyliner was revised with quad headlights, the big new-wave feature of 1958, but its styling was arguably less appealing than the '57. Apparently buyers thought so, because sales dropped to just 14,713. More styling tweaks and an even more awkward name were the big changes for 1959. The car was called the Ford Fairlane 500 Galaxie Skyliner, but even with more names for the money sales fell yet again to 12,915.
By that time Ford execs were convinced the genie was out of the bottle as far as the Skyliner was concerned, so they pulled the plug on the expensive-to-build wonder. And so, in three short years the Skyliner retractable hardtop had run its course, proving yet again the wisdom of the old saying, just because you can do something, doesn't mean you should do something. But still, as the inspiration of countless school boy dreams, the Ford Skyliner reverberates through the decades as an example of American ingenuity taken to its illogical extreme.