Sonoma Historic Motorsports Festival
Saturday June 2, 2018
Over fifty years ago, in mid-model year 1957, Ford introduced the first ever large-scale production of a hardtop convertible, the Fairlane 500 Skyliner. The brainchild of Ford engineer Gil Spears, the concept was originally intended for the 1956 Lincoln Continental, but the skyrocketing retail on the Continental prohibited adding the retractable hardtop feature, so the idea was picked up by the Ford division instead. In 1957, Ford was on a roll, finally beating Chevrolet in sales for the first time in decades by a substantial 10 percent margin, so there was money flowing for product development. The Skyliner contributed to that landmark success, not only by garnering 20,766 sales, but also by drawing large crowds into the Ford showrooms to witness this engineering marvel in action. Even then-President Dwight D. Eisenhower had to have a sleek, modern Skyliner in his garage. Not only was the styling exciting, but the promise of new “Dream-car” technology pushed Ford to new sales heights.
While the concept of a retractable hardtop vehicle can be traced all the way back to the 1934 Peugeot 601 series, it took Gil Spear, head of Ford’s Advanced Design Studio, to perfect the idea, and present it to the buying public. Ben Smith, a young engineer formerly working for GM, was tasked with the mechanical design of the retractable, and given just 18 months to perfect it. He designed a system of electric motors and servos that was a marvel in the day, allowing the driver to raise or lower the top without leaving their seat, with 100% operation at the push of a single button. Maybe even more important, the car looked sleek and proper with the roof either up or down. The project was a success, and no less that Robert McNamara himself became the retractable’s strongest advocate, and he personally made the decision to give the novel roof mechanism to Ford rather than the Continental.
The 284 Fairlane 500 Skyliner Retractable Hardtops to leave the Kansas City, Missouri plant were Ford’s most expensive car in 1957 with a base price of $2,942, and to this day, they create a sensation wherever they go. This beautiful black Skyliner is powered by a 352 cubic inch V8 engine, mated to the Ford-O-Matic transmission. In addition to wire wheel covers and fender skirts, the car features power steering, power brakes, and dual mirrors.
The 50’s were heady times for Ford Motor Company – sales were growing to challenge GM, there were other exciting cars like the 2 seat Thunderbird fresh on the market, and Ford’s leadership was pushing the design envelope on all fronts. Collectors in the know consider 1957 to be the most desirable year for the Ford Retractable. They have been steadily moving up in value, and always stop people in their tracks when they see the car’s hardtop disappearing before their eyes.
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