Curbside Classic: 1957 Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner – Reaching For The Sky (With Video)

Ford 1957 Skyliner still

The years 1956-1958 were the most ambitious ever for the post-war Ford Motor Company, with a bold and expensive assault on GM.  By expanding into five separate divisions (Ford, Edsel, Mercury, Lincoln and Continental), Ford hoped to attack the General on all fronts, regardless how well entrenched the enemy was. Whereas the efforts with the mid and premium divisions turned into a high-priced disaster, the Ford brand’s 1957  attack on Chevrolet was much more successful, outselling Chevy on the strength of all-new 1957 cars. No model better reflected Ford’s unbridled ambitions that year than their retractable hardtop, the Skyliner.

 

Peugeot 601 Eclipse_1934_Pourtout

Like so many other avant garde automotive developments, the retractable hardtop had its production origins in France. Designer Georges Paulin came up with the idea, and coach builder Pourtout, starting in 1934, built a number of different versions, mostly on Peugeot chassis (a 601 shown here), as well as a Hotchkiss, including even a four-door version. These were electrically operated, and the roof was retracted in one piece, thanks to the in-your-face windshield of the times which made a relatively short roof possible.

Chrysler 1941 Thunderbolt-DV_13-EAH_08image: conceptcarz.com

The 1941 Chrysler Thunderbolt show car, undoubtedly a response to Harley Earl’s pioneering 1938 Y-Job, was designed by Alex Tremulis and Ralph Roberts, and first applied the retractable hardtop to an American car. Six were built, and most ended up in private hands.

Continental MKII side

In his book, The Man Who Saved the V8,  Chase Morsey Jr., who was the manager of Ford (brand) Product and Management, writes that he became aware of the retractable roof program in 1954, intended for the 1956 Continental Mark II. It had been under development since 1952, supported by a Continental study that found that customers that could afford the Mark II would be willing to pay a 30% premium for a retractable hardtop. In the end, the retractable MKII program was scuttled; probably just as well, given all the losses that Ford took on that ambitious project.

Morsey claims he had already been thinking about a retractable hardtop, and was excited about adapting it to the new 1957 Ford. When a prototype Ford was shown to Robert McNamara in November of 1954, he was enthusiastic about it too, and soon green-lighted it for production.

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Given the more modern location of the windshield further forward, Ford had no choice but to add a folding front section of the roof, otherwise the trunk of the Skyliner would have been absurdly long. As it is, its elongated and elevated rear end give the Skyliner less than favorable proportions, looking more like the also new-for-1957 Ford Ranchero with a rigid bed cover.

Compared to the conventional 1957 Ford Sunliner convertible, the Skyliner added three inches in overall length, 380 lbs in weight, and $337 in base price. Its $2942 starting price was $603 (26%) more than a Fairlane 500 hardtop coupe,  and comparable to a Buick Special Riviera convertible.

It was a complicated affair, with seven motors, eight breakers, ten relays, thirteen switches, and 610 feet of wire. But it turned out to be a fairly robust contraption, although certain issues like ground faults and such are common enough. But they can be kept going, as this one that I happened to come across at a trail head near San Jose, CA. shows, although with a few delays.

And I apologize for my historically incorrect soundtrack to a fellow hiker: this was not the first car ever with an electric retracting hardtop. I left out the adjectives American, as well as production. But explaining the Peugeot and Thunderbolt didn’t seem to make sense at the moment. Anyway, I was too much in awe of this beast going through the motions that it first learned 57 years ago, even if it was a bit arthritic.

This encounter was back in last spring, so I’m also a bit fuzzy on some of the details. The owner had bought it not too long before, and it is obviously very original and had been stored for some time. He’s planning to fix it up bit-by-bit, but I’m rather sorry to imagine it eventually getting properly restored, as there probably aren’t many functioning Skyliners in this kind of condition anymore. And you know how I am about originality, authenticity and patina.

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If I remembered it right, this is a 292 CID Y-block, the standard engine in the Skyliner. The 312 CID versions of the Y-block were optional, and I seem to remember the owner saying something about having one of those in reserve to swap in. Or did he say this was a 312 that had been swapped in but he still had the original 292? Or none of that? Sucks to get old.

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Since the top’s down, let’s poke around the interior, which is still very original indeed.

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1957 was the last year for the original Fordomatic being the only automatic available. In 1958, the new Cruise-O-matic (MX/FX) appeared, which started in first gear unlike the Fordomatic, which started in second unless Lo was selected. Ford used this crude exposed shifter for it’s automatics until…1963, IIRC. Can’t imagine why, except for the pennies saved.

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This Skyliner lets everyone know that it has Master-Guide Power Steering. Maybe this name will make a comeback when Ford builds an autonomous car: Master-Guide Automatic Steering.

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It’s a bit hard to read, but these are Swift-Sure power (drum) brakes. Isn’t that reassuring?

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You’d think this all-important knob might have made it into the actual dashboard.

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Some compromises were necessary to make it all fit, like the big butt on the back. Meanwhile, the rear seat back looks a bit thin, seems to have an unnatural upright rake, and the lower cushion looks a bit shorter too. I would assume that legroom in the back was somewhat less than on the regular convertible. I’m sure it was a tough tug of war between roof length and interior space.

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I’m going to stick mostly to the Skyliner here, as the subject of the ’57 Ford is one we haven’t really taken on yet here, and I have a nice sedan for the purpose. The ’57 were all-new, and Ford wisely took a somewhat more conservative route with fins than did Chrysler. The ’57 has many admirers, and although I can see their charms from some angles, I’m not really a big fan. Starting right with its front bumper.

Plymouth 1957 conv

Although the ’57 Chrysler fins (Plymouth shown here) were a bit over-the-top, it was generally a more cohesive, cleaner and more advanced design job than the Ford. The Ford’s deep body sculpting has not held up well over time. Its rather a lumpy and heavy-handed thing.

Speaking of not holding up well, both of these all new cars were disasters in terms of both initial build quality and longer term survivability. They both dinged the reputations of their makers, Chrysler (typically) getting hit harder for that. Meanwhile, the stylistically obsolete but extremely well put together ’57 Chevy became known as the go-to used car in the following year or two, cementing early its eventual canonization.

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The Ford front end is pretty iffy too, especially the headlights suffering from Grave’s disease. Plymouth handled the bumpers much better. My choice in 1957? A well-cared for 1955 Chevy, please.

Ford 1957 Skyliner top up

It’s not going to spoil the ending by telling you that the Skyliner (obviously) wasn’t a lasting success. But it did leave a lasting legacy in its roof, but as permanently affixed to the lower body half, not in its ability to levitate.

Ford 1959

That coupe roof-line reappeared with a lengthened sail panel (C Pillar) on the 1958 Thunderbird, and then in closer to Skyliner-form on the 1959 Galaxie hardtop coupe. It found a home on the 1962 Falcon Futura and Fairlane 500 coupes, as well as in variations on the big Fords through the first half of 1963. The 1965 Fairlane was the last, although arguably, the Thunderbird carried it on in evolutionary form for some time.

Of course, the ’56 Mark II had a somewhat similar formal roof, harking back to the original Continental’s convertible roof, so the basic lineage goes back some time.

Lancia Aurelia B56 Florida3

But the way Ford “frenched” the rear window for the ’58 Thunderbird and the ’59 Galaxie was undoubtedly inspired by Pininfarina’s 1955-1957 Florida series of sedans and coupes. And if you wonder why I’m not so wild about the ’57 Ford, here’s one reason, among others. Wouldn’t this have made the basis of a fine Continental sedan in 1956? And with suicide doors, already, but with a full hardtop.

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Back to reality. And a bit of a painful one, from this angle, starting with that bumper, again. Oh my. Hello Pinin! We need some help here with our bumpers…Ford was just getting a head start on its famous shelf bumpers in the five mile bumper era.

Ford 1957 skylinr conti

There, like this one, thanks to the inevitable aftermarket Conti kit, which on a Skyliner does nothing but accentuate its already rear-heavy proportions. It really needs a front-mount spare kit instead.

Ford 1957 Skyliner trunk

If it was an attempt to improve the Skyliner’s iffy luggage capacity, then I suppose it makes a bit of sense, but that would have required some surgery, as the spare resided under the floor, the gas tank having been moved to right behind the rear seat.

Ford 1957 Skyliner-01

The Skyliner was introduced in February of 1957 and didn’t go on sale until April, the first one handed over to President Eisenhower on the 14th of that month. Despite the short sales year, 1957 turned out to be the best one for the Skyliner, with 20,760 sold.

Ford 1959 Skyliner

Sales dropped substantially, to 14,713 in 1958, undoubtedly a combination of the recession that year and a quickly-fading interest in the latest automotive novelty. In 1959, 12,915 Skyliners still found buyers, but after that, the lid was put on the Hide-Away Hardtop idea for good. And regarding this ’59, why does anybody think this is a good idea? It looks like a genetic mutation. Maybe that white rear deck lid should have helipad markings.

Mitsubishi 1994 3000GTspyder

After a long wait, the lid was opened again when Mitsubishi revived the idea in 1994 with the 3000 GT Spyder, the top being designed and built by ASC. Barely more than a thousand were built in its two year run.

Mercedes SLK  Klasse-Concept-1994-Photo-02

That same year, Mercedes showed its SLK concept. Technology had improved in those intervening years to the point where it was feasible and economical, in addition to the concept’s intrinsic benefits. And of course there’s a whole number of folding hardtop cars nowadays. The SLK went into production in 1996.

Lincoln 1961 conv top

But Ford’s investment was not totally wasted, as parts of it were recycled on the 1961 Lincoln Continental and Thunderbird convertibles, resulting in a totally sleek top-free appearance when the top was stowed under the trunk lid.

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Although it took thirty five years for the concept to reappear, one could argue that the Skyliner was really just fifteen or twenty years too soon. The big American convertible took a dive in the early-mid seventies, due to threats of possible regulation but mostly because of the acceptance of air conditioning. Let’s face it, who wants to face a freeway commute on a hot and humid summer day? But to pop the top on a beautiful spring or otherwise mild day is always an appealing pleasure, if the compromise isn’t too great. Would a 1972 Skyliner have fared any better?

Probably not. The big convertible was only slightly further along in its eventual demise than the big coupe. Or big car, period.

So another one of Ford’s ambitious gambles during the 1956-1958 period was a bust. Robert McNamara oversaw the retrenchment of Ford after the Edsel and Continental fiascoes. The assault on GM’s mid-premium brands was essentially called off, and Ford turned its attention to less extravagant undertakings, like the pragmatic and unflashy1960 Falcon.

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Ford had reached for the sky and got burned. It would be a few years before they were willing to take another gamble, one that was a bit more earthbound. But memories are short, and by the late 1990s, Ford was ready for a similarly expensive undertaking, this time on the global luxury car market. But the PAG adventure was no more successful than the late fifties assault on GM’s premium brands. One Ford; the fallback stance. Until the next time, anyway.

 

Related reading:

The Man Who Saved the V8  (book review)

CC: 1957 Ford Ranchero – The First Respectable Truck

Pininfarina’s Revolutionary Florida: The Most Influential Design Since 1955