(first posted 10/31/2014) 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.
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 These were electrically operated, and the roof was retracted in one piece, thanks to the in-your-face windshield of the times which made a relatively short roof possible.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Since the top’s down, let’s poke around the interior, which is still very original indeed.
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 its automatics until…1963, IIRC. Can’t imagine why, except for the pennies saved.
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.
It’s a bit hard to read, but these are Swift-Sure power (drum) brakes. Isn’t that reassuring?
You’d think this all-important knob might have made it into the actual dashboard.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Those headlights. That rear. Not a fan. 56 Conty II retractable would have been interesting. That Pourtout 601 is gorgeous and has a proportionality unmatched until the SLK.
It’s a very clever design, but simply too complicated. And probably very heavy. As for style in model year 1957, NOBODY beat the ’57 Chevy Bel Air.
I think the Mopars got the jump on everyone in 57 but it is a matter of personal taste. I saw a 59 retractable in the flesh once, owned by a friend of a neighbour. The proportions looked wrong, but the 57-59 Fords looked so wrong anyway it only added about 20% to the wrongness. I agree it’s a clever design.
Actually, even GM thought the 1957 Chevy was ungainly. Hence the car’s relatively poor sales and GM’s decision to radically restyle in 1959 after a one model year 1958 design.
Most people agreed the Plymouth was the best styled – even today. It had by far the greatest sales increase – but that led to quality lapses.
Yep. I was really surprised by the sales jump for the 59 Ford that Paul posted in the comments here.
Definitely a case on ‘in the eye of the beholder’.
I almost feel like that generation Chevy makes it a shame they weren’t doing a present day-style 5-6 year design cycle with one facelift after the third year, so the ” ’55” would’ve been built unchanged through ’57 and the ” ’56” from 1958-60 before being replaced by the ’61.
Even the cleaver roof could not save such a boring looking car. “Suddenly we are back in 1955” ! Styling wise. Now if Chrysler had done this to the 57 Fury or Caddy to a 59 Deville. That all would have benn some thing.
By the way. SLKS are cheaper than old Mx5 in the UK. Auto only and cheaped out build quality keep the prices low.
57 Chevys are butt ugly. Make mine a 55
@Don Adraina – Absolutely. From some angles it’s ghastly, yet the ’57 Ford wagon wore that design really well. It’s my favourite wagon from that year. Maybe because the taillights and rear bumper look a lot more integrated with the wagon’s butt.
Right after the SLK, Europe had a revival for those retractable hardtops in the mid 00s. I’m thinking about Peugeot 206CC, Peugeot 307CC, Renault Mégane Coupé Cabrio, Open Astra Twin Top, Opel Tigra and even VW Eos and Mazda MX5. I’m missing a few ones and, although it’s a niche market, most of them are on sale.
– Renault Mégane CC: http://www.renault.es/gama-renault/renault-vehiculos-turismos/gama-megane/renault-megane-coupe-cabrio/ (sorry it’s in Spanish)
– Peugeot 308 CC: http://www.peugeot.es/descubrir/308/cc/ and 207CC http://www.peugeot.es/descubrir/207/cc/ (not yet the new 208)
– VW Eos http://www.volkswagen.es/es/models/nuevo_eos.html
You would think that cabrios would be huge in Spain but it is far too hot in summer to drive top off. These are more sensible: you are under an A/C cocoon or really protected under the rain. Fuel consumption also decreases when topped…
Don’t forget the Ford Focus CC, based on the secondgen Focus we never got.
I doubt even if we’d gotten the C1 Focus in America it’d have included that version – Ford hasn’t sold a non-Mustang convertible in the US since 1972.
Well, there was the retro Thunderbird and the Aussie Capri here and there and somewhere in between.
I’m too young to add value to the Skyliner storyline, but I can throw in some modern context. The Mitusbishi 3000GT Spyder would not exist if it were not for the initial work of Nissan. In 1991, ASC was contracted to create a convertible 300ZX to test market feasibility, and the result was the retractable hardtop you see here. The finished product debuted at the 1992 Geneva Motor Show, and used a naturally aspirated 2+2 platform. Quality was of the utmost importance; nearly every piece fabricated was to production specifications. Alas, likely due to the associated costs to return a profit, Nissan instead chose to build the soft-topped 2 seat version we are familiar with today. The development work financed by Nissan was not lost, however, as it was directly applied to Mitsubishi’s production 3000GT Spyder. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, as they say.
Saw one as a young mechanic. All I remember is thinking the boot (trunk) lid is this big, and the boot is that small.
Like a TARDIS in reverse.
This is one of the most incredible CC finds ever. An *unrestored*, working (mostly) Skyliner. This is probably the only one in existence.
Ten minutes later, riding in the back of our friends’ car, I saw a blue Cord 810 sedan crossing in front of us at an intersection. I was to polite/stupid to ask them to follow it. Later, the driver asked my why I didn’t ask him to do so. He would have enjoyed the chase, he said. Duh! I will never see a genuine CC Cord 810 again, and I let it slip away.
Which is of course the real reason I came out to the ACD Museum 🙂
She is mine 🙂 and the only unrestored one I have seen
Sweet looking Fairlane 500 Skyliner. I’ve always liked original, un-restored cars. There are some things I’d upgrade to make it safe to drive on a regular basis, but I’d keep as much of the car as original as possible. 🙂
Thanks! I have upgraded the ignition and brakes so far: everything else is original
Looking at it from a 2014 perspective, it seems like it should’ve been obvious to make the Ranchero a six-seater using the same body and roof stampings with a fixed, possibly pillared roof and opening tailgate (the latter would be welded shut on Skyliners as indeed was the case). I wonder if that even occurred to them back then?
For retractable fanatics, a trip to Denver’s Forney Transportation Museum [http://www.forneymuseum.org/] is in order. They’re got a restored ’57 that was rescued from a farmer’s irrigation ditch that has cut-outs in its rear quarter panels revealing all of the wiring and hardware that made the hard/soft top transition possible.
A friend’s father has one of these. I haven’t seen it in a long time, so I might be wrong about this, but I think it might still have its original paint job. It’s definitely not a trailer queen. Mr. S. also has a first-generation T-Bird.
When my friend got married, he was able to choose between Dad’s T-Bird and Dad’s Skyliner as the chariot he and his bride would use to depart the wedding reception. He, naturally, chose the far more exotic Skyliner. With the long, shimmering expanses of sheet metal, the baritone burble of the exhaust and the pungent smell of unburned hydrocarbons, the Skyliner made a lasting impression as it pulled away.
Very cool. Haven’t seen too many of these in photos before.
Great article, thank you! But the car that really caught my eye was the green ’57 Plymouth convertible. Beautiful car! It’s a pity Chrysler had so many build problems in that era.
I guess I’m one of those few folks who prefers a 57 Ford to pretty much any of it’s direct competition? I have never really focused attention on the front, or the side moldings or the rear 2/3rds view. I just see a car that LOOKS (whether it actually is) longer, lower, and wider than the 57 Chevy while at the same time it manages to look a bit conservative when compared to a Plymouth or Dodge…which to me look like teenaged girls wearing their Mom’s best dress and an overabundance of jewelry.
I’m not sure why but I think all the 57s look better in the middle trim levels with a minimum of chrome.
As for the Sunliner: you have to give Ford A LOT of credit for all the gutsy moves they have ever taken with their production cars.
I know I shouldn’t really, but I want one.
I saw a Skyliner at a show earlier this year and the scale of the thing just blows your (European) head away.
My wife has a Peugeot 207CC, which whilst a lot more compact than the Skyliner, has a 2 piece folding and retracting roof. Boot space is limited with it down and the back seat is nominal really. The screen comes a lot further over the passengers’ heads, so the roof can come more frequently. And it does!
Roger, if you get a Thunderbird you wouldn’t have to add as much onto your garage. 🙂
Great article Paul. It was great to see the videos of the retractable top working (eventually). Of the 1957-59 Fords, the 1957 has always been my favourite, although it is my least favourite of the 1957 low priced three. The retractable hardtops were cool, but the styling compromises to the rear end really hampered the cars looks. Still, I’d own one if I had the chance.
One American car with a retractable hardtop that wasn’t mentioned was the 1955-57 Gaylord. It used a one piece retractable hardtop and also used a rear opening trunk lid with the flush deck like the Ford. Sure there was very few produced but at least, unlike the Thunderbolt, there were some actually sold.
I can appreciate this unrestored car, but I really don’t understand the fascination by many to have a car in that rough shape. First off, it definitely is not original paint, and it may not even have the original drivetrain. So why keep it this way? Maybe the car doesn’t need a full frame restoration, but at least a refurbishment to return it to the original paint colour and some detail work would not only help the value of the car, but would help preserve it from further deterioration. I guess there are people who like to keep things original at all costs, even if it means the car is slowly deteriorating. I however, have always been about keep things maintained to the highest standard, while maintaining the most originality possible by refurbishing original parts.
Here’s a pic of a Gaylord for those interested:
It’s because I can’t afford to restore it right now: the drive train is original 312/auto. Paint was redone once in the 1960s I’m the second owner and I rescued it from a tow yard where it sat for 30 years. I got it running and back on the road and I am keeping it alive.
Ford did revive the hardtop convertible with their 2004 Lincoln Mark X concept car that was based upon the 2002-2005 T-Bird. I honestly think that at the 2002-2005 T-bird’s price point they should have offered it in a retractable hardtop guise.
I think the by far the best selling example of a retractable hardtop was the Pontiac G6. It could be had for a cheap enough price new and it was a nice driving car. Now that Pontiac is dead the cars are cheap to pick up used due to next to no resale value.
It thought the G6 convertible suffered from the same Big Butt syndrome that’s typical of the hardtop convertibles. Not quite as bad as the Clown Car version of the Lexus SC, but still ill-proportioned.
To me it does not look much different then the coupe an in fact when they first came out, I would mistake it for a coupe.
It kind of resembles the rear of the Toyota Solara
I think the fact that the G6 has a windshield that is so angled that the retractable roof is smaller.
Here is the G6 convertible
Here is the coupe
Wow, I have never seen one of these that has not received the full resto treatment. Great find. Funny, I can remember a time in the early 70s where the 57 Ford seemed to have as much “fabulous 50s” kind of appeal as the 57 Chevy. But that didn’t last long.
The 57 Ford styling is very interesting. That front is really its only weak spot (at least on models without retractable hardtops). Color seems to affect these more than average. This taxicab yellow does this car no favors. I recall reading that the heavy sculpting of the front fenders was a real stretch in metal stamping technology for the time.
It is so interesting that Ford built this. This seems like the kind of thing that would have come out of GM, or maybe even Chrysler during one of its manic stages. But Ford was, for the most part, that most conservative of car makers. As you say, for a very brief period in the later 50s, it went completely wild.
Ford was trying to burnish its reputation for engineering and innovation, which had seriously atrophied after the debut of the Flathead V-8. The early 1950s were spent catching up to GM (and, to a lesser extent, Chrysler, although Chrysler’s image was seriously hurt by its late adoption of an automatic transmission). During the early 1950s, Ford was first with ball-joint front suspension (a major advance) and suspended pedals (a nice but minor advance). But those weren’t the type of advances that caught everyone’s attention.
The Skyliner and the unit-body Lincolns and Thunderbirds were supposed to banish Ford’s reputation for engineering conservatism.
You can tell the original color was white.
And you can also tell it was re-painted in 1973 because that’s the year that mustard color became really fashionable.
I’d put 100 bucks on it! 🙂
Now that you mention it, I recall seeing a fair number of 1973 GM Colonnade intermediates in that shade. But it only lasted for a year or two.
I don’t know what is more sadder, the fact somebody came up with the idea Mustard yellow would be a good color to be on a car or the fact that it became popular with the car buying public.
In researching car colors for one make from 1973, they had a mere four shades of gold / mustard available. There were also that many shades of green. It was the white/silver of its time.
Bring back colours! Bring back colours!
And to combine your (Jason Shafer above) two tones you came up with, a combination of those two colors were quite popular – that color would be green-gold!
I’m with “Old Pete” below. Bring back those colors!
But you know, they already have!
Look around…once in a while you’ll see these muted mustard and olive tones on new cars.
Slightly darker tones, but the hues are very similar!
But back to my bet – I’ll give ya odds 5-1 it was re-sprayed in ’73!
When I was a kid back in the day we had a 57 Ford Fairlane 500 Town Sedan – in the same yellow but two-toned with brown with the gold mylar strip framed in chrome in between. It was a very popular color that year, especially on the convertibles. Our car had the exact same dash color as this Skyliner.
I still like the 57 Ford’s overall styling (have never liked the 57 Chevy) but there is no question of the abysmal quality of the Ford. They were total rust buckets – those trim pieces around the headlights went within a couple of years and body shops were kept busy replacing them. The cloth and vinyl upholstery in our car wore out quickly, the car rusted, paint faded, there were rattles everywhere.
Those sales figures for the Skyliner over three years don’t sound that bad for such a specialized, expensive (for the time) Ford. One of our neighbors (an older retired couple) in our small midwestern town bought a new 58 Skyliner – turquoise with a white top – and drove it for five years until they traded for a new 63 Impala hardtop coupe. Strangely enough they were attracted by the styling of the Skyliner’s roofline but virtually never lowered the top as they didn’t care to have wind in their hair. They loved the 63 Impala coupe’s “convertible-look” roof and bought it for the styling, too. Detroit stylists were doing a lot of different things in those days and for good reason as folks were responding to all kinds of looks and models (and colors!). As we say, probably too often, good times.
I’m having a hard time finding a ’57 color chart with mustard in it.
Maybe they did have that color, but since the car had an obvious color-change, and there being a possibility it was done 16 years later, I think a mustard yellow from the ’70s is MAYBE still not out of the question. 🙂
Every time I see a ’57 ford I think of the teen-splotation driver’s ed flick were there are two guys driving a worn out black and white ’57 Ford 2dr. hdtp. ending in a staged fatality.
I’m sure the ’57 ford was an ok car compared to the Big Three, but to me, chrysler had everyone beat with their “Torsion-aire” suspension.
I woulda waited another 3 years for the unibody construction.
Was originally white and brown. Repainted late 1960s
That “taxi cab yellow” appears to be “Inca Gold”, one of the factory colors.
Nicely done. Looks like that Inca Gold could be it!
LOVE the Coral Sand, and the pastel pink suits the era perfectly.
That’s it. Our car was Silver Mocha and Inca Gold.
Found a 57 in Silver Mocha and Inca Gold
Wow, CA Guy, pretty stylish. Paul may be right about the upholstery from the link he provided, but it still doesn’t look right to me. The Inca Gold was indeed very popular that year, I still have my promo model of a ’57 Fairlane 500 two-door hardtop in Inca Gold and Colonial White, I’ll have to post a picture of it, too late tonight. Interestingly, the 2005 Thunderbird reproduced the Inca Gold color, which looked a bit chartreusy green, it came near the end of the run and was not widely available so you never see it anywhere. That taxicab yellow on the featured model just doesn’t look right, the Inca Gold was much more muted. Maybe it was a near miss repaint somewhere along the line. I, too, never got the love for the ’57 Chevy, it was just another car to me, then and now. The Fords were so much more stylish. Ford must have made great strides in fixing the abysmal build quality of the ’57, I do not recall my parents having any particular issues with their ’59, but then, my dad sold it to a coworker in late 1962 with only 20,000 miles on it, when he bought the family ’63 Mercury Monterey Custom. I still remember my mom lamenting that “we don’t need a new car, the Ford only has 20,000 miles.” She was never on board with my dad’s penchant to trade cars every four years.
Was originally white and silver mocha. Repainted in the late 1960s (it’s mine)
I’m with ya Don, the feature car looks more mustardy to my eye.
I think the ’57 Chevs were ok, but only if you got the sleeker hdtp rooflines. (2dr. OR 4dr.)
The sedans – especially the 2dr. looked to stodgy in the roof are to me.
IMO the Chev’s didn’t catch up with the ’57 Ford’s sleek roofline until ’59.
But by then, Ford’s roof lines taking a whole new direction.
What interesting to me is how much the ’57 (& on up) retractable’s roof looks like the following year’s T-Bird. (Sorry if someone already said this).
Looks like they HAD to make it more coupe-like like a Thunderbird so it would cram itself down in between the qtr. panels!
Here in the Land of Salt, ’57 Fords of any flavor did not fare well. It is unheard of to find a car like this with its headlights still attached to the fenders. I remember my uncle’s ’57 with the lights duct taped on the car. It was probably only 3 years old.
This is a great find.
The Skyliner was an expensive investment which depended upon a customer need for an open car. What was once a necessity, died out as air conditioning and high speed express way driving, along with longer suburban commutes, made driving an open car undesirable for most.
The ambition at Ford was exposed as misdirected and costly. Today, from our richer and wealthier perches, we risk not really recognizing the gamble Henry Ford II took during the 1950s. Mimicking the GM 5-brand hierarchy was an incredibly foolish thing to do, but at the time, was considered a solid and viable expansion project. Ford blew through a billion, but customers failed to see a billion dollars worth of improvement in their Fords. Chairman Ford was a young man during this time and his namesake family company went through a decade of risky business that could only have been believed as realistic by an extremely rich young man living a life of royalty during a space age, atomic powered nation. He believed that between GM, Chrysler and Ford, and their success in eating the market share held by the many American Independent auto manufacturers after WWII, there was going to be more for him and more for his big 5-brand corporation. Killing off Packard, Hudson, Studebaker, and Nash meant there was room for Continental and Edsel, right alongside Ford, Mercury and Lincoln – right?
What killed the Skyliner was the realities of living twenty miles from a downtown office during a typical American summer, and not wanting to be beaten up and sunburned in an open automobile daily. During the Jet Age, we saw cars resembling air and space craft. Only in Oldsmobile ads, do we see folks riding in these futuristic contraptions exposed to the elements.
This is also the golden age of marketers. They liked the look of the open cars. Within a few years, most American cars were horizontal planes with lithe and barely there rooflines, held on by thin pillars. Naturally they would champion the idea that there was a market for an open top car that had a metal roof. In their dreams, that is. These mid-Century marketers would love nothing more than seeing Henry Ford II tilt at windmills, building a 5-brand corporation, which would then need them to market.
And naturally, after goosing the 1953 auto market with artificial sales and loan gimmicks, driving the Independent brands out of existence, there would be a market crash in 1957-1958. Reality, baby!
As for why the car didn’t sell better than it did, I would add that it was mostly looks. The car looked awkward, whether the top was up or down. The regular convertible was much more attractive if you liked a top down, and if you didn’t, the Fairlane 500 hardtop was much prettier. I have said before that the only pose that these look really good in was in mid-cycle with the deck up and the roof suspended in the air.
Cars like this one rely on being fashionable, and the Skyliner just didn’t really pull it off. The only payoff was “hey, lookie what my car can do” as everyone stared while the top went up or down.
In mid-cycle they make me think of a dog at a lamp-post with one leg in the air.
Many years ago, someone in Brooklyn,NY had a `58 version in baby blue and white.It was like a show when he made his car “flip its lid”. It attracted crowds,I thought it was as cool as hell,but the proportions of the car looked all wrong,especially with that out of shape rear quarter.Still, I wouldn`t mind having one.
Whenever you see one of these at a car show, they are almost always ‘posed’ with the top in the half-up/half-down position.
That’s probably for the best since in either fully closed or retracted position, the car does look odd. It’s almost the complete opposite of the much more attractive long-nose/short-deck styling that would become all the rage when that Falcon-based sporty car would hit the streets in the mid-sixties.
Does this retractable top make my butt look big?
These are kinda “damned if you do and damned if you don’t” regarding the Continental Kit, I’ve hardly ever seen one without it, but the rear end does look strange with the taller rear fenders and trunk area, so I imagine thats why you see many of these with a Continental Kit on them, but then, the Continental Kit is kinda ridiculous looking to, it has out riggers big enough for the Secret Service to stand on. The late 1958-1959 ones do a better job of making the bigger butt look a little more normal .
I think that one of the reasons that it never made it to the Continental was because they really couldn’t make it work with the Continentals styling without wrecking the good looks of the car?
That red and white `59 with the extended rear bumper and continental tire mount looks like a pick up truck with a bed cover, but that ain`t a bad thing.
Ugly, like all the modern retractables. I wonder how often stuff in that vast cavern of luggage space got crunched by a forgetful or clueless top-down.
Well there is another memory I had wrong. I remember this car very well but in my mind it was a 58. I owned a 57 Ford Fairlane 500. Had a neighbor who was a Navy Warrant officer who made a big splash coming home with one of these just before I left for the Navy. His was a 58. Even in a small town it did draw crowds. I still do not recall any 57 models except for the one in the article.
Good article and great research. Keep it up Paul.
The most intriguing thing about the Skyliner is it’s a reminder of the time Robert McNamara was Ford President. Although his Falcon was a smash hit (that would later be the basis for the most famous Ford in history, the Mustang), one wonders what impact expensive failures like the Skyliner and the whole five division foray had on McNamara’s decision to leave Ford and become JFK’s Scty of Defense. Although Hank the Deuce always called the shots, his massive ego undoubtedly meant he needed a scapegoat when things went south. Coupled with the ascension of the hard-charging Lee Iacocca, did McNamara see the writing on the wall?
From what I’ve read, McNamara was opposed to the creation of more divisions, and he was adamantly opposed to the Edsel, to the point that he told an advertising executive during the Edsel’s introduction that he had plans to “phase out” the car. So I don’t think that Henry Ford II would have held him responsible for those failures.
McNamara was probably not crazy about the 2 different Fords offered in 1957-58, either. Everyone remembers that Ford outsold Chevy in 1957, but forgets that it took two series of cars to do it – the 116 inch wb Custom and Custom 300 plus the 118 inch wb Fairlane and Fairlane 500. The smaller car was good for nearly 600K in sales in 57, and was much closer dimensionally to the Chevy. The smaller car was discontinued after 1958.
One of these times, I need to dig really deeply into the mystery that was compatability between the 57 Ford and Mercury bodies. The Skyliner plainly survived the heavy 1959 restyle, which has always looked to me like Ford appropriated the 1957-58 Mercury body, or at least large portions of it. Were those bodies designed with some common inner structures? After all Edsel used both bodies in its 58 models (the Ford for the lower two series and the Mercury for the upper two.)
Here’s the story according to Chase Morsey, who takes credit for the two-wheelbase plan:
“Bob, I have an idea of how we can get one up on Chevrolet: a longer wheelbase for our Fairlane series” I told him. “I think we can do it with some interchangeability in tooling”
McNamara smiled. “Chase, I don’t care how many wheelbases you’ve got.” he said. “As long as you bring it in within some kind of reasonable tooling budget, go for it.”
I almost fell out of my chair! I expected him to object………McNamara was very strict about budgets and usually frowned at any suggestion that might force a recalculation.
Fortunately, that was not necessary in this case. Engineering worked out a way to extend the wheelbase…without investing in completely new tooling.
Looking at the ’58 Mercury and ’59 Ford, one can find a lot of similarities, but some differences too, like the windshields. It’s a good question. Undoubtedly, these cars had some common design under the skin in any case.
I’m guessing that under the surface, the ’57-58 Merc was essentially a longer Ford. Just exactly what dies might have been re-used, with some changes, on the ’59 Ford is a good question.
Just to make a point about tooling budgets, I found (quite literally by accident) that the door shells for any 2 door ’59 Ford were the same. Mattered not if Skyliner, Convertible, 500 Hardtop, 300 Custom, Country Sedan. I thought that rather clever. Since the smaller Mercs were just up-trimmed Fords, I have to guess that this carried right over. GM played the same game, they just did a better job of hiding it.
McNamara also OK’ed the Continental/ Tbird programme that saved Lincoln in the early ’60s. I think he was the right man at Ford for the time in that he made a lot of unpopular decisions like killing the Reith plan, which ultimately secured Fords future.
He is hated for good reasons- the whole Vietnam fiasco had his fingerprints all over it-, but maybe if he had stayed a Ford for another five or six years the world might have been a better place….
Even with all its faults (ungainly angles, half-baked Y-Block, propensity to rust), I absolutely love Skyliners in particular and ’57 Fords in general). I would take one of these any day of the week over a ’57 Chevy, or almost any ’57 GM for that matter. Of course, the ’57 Chryslers were arguably better looking, but they have their own problems. I’ll take a black Skyliner with red interior and a 292 or a 312. Y-Blocks have a unique sound, even if they are a bit sketchy.
Of the Skyliners I have seen over the years, the ’59 was always the most frequently spotted, followed by the ’57. The ’58s are few and far between.
In ’99 or ’00 I attended a classic car auction where I was living at the time. On my way in, I briefly spoke with a guy in the parking lot who was raising the roof of his ’59 Skyliner. It’s condition was comparable to this one.
Of the ’57 to ’59 generation, the ’59 has always been my favorite. Finding this ’57 was quite the catch indeed.
I dont expect that Ford has ever stated how the sales compared to their goals or even if the project made money with nearly 40k sales, which doesnt seem bad. The halo effect driving showroom traffic surely is not insignificant either.
As an historical item the world is a slightly more interesting place with its novelty. The proportion of the car is more like the 1920-30s coupes that had rumble seats.
As for the 1957 Ford I’ve said before I am not disappointed that Ford Australia kept on with the more handsome 55-56 model. The styling is heavy handed and clumsy in many elements.
As an aside, Ford Australia built half a dozen retractable hardtop Falcons for the 1963 Miss Australia pageant. They were actually based on utes as the rear seats were not neede, just a ‘parade’ perch on the rear decklid. Not to mention it was before the hardtop debuted, and 2-door sedans werent built down under. I dont think any are known to have survived.
Theres a yellow Skyliner cruising locally complete with bumper turd rear shots are on the cohort the guy does roof demonstrations at car shows its very cool in a way the Peugoet CCs cant really match.
I was always a fan of these retracs, for a ten-year old when they came out, they were such a tour de force to watch in operation, and embodied the late-50’s space agey theme to a “T.” I do like the look of the 59’s the best, but count me as prejudiced since our family car then was a new ’59 Galaxie Club Victoria hardtop. They were oddly proportioned in the rear, as you note, much like a “Ranchero with a bed cover,” an apt description. I don’t think that upholstery can be original, looks like it came out of a 70’s Oldsmobile or some such. It is not at all like the upholstery in our Galaxie, which was fabric interwoven with metallic threads, and a different sew style.
I have frequently noticed a ’57 Skyliner in daily use around Palm Desert near where I live, it is black, either restored or in fabulous shape, an elderly gentleman is always driving it. Saw it parked at Trader Joe’s recently, too, it is indeed a very large car. Nice to see the old girl soldiering on, and it still has great presence.
Don, the 59 upholstery you describe sounds very similar to that in our 57 Fairlane (mentioned above). I had forgotten the interwoven metallic threads until I read your post. Given the identical color dash of our car and the subject Skyliner (matched to the same yellow exterior color), I also assumed the subject car’s upholstery was all wrong.
I always think of Perry Mason when the 57 Skyliner comes up as it was featured in many early episodes of the series – much to my delight as a kid since the cars were so rare in the midwest at the time.
All the details of ’57 Ford interior colors and fabrics are available here: http://1957ford.com/interior/int1.htm
The Skyliner fabric was unique to it.
When I moved to California in the fall of 1970 , I got a job working with a die hard Ford Man who’d had a ’59 Skyliner when he married so we set about collecting a full set of them ~ in those days decent daily drivers were about $350 ~ we bought a couple for $50 or $75 from junkyards as those years (’57 ~ ’59) of Fords were worthless , no one wanted any crash parts .
The nearly pristine pink & white ’59 came from a junk yard and had ” NO GOOD ” written in yellow paint with nice cursive , the paint was a bit chalky so he just left it on there .
His wife was an Telephone Information (‘Directory Assistance’) Operator and would drive it to work , stop at Union and Lake streets and lower the top , stopping all traffic .
You had to have the car perfectly level side to side else the weight of the top rubbed the guides and stalled it .
Good cars apart from the poor handling and 10 turns lock to lock steering .
I rather liked the looks of the ’57 Fairlanes and had a few plus a ’57 Ranchero with a T Bird 4BBL V-8 engine that ran like stink .
Fun times , thanx for the memories .
This is probably the best CC find ever. I never would of imagined there would be a Skyliner still on the road, and with a fully functioning top, in this kind of condition. It would almost be a shame to fully restore it.
As for the styling, I thought Ford had the edge for 57. The Forward Look Chryslers had some clean and modern styling touches, but overall looked bloated to me. The Chev looked good, but not nearly as good as the previous two years. The Ford’s bumpers are really poorly integrated though.
May 1957 ad:
The Skyliner is fairly neat I think, otherwise I can’t say I have much fondness for the 57 Fords. The Plymouth and Chevy I liked since I was a little kid, though the latter I now prefer the 55 by miles, unless it’s a 150 post with the ’55 style moldings(very underrated compared to the busy/tacky BelAir hardtop IMO), but I didn’t like the 57 Ford then and I don’t like it now. 55/56s are miles more attractive.
I just cannot warm up to the styling on the 57 and 58 Fords….The 57 and 58 Chevies look much better in my opinion…However the 59 Ford looks nicer than the 59 Chevy……I was brought home from the hospital after I was born in my Dad’s 59 Ford Fairlane with 223 six and 3 speed manual….He sold it in 1966 with over 150,000 miles and alot of rust on it……He traded it in on a nearly new 1965 Impala 4 Door hardtop….another memorable car in the family….
It’s current state of Inca Gold and primer doesn’t bother me one bit.
But full wheel disks and blackwall tires does.
Throw some wide whites on that sucker!!!
I’d at least pop the wheel covers off until then.
So if the Inca Gold is a factory color why is the underside of the hood and trunk as well as the inner rear fenders white?
Because it was painted after the fact.
Could’ve been painted at the dealer when it was new, or much later.
Plus since it has been repainted, we have no absolute proof that it is actually Inca Gold – though it is a very good guess. Years of fading makes it more difficult to be sure 100%.
With much respect to members knowledge here, I still maintain a slight possibility of an early ’70s mustard color repaint – especially given it’s original color of white. But ya never know!
Count me in as a Skyliner fan. 🙂
Make mine Coral Sand and Colonial White, to match Dad’s ’57 two door hardtop.
Grownup PRNDL still approves in 2020! Thanks for rerunning this post. 🙂
She’s my car… Originally white and silver mocha… I’m the second owner and saved it from the tow yard it sat In for 30 years. I went to look at a two door hard top and the man thought it was just a boring old coupe so I scooped her up and took her home. Got the original 312 running, replaced the brakes and shocks, new tires, cleaned the fuel system and radiator and she’s been on the road since I got her in 2013. One of the first 250 built (no Skyliner name on the roof) power seat, brakes and steering. Padded dash and visors also (safety package) she will be restored someday when I can afford it. As for now I just am keeping her alive and on the road
Well done sir on saving a cool old car. I can relate to your situation in its restoration as I saved my grandfather’s 1968 Plymouth Fury VIP in a field in 2009 and I’ve had it back on the road since 2010 and drove it as recently as yesterday. Like you, my budget isn’t large so getting the car back to its former glory has been a very slow process but the car is very much alive and a pleasure to drive.
Thanks also for the history of the car and its late 1960’s repaint, which seems to have surprisingly gone unnoticed by all the people speculating on it in the earlier comments.
Just bought a ’57 Skyliner last month, and do enjoy it. Have always loved the ’57, and found this Skyliner and couldn’t resist. I live in OH., and the car came from TX. Does need some mech.work, but looks real good. It is “Dresden Blue”, and white.
This triple yellow job is no holdout from Alaskan winters, and has loads of potential to someone that recognizes there is no substitute for originality, not even bondo.
Is there room to talk here?
This writeup is fascinating. It predated my learning of the great CC site. I am still going back and reading 2012-13 articles, having browsed some of 2011’s.
I have seen a Skyliner roof go up and down, at a show and shine car show. What a magnificent display, with all those mechanical parts doing their thing. The one I saw had been restored so it went rather smoothly.
I can’t say whether my Dad would have gotten a Plymouth in ’57 if he had been car shopping, but I know he would never have bought a Ford. He was dead set against them. However I admire this Skyliner, but I love that shot of the 1959 Galaxie in the article above.
I attempted to show, on this simple photo shopped picture, that the rather ugly Continental kit with the extended rear bumper, can be made to look much better – although I prefer the Skyliners to not have them. I mean, the car already has one of the largest rear ends ever, so why would you add another foot onto the overhang?
You know, I remember when these cars were new, and you never saw one with the Continental kit. Now, it is hard to find one without a Continental kit. Must be something in the water! For some reason, people today think that it was a 50s thing, but they were very rare and usually sort of a no class high roller type of person who would have one back in the day. Many people nowadays think that you need every possible accessory available, all on one car – not limited to police spot lights.
But anyway, a Continental kit that would have only the bumper area around the spare tire extended – like the 1958 Impala or 1956 Tbird, would at least be more practical and give the car a cleaner and more unified look.
Just now wondering who at Ford thought of the couple inches wide chrome trim strip at the base of the sail panel? Where did the idea come from, and why? This became a thing on 1958 Thunderbirds and all the later Fords with the “Thunderbird” roof, but not on the Mark II Continental or later Lincolns, or the Mustang either.
Another big butt metal top convertible was the more recent Chrysler Sebring/200, although more in height and shape than length. For whatever limitations those cars had they were certainly a great budget alternative in a metal top convertible with an actual back seat, half the price of a BMW. I drove the previous two generations of Sebrings a lot at work and they seemed OK. From Wikipedia, it seems like the last gen ones were on a platform shared with the Mitsubushi Galant, but actually developed by both Chrysler and Mistubushi and kinda similar to the previous ones. And the PT/Neon were on a smaller version.
Anyone looking for a modernish successor to the Skyliner can find a very low mileage 200 in 2020 for about $12-15K.
Yankee ingenuity at its finest.
The way the trunk cover was at a 90 degree angle for so long reminded me of the Beverly Hillbillies when Jethro took a date to the drive in and the power convertible top got stuck in the upright 90 degree position.
First off: Thanks for the picture of the Peugeot 601. I have looked high and low on the internet for pictures of the Peugeot retractable hardtops and have had little success. This is a fine picture of one. I always admire the Skyliner for its novelty albeit the inconvenience for luggage with the top down. It’s clean lines when the top is down is attractive.
I’m glad this wasn’t an option on an Edsel, a super-finned Cadillac, a ’58 Oldsmobile or Buick, or a Packardbaker. It would have been just too much chrome, ugly, sci-fi, finned road beast to also have Skyliner option on those. Fortunately, the oddly shaped Ford line was the recipient of this. If it wasn’t for the Skyline, the Fords of 1957, 1958, and 1959 wouldn’t have had the canonization they’ve had. These Fords needed some help and the Skyliner gave it to them.
Any car with a Continental Spare kit hanging a yard off its butt, clearly shows that adding length to any seriously designed automobile is a visual disaster. So the Skyliners have this problem as well. Worse, there isn’t a trunk in that humongous butt, is there? The Skyliner tries too hard to do its amazing trick and sacrifices appearance.
A Skyliner is like the circus clown on stilts – a neat trick, but also a bit disturbing.