Who hasn’t yearned for the wide open views of a convertible paired with the weather-tight safety and security of a hardtop? When the Ford Motor Company offered us both in the same car it should have been a big hit. But . . . yeah.
When someone mentions the “Ford Skyliner” most folks (of a certain age?) think of the retractable hardtop of 1957-59. Few, however recall its predecessor – the hardtop with the acrylic roof. Fewer will remember that Mercury made a version called the Sun Valley. Did anyone know that Ford of Canada got in on the act with the Monarch Lucerne Sun Valley? I didn’t either, until I saw this car.
Few objects influenced the design of the American car of the 1950s more than the fighter planes from WWII and beyond. Tailfins were the first major design feature to come from wartime aircraft, but another theme captivated stylists of the immediate postwar years – the Plexiglas canopy.
Let’s get one thing out of the way. While I have flown a few airplanes, I have never been in a fighter plane. I could only imagine how inhospitable the old open cockpit planes of WWI and the decade that followed it might have been. The air gets mighty cold up there as you get farther away from the earth’s heat. And it can be mighty wet as well. A non-shattering canopy must have seemed like the best idea ever once the material became available.
Clear acrylic (Polymethyl methacrylate or PMMA) seems to have been discovered in 1928 by Otto Rohm of Rohm & Haas, AG of Germany. The material continued under development through the 1930’s and became known under several trade names including Plexiglas (Rohm & Haas) and Lucite (DuPont). The material was a natural for shatterproof aircraft enclosures and were employed extensively in modern aircraft designs as early as the mid 1930’s.
As an aside, Rohm & Haas was a unique company in that the German and American operations had been in a kind of partnership since before 1910. World War I forced some separation in ownership of the two companies but Otto Rohm in Germany and Otto Haas in the US continued to work closely together even as the Nazis took control in Germany. Though Plexiglas had been developed in Germany, Haas was able to bring the product to the U.S. by travelling to Germany around 1934. Working closely with Rohm, he committed the process to memory before returning to Philadelphia to begin American manufacturing. Plexiglas may be the one brand-name product that supported the efforts of both the Axis and Allied powers simultaneously, by two related but separate companies.
Although there had been some isolated uses of acrylic in automobiles, such as Raymond Loewy’s custom 1941 Lincoln Continental that used the material for a removable roof panel, the stuff really got popular in the 1950’s.
Is there anything more evocative of the fighter jet than an acrylic canopy? The stylists in the major automotive studios didn’t think so either, and the clear acrylic roof became a feature of more and more experimental cars.
At the Ford Motor Company of the early 1950’s, none of those one-offs got more exposure than this pair: the 1953 Ford X100 . . .
. . . and Lincoln XL500. Both cars seem to have provided plenty of design ideas for future Ford cars, but the clear roofs were the most noticeable feature on both. The cars got wide publicity in the motoring press and were the first of several show cars built using the material as both windows and roof.
It seemed only natural that the biggest “Wow Factor” of the popular dream cars should make it into the showroom, and an energized Ford Motor Company was ready to oblige by the fall of 1953.
Entering its final year of a three year cycle, the 1954 Mercury (and Ford, for that matter) offered plenty of excitement to keep things fresh. There was the new OHV V8, the first time Mercury was not powered by an engine design that predated the marque. There was also a new ball joint front suspension which would set the standard in front suspension design for years. But as heavily touted as these features might have been it was the fabulous see-through roof that grabbed attention.
Automotive applications for acrylics were undoubtedly eagerly pursued, as demand for the product dropped substantially with the end of the war. Rohm & Haas was the market leader in the field so it should be no surprise that the company was happy to work with Ford to bring this new must-have idea to production cars. Which confirms that these cars used genuine Plexiglas (Capital P, single s) for their see-through roof panels.
Sometimes called “bubbletops”, these new models were promoted heavily by their respective Divisions. Unfortunately, the concept went flat pretty quickly with sales that started off modestly and quickly tapered off from there.
Up north Ford of Canada had been keeping pace with developments in the lower 48. The Ford and Mercury offered in Canada were little different from those offered in the US. However, owing to Canada’s uniquely sparse dealer coverage, Mercury dealers got to sell a Ford clone called a Meteor while Ford dealers got to sell an imitation Mercury called a Monarch. And it seems that each of them got a version of about everything their American cousins offered – including the bubbletops.
Taken all together, the Ford was, of course, the most popular. 13,144 Ford Crestline Skyliners found owners in 1954. Mercury replied with 9,761 Sun Valleys – not a bad showing for the brand that was Ford’s perennial underachiever.
The Meteor Skyliner sold in far fewer numbers than either of the Americans, at just 385 units. And the Monarch Lucerne? You ask an excellent question. I have not been able to find an online source for this figure. We know that only 3,542 Monarch Lucerne four-door sedans left the plant. We are left to the approximate figure provided by this car’s seller, which is that this fewer than 200 were built and that only 10 are known to exist.
Who knew that four separate bubbletop cars were available for purchase in Canada in 1954? I have not found a breakdown of Canadian sales of the two American versions, but they were undoubtedly quite low. After all, the Ford Heritage website tells us that in 1953-54 Monarch actually outsold Mercury in Canada. The demand for unobstructed views of the maple leaves must have been more restrained than first thought.
If we also consider the fact that Canadian buyers of the day tended to gravitate towards lower priced cars than did their American neighbors, it should have been no surprise that these expensive cars with see-though roofs would lay a Canadian goose egg. Although Canadian pricing information is scarce, the American Mercury version was priced at $2,582, a premium of nearly $200 over the convertible and $350 over the regular hardtop.
There was, however, one reason that dwarfed all the others as an explanation for these cars’ low sales numbers. Two words: solar gain. This is the engineering concept that explains why the inside of your car gets blazing hot after sitting in the sunlight. Hint – the more window area, the more the inside of your car resembles a blast furnace on a sunny day.
The cars attempted to resolve the thermal problem by giving the acrylic roof panels a deep green tint to cut down on solar heating. And midway through the model year a zippered interior sun shade was offered by Mercury (and very likely the others) which would probably have been highly effective – at reducing the interior temperature to “bake” or “roast” instead of full “broil”.
And while the cars thoughtfully offered accessories like door handle fingernail guards and tissue dispensers, there was one feature that was not found on the options list of any of these bubbletops in 1954 – air conditioning.
It would be reasonable to expect that Canada’s cooler climate might have been a more natural habitat for this car’s central concept. Wouldn’t Canadians appreciate natural warmth so much more than we who are spoiled with an overabundance of the stuff? However, it would also be reasonable to assume that the non-insulated Plexiglas made the car a challenge to keep warm on the cloudy days and cold nights associated with winter in Canada. Perhaps if more advertising emphasis had been placed on the allure of a panoramic view of a snow storm there might have been more demand.
One seldom-seen option that did make it onto this Monarch was the rear window wiper. Which of our readers has ever seen one of these before? It was certainly new to your scribe, who suspects that this must be one of the very earliest examples of this feature.
The past two years have found fellow CCer Jim Grey and I in attendance at a Cars & Coffee event held at Gateway Classic Cars on the northwest side of Indianapolis. I first saw this car there last year and was delighted to see it again a couple of months ago, allowing me to take more pictures.
Is the, er, aggressive price the reason the car continues (as of this past June, anyway) to find a home? I wonder if this Canadian expat would find more hospitality in its native land. And perhaps a price in the mid $30k range is not all that aggressive after all, given the combination of rarity and apparent originality. The eventual buyer will certainly not see a dozen others at every show the car enters.
Ford and Mercury carried the see-through roof into 1955, producing 1,999 Crown Victoria Skyliners and 1,787 Sun Valleys. The Crown Victoria Skyliner was back for 1956, a decision that netted another 603 cars.
And it should come as no surprise that neither of the two Canadian lines continued with the model beyond 1954.
The Ford and Mercury versions of this car have long made for an interesting footnote in the wild story that is American cars of the 1950’s. The Canadian versions of these bubbletoppers have received very little attention. They provide, however, possibly the most fascinating part of this tale. Did Canadian buyers fail to appreciate the style-setting advances in a climate that made these cars more attractive? Or did they just exhibit more practical common sense than we Americans by avoiding this unique kind of northern exposure?