Spaceship Skyliner

M any of us auto enthusiasts can point to a certain car or remember a moment that started a lifelong love with the automobile. How many of you can say that, 50 years later, that same car is sitting in a garage waiting for you?

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Our 1957 Skyliner has been part of the family since new. In this 1958 photograph, both my dad and I pose proudly with “The Retractable.”

    In 1957, our family’s ’53 Chevy was smoking pretty heavily, and my parents decided it was time to let her go. I would have to say my dad is a Chevy guy. Most of the cars that he has owned and that I have seen either in pictures or during my lifetime have been Chevrolets. But the all-new ’57 Fords caught his eye, as did most new-car buyers, since they outsold Chevrolet for the 1957 model year. That’s what brought my parents and me to Wyman Ford in Maplewood, N.J., one early autumn evening 50 years ago.

    I guess I was getting a bit antsy; four-year-olds tend to be like that. My then-pregnant mom was trying to settle me as she and my dad talked to the salesman. I can still remember her saying, “Watch what this nice car is going to do.”

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Nearly 50 years later, the car, my dad and I are together again for another photo opportunity.

    That’s when the world as I knew it stopped. This regular car was about to do something I had never seen before in my short life. The trunk lid opened backwards, automatically. I guess like the Great Oz behind the curtain, I never noticed the salesman pushing the button. But then the most amazing part happened ‘ the metal roof lifted itself into the air and disappeared into the trunk! All of this took a mere 60 seconds, and this ordinary car was now a sleek spaceship with no roof. I had seen the future, and it was called a Skyliner.

    A day or two later, we took our last drive back to the dealer in the prehistoric Bel Air and left in a rocket ship that would take us to the 1960s and beyond. We were the first on our block, and most likely the first and only family in our town, to own a Skyliner.

    That first ride in the Dresden Blue and Colonial White Fairlane 500, decked out in the “Styletone” two-tone paint scheme, was quite memorable also. When we crossed the dealer’s curb, not only did we experience the typical new-car depreciation, but since this was my dad’s first V-8, he left a bit of the rear tire right there on Springfield Avenue. How cool was that? This had to be a rocket ship!

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Watching my mom and dad cruising in the Skyliner with the top down is like seeing the future all over again.

    This was also Dad’s first car with power steering and power brakes. We learned quickly how touchy power brakes can be. Remember, back in ’57, there were no child seats or seatbelts. So I learned first-hand how momentum could push the front seat forward on sudden stops. But the car was equipped with Ford’s new safety features ‘ a padded instrument panel and sun visors.

    “The Retractable,” as we called her, was like a family member who arrived a few months before my baby sister. We all would share many fond memories of riding in this automobile, which, of course, was always the best in the summer. In the days before cars all had air conditioning, we would make my dad drive down the “cool street.” That was a tree-lined road where you could feel the temperature drop as we rode through the neighborhood. And if we were good, that ride always ended at a local ice cream stand.

    In the winter, we would load up the cavernous trunk with our suitcases and head to Florida for vacation. One really cold and icy winter, we started packing for our trip and found that the motorized screws that released the trunk lid had frozen. So we packed up our belongings in the rear seat, and the four of us rode in the front seat until we reached South Carolina. Try that in a car today. A little inconvenient, but we had the wind in our hair when we drove on the beaches of Daytona.

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My parents bought their 1957 Ford Skyliner brand new and used it as our family’s daily transportation for years, and now the two enjoy taking the restored beauty to vintage car shows.

    The Retractable was constantly an attention getter. People would always stop and watch, mesmerized when the roof was operating ‘ up or down. My aunt, who constantly bought Cadillacs, would complain that this Ford commanded more interest than her new Caddys.

    This was the family car until the mid ’60s. Then we bought a station wagon, another Chevy. But we didn’t part with The Retractable. She became the second car. The fast V-8 got tired, so Dad replaced it. And as cars of that era tended to do, it rusted out a bit. But Dad wasn’t going to let some body rot take her away. He replaced fenders and rocker panels and had her shinny parts re-chromed. During the process, he taught me about auto restoration and preservation and started another lifelong interest.

    When the slip covers that covered the long worn-out seat covers gave up, he replaced the interior. As it turns out, this car never had the correct interior which was unique to the retractable model. Through some research, we found this car was built on July 2, 1957 ‘ which was my fourth birthday. We assume that, since it was built late in the production year, they wouldn’t stop the assembly line if the correct interiors were no longer available. A regular two-toned blue Fairlane 500 interior was substituted. Some car buffs have said the interior is wrong for this car, but we know beyond a doubt this is the way it came from the factory. The new interior is the same pattern as the old; after all, that’s the way we know the car.

    So now, 50 years later, the car that instilled a lifetime of automotive passion is still sitting in my father’s garage. He keeps telling me to take it, and I will, some day, but I can’t do it yet. How can I? Somehow, when I see my mom and dad smiling as they drive with the top down, it’s the future all over agai

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