By Brian Earnest
Jerri Seavolt was always a little leery about ponying up for one of the cars he really wanted — a Ford retractable hardtop. He had heard plenty of horror stories about how finicky and complicated the folding tops were. He also knew nobody gave them away for cheap.
“I had seen them, of course, but I always figured that there weren’t many around and they were pretty expensive,” says Seavolt, a resident of Watertown, N.Y. “And you always hear about all the problems they had with the top and all the things that could go wrong.
“I had a lot of Fords, but never a retractable.”
About six years ago, Seavolt was sniffing around for another car and came across a 1957 Skyliner retractable that was for sale only about 90 minutes from his house. He was reticent to make the deal, but he didn’t want to chicken out and live with regret, either. “It was in Barneveld, N.Y. The guy I bought it from and his father had re-done it back in like 1999,” Seavolt noted. “Then they never drove it. They bought a Corvette, I think it was a ’69 Corvette, and they never drove [the retractable]. It just sat in the garage.
“I looked at it for about a year before I bought it, and I’ve had a lot of fun with it. It’s got a few warts on it. It’s not perfect, but it’s in good shape and it runs beautiful. I’ve had four or five guys who want to buy it from me, but it’s not for sale right now. I’m having too much fun with it [laughs].”
Seavolt says he installed an Edelbrock 600 carburetor not long after he bought the car to improve its reliability and starting. He discovered a couple of bent valves and wound up giving the car a valve job. He also put some Coker whitewall radials on it. All those upgrades were done in the spirit of making the glorious folding-top Ford a “driver” more than a “looker.” “I’m going to put a different radiator in it, too,” he says. “Back in ‘60s with my first Ford radiators were famous for overheating, so I’m putting in an aluminum radiator with an electric fan. Sometimes you go to car shows and you wind up sitting with the engine running and the temperature gauge goes way over. That will help make sure it doesn’t overheat. I was thinking about putting disc brakes on it, but I kind of hate to do that. [Disc brakes] are a lot safer, but it’s OK. It stops fine… I also bought a new exhaust system and my son has a garage and he’s going to put that on for me. I also have a set of fender skirts for it, but I’m not sure if I will put them on. I’m trying to decide which way I like it better.”
1957: HELLO "HIDE-AWAY" HARDTOP
It was the option to have both a convertible and a hardtop in one package that was one of the big draws of the Skyliner, which began its 3-year run for the 1957 model year as a hotly anticipated member of the Fairlane 500 family. The Skyliner was truly unique — it was only available as a Ford. There was nothing comparable from Mercury, Lincoln, Edsel or Continental within the FoMoCo family, and there was nothing like it from the competition. The Fairlane 500 was a full-size car, which gave it a big roof to try to make room for. The feat was accomplished by basically using the entire spacious trunk as a storage area, with the trunk lid and folding roof operating through a complicated arrangement of electric motors, supports, levers and hinges.
The design for the folding hardtop was cooked up by a young engineer named Ben Smith, who had previously worked for General Motors. He was reportedly given just 18 months to come up with a way to collapse and stow a hardtop in the trunk. His answer was called the "Hide-Away" hardtop. Smith eschewed the use of hydraulics, instead networking together a series of seven electric motors and a bunch of switches and solenoids. The whole concept was first ticketed to be part of the Continental lineup, but given its cost and the possibility that company would actually lose money on the Skyliner, the decision was made by company brass to have it be part of the Ford lineup, which could afford to have a car that missed on the bottom line as long as it attracted some attention.
The Skyliner retractable was one of six members of the handsome and wildly successful Fairlane 500 lineup, which helped propel Ford back to the top of the U.S. auto production charts in 1957 for the first time in 22 years. The Fairlane 500 also came as a traditional two-door softtop convertible called the Sunliner, a two-door club sedan, four-door town sedan, four-door town Victoria and two-door club Victoria. The Skyliner weighed in at hefty 3,916 lbs., and was by far the most expensive Ford at $2,942.
The Fairlane 500 was the top trim level in the Fairlane series and included all the trim used on the Fairlane models plus slightly more chrome on the “C” pillars and different side trim. The side trim was a modified version of the Fairlane sweep, which included a gold anodized insert between two chrome strips. It began on the sides of the front fenders, dipping near the back of the front doors, merging into a strip and following the crest of the fins to the rear of the body. Under the hood was a base 272-cid V-8 that produced 190 hp. The options list was lengthy and included 292- and 312-cid V-8s that could push out up to 245 hp mated to a choice of a 3-speed, 3-speed with overdrive manual, or 3-speed Ford-O-Matic automatic transmissions. Motor Trend reviewers at the time liked the Fairlane 500 after putting a sedan with the 245-hp Thunderbird 312 V-8 through its paces. “From 0 to 60 it took 9.5 seconds, which is a real rapid time in anyone's book,” a Motor Trend writer remarked. “…On rather smooth roads, we noticed a minimum of nose dip when braking. The brakes seemed smooth and positive. Violent cornering brought out the advantages of a low center of gravity. The new Ford really sticks. Body lean is modest, and with the built-in oversteer, you get a feeling of confidence in the car's ability to do your bidding.”
The Skyliner retractable never became a big seller, which no doubt helped elevate its status as an iconic car to own among collectors. The 1957 model year saw 20,766 assemblies, which turned out to be the high-water mark. Reportedly among the buyers was president Dwight D. Eisenhower. That total fell to 14,713 in 1958, which the price grew to $3,163, and just $12,915, when the base window sticker had ballooned to $3,346 as a member of the Galaxie lineup.
PART-TIME PLEASURE BOAT
Seavolt’s car wears its original factor two-tone red-and-white color scheme and matching interior. “The seats and side panels are all original, so fortunately I haven’t had to re-do those,” he says. “People can’t believe I have the original seats. They are faded from the sun and carpet was kind of messy and kind of dirty, so I replaced that. I did have the front seat re-padded because the driver’s side was hollowed out. I probably won’t do anything with the other seats … I will probably re-line the trunk at some point. Other than that I can’t think if anything I’d need to do over.
“It’s got the 312 [V-8] of course, the Thunderbird engine. It’s got power steering. It does not have air conditioning or anything like that. It’s pretty basic. The power steering is nice, but actually these don’t steer that bad. It is nice to have, though.”
Seavolt figures he’s averaged about 1,000 miles of seat time per year in the five years he’s had his Skyliner. He’s not sure how many miles the ’57 Ford has traveled in its lifetime because the speedometer didn’t work when he bought the car. “I don’t worry about it as much as I would if it was perfect,” he admits. “I got it to drive it. I don’t hesitate to take it anywhere, but I’m careful with it. I don’t want to bang it up, either. I just enjoy driving it … and kids love to go for a ride in it. We went to a friend’s place a while ago and had like nine kids in the car. They were all piled in the back and we went out for ice cream.
“My wife likes the top up, so most of the time we drive with it up, but we take it to car shows and a lot of times we drive in with the top down. Then we display it with the top halfway down. Either way is OK with me.”
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