You’ve seen them at many car shows. If they were human, they might be considered something of a show off — the type that gains attention in a group through card tricks or hand stands. These Ford Skyliner extroverts were one of the most unique feats of technology and style in the 1950s.
What is not so well known is that Ford’s Skyliners renewed pre-World War II retractable ideas.
This 1938 Darl’mat roadster was the racing version of the Peugot 402
Back in 1922, Ben Ellerbeck experimented with a retractable roof using a Hudson Super Six coupe. Ellerbeck’s roof slid back to turn the coupe into a roadster. His design even allowed full use of the Hudson’s rumble seat.
The cars that predicted the 1957 through 1959 Ford Skyliners most closely came from French automaker Peugeot and its Eclipse retractable hardtops of the 1930s.
Following World War II, Detroit was hard pressed to keep up with demand for hardtops. By 1952, all major companies, except Kaiser-Frazer, had at least one.
Peugeot, in turn, got its idea from the unlikely hands of Georges Paulin, a dentist turned car buff. Paulin developed a 1:10 scale model of a retractable roof and failed to interest Citroen in his concept. Next, a one-off Hotchkiss prototype was built using the Paulin retractable roof.
What really moved Paulin’s disappearing roof into prominence was its use by coachbuilder Pourtout. Peugeot noticed and its Eclipse retractable top on its 1934 series 301 and 601 chassis.
In 1936, Peugeot built the Eclipse with a retractable hardtop.
These Peugeots had a long, sloping trunk area with a trunk lid that pivoted open at the rear to accept the curved coupe top.
Once the driver unlatched two points at the slanted windshield header and manually opened the clamshell-shaped trunk, the coupe roof disappeared in just 15 seconds, thanks to an electric motor.
Two slender arms on either side raised the coupe roof from its resting place and slid it backward and down into the trunk. French drivers learned to cope with the small, shallow space left in the trunk when the roof took up most of the storage space.
The three- and five-place four-cylinder Peugeots resembled the 1934 Auburns, including their sweeping fender lines. The front end featured a vertical radiator and low-mounted, close-set headlamps.
Even with the top up, it was easy to pick out a 1957 Skyliner from its Fairlane 500 hardtop siblings, thanks to the wide "C" pillar of the Skyliner.
The early Eclipse models, like the later Skyliners, had longer-than-normal decklines, though the Peugeot was much more sloping than the boxier 1950s Skyliners.
By 1936, Peugeot shifted to a new style that closely copied the Chrysler and De Soto Airflows, especially from the cowl forward. In sedan form, the newer Peugeots filled their 192-inch chassis handsomely. But the Eclipse 402 series seemed almost artificially stretched, especially with its unusually long, rear-hinged, front-opening doors.
This period photo shows one of Ford's first 1957 Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner retractables on a chilly-looking Detroit day.
The 402 version of the Peugeot Eclipse used an even longer, flatter coupe roof than the earlier 301 and 501 versions. This time, the artistic trunk design used a V-shaped deck opening. When retracted, the Eclipse appeared in convertible guise looking much more graceful. It suffered only from Peugeot’s use of headlights inset closely in the sloping grille, giving the car a memorable cross-eyed appearance when viewed from the front.
An even rarer version of the later generation of Eclipse styling was used on just 104 Darl’mat 402 Special Sport Roadsters produced by Peugeot.
Toward the end of its run, Peugeot went all-manual with its Paulin-inspired disappearing roof. Blessed with a design that was known for its fine balance, it was easy to delete the electric motor from the Eclipse and offer a hand crank instead.
Before the atrocities of war intervened, Peugeot advertised its Eclipse this way: “You recognize a truly new car. The whole world is talking. Try it.” Unfortunately, after 1938, Peugeot had to forget about it and try military production.
The Chrysler Thunderbolt show car used a disappearing roof in 1941, and a 1953 design using the Henry J chassis promised, but never delivered, a retractable roof sports car called the Skyline.
By the time the Skyline was on the drawing board, Ford designer Gil Spear was thinking about the promise of hardtop styling and open-air convertible freedom.
Spear had heard about the prewar Peugeot Eclipse models and had seen the Chrysler Thunderbolt, but his creativity clicked in one day when he spotted a Buick Riviera two-door hardtop at a stoplight.
“It had a fixed sheet metal roof, but without a visible B-pillar,” Spear recalled. “I started thinking, ‘I bet I can put the top down on top down on top of the rear deck.’”
Spear was determined to produce a disappearing roof that was simple and easy to operate for the average driver. He made a 1:8 scale model out of cardboard and used a paper clip for a hand crank. It impressed Ford Motor Co. executives.
He received money to continue his research and produced a 3:8 scale model called the “Syrtis” that demonstrated his “Roof-O-Matic” concept. Company executives decided to apply it to the Continental Division, then readying the dramatic Mark II.
After Continental took over, the decision was made to make the retracting roof an all-power unit. After all, the buyer of an expensive Continental could not be troubled with top-cranking duties when he or she wanted the sun to shine in the car’s interior.
One obvious need that Peugeot stylists had learned to cope with was matching the length of the coupe roof with the deckline. Ford’s team members had several ideas about the roof, including dividing it in half or in sections. The compromise reached was a whole roof combined with a folding header section that was quickly called a “flipper.”
Instead of hydraulics or the simpler cranks and motors used previously, the Continental Division decided to use seven electric motors with circuit breakers, screw-type decklid and roof locks, plus screw jacks for the roof and deck. The motors included flexible drive cables, 10 limiter switches and 10 relays. All was networked by 610 feet of wiring.
First tested on a 1952 Lincoln, then on a 1954 version, the retractable roof was tested by opening and closing it more than 10,000 times.
Even though Ford Motor Co. marketers received affirmation that adding $2,500 to the already lofty $10,000 Mark II price wouldn’t deter potential buyers, the Ford Motor Co. executives decided to look at the costs again.
The retractable advances were pulled from the top-line Continental and given to the popular-priced Ford line. Ford Division designers began the many changes needed to revise the Fairlane 500 convertible platform. They stretched the frame by six inches, used half-inch wider station wagon wheels, modified the gas tank and fuel filler door and applied longer rear quarter panels.
At Ford, the Skyliner assembly line was separated from the main Ford lines to handle the precision work and careful adjusting needed to mass produce the unique cars. Ford also prepared a more detailed instruction manual for owners.
Each year, from 1957 through 1959, the Skyliners were the highest-priced cars in the Ford line. Some 20,766 buyers, including President Dwight D. Eisenhower and his wife Mamie, purchased the 1957 model. Then, 14,713 Skyliners were purchased during the 1958 production year and 12,915 found owners in 1959.
Robert McNamara, a fan of the Skyliner, wanted the car to continue with the changing 1960 and 1961 Fords, but after spending more than $1 million in development, the Skyliner was retired from production.
Skyliner project engineer Ben Smith continued his enjoyment of wide-open spaces as he developed both a partially retractable roof station wagon, reportedly tested on a one-off 1958 Lincoln and, later tried the disappearing roof on a Mustang. Neither version was adapted for production.
One more Ford product was given the retractable treatment. An early 1960s German-made Taunus convertible, which resembled a junior Thunderbird, was developed for European show purposes by Peter Bauer.
Ironically, the “Suddenly It’s 1960” 1957 Plymouths might have trumped the Ford Skyliners, had one design been carried to production. Chrysler Special Projects stylists had considered a Plymouth Phaeton, a retractable four-door hardtop.
Costs were through the roof, and both engineering and trunk space were even more difficult executions than the Skyliner. The retractable-roof Plymouth Phaeton never went beyond a styling exercise.
If you’ve ever seen a Skyliner retractable at a car show, you probably have caught the attention-getting “look at me” pose of the roof in mid retraction, held up high for everyone to see above the car. With its longer-than-normal stance, yawning box trunk and stylish moving roof, the Ford Skyliner retractables were something special.
Retractables of the past, like the Ford Skyliner, as well as their modern counterparts, became an automotive sleight-of-hand trick, offering a “now you see it, now you don’t” coupe-to-convertible conversion wherever they took to the road.