Even if the Commies had beaten us in space exploration, we had both the hideaway hard top and the Edsel
The Ford Fairlane Skyliner can claim to be America's first production convertible to feature a retractable hard top. Introduced as Ford's top-of-the-range model in 1955, the Fairlane was rival to Chevrolet's successful Bel Air and came in six different body styles with a choice of six-cylinder or V8 engines.
The range was restyled for 1957, gaining new, lower bodies adorned with the latest styling fad-tail fins-and the Fairlane 500 introduced as the ultimate trim level. 1957 was also notable as the year of the Skyliner's introduction.
Considerably more expensive than the conventional Sunliner convertible, the Skyliner featured a hard top that at the touch of a button automatically retracted into the boot. For its last year of production in 1959, the Skyliner was both re-engineered and restyled, becoming part of the new range-topping Galaxie lineup, though continuing to be badged as a Fairlane 500.
This rare and historic example of Detroit's engineering exuberance is finished in cream with green and cream vinyl interior-the latter preserved in excellent, apparently original condition. Restored (at date unknown) and presented in generally good condition, the vehicle starts and runs very well while the hood mechanism functions correctly.
Left-hand drive and equipped with automatic transmission, the car is offered with current road fund license, MoT to October 2006 and Swansea V5 registration document. A great rarity in the U.K., the Skyliner rivals the classic early Thunderbird for the title of "most collectible Ford of the 1950s."
|Vehicle:||1957 Ford Fairlane Skyliner|
|Number Produced:||48,446 (20,766 for 1957)|
|Original List Price:||$2,942|
|SCM Valuation:||$13,500 - $35,000|
|Tune Up Cost:||$250|
|Engine Number Location:||pad on upper forward portion of the motor, near the timing cover|
|Club Info:||International Ford Retractable Club (IFRC), P.O. Box 157, Spring Park, MN 55384|
This 1957 Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner Retractable sold for sold for $21,736 including buyer’s premium at Bonhams’ Harrogate sale in the U.K. on November 22, 2005.
While the mass-produced retractable hard top was the brainchild of Ford engineer Gil Spear, the idea was first tried in 1930s Europe, most notably by Peugeot. Ford may have developed the 1950s version, but it was almost debuted by the new Lincoln Continental Mark II.
When the Mark II program got the green light, the concept of a retracting steel roof was transferred to the new Continental Division as a dynamic innovation for America’s most exclusive car. The program was quite well along when cost overruns (and a $10k sticker price for the base car in 1956) put the project back into the Ford Division’s lap.
Due to the extensive redesign of the 1957 Ford line, the Skyliner made its appearance mid-year on April 10, 1957, with much fanfare. All retractables were finished on a separate line at five of Ford’s assembly plants across the country (this car was built at River Rouge) and to keep assembly as basic as possible were initially only painted in single-tone colors of all black or all white.
Not until two months later were two-color Styletones offered. Indeed, the earliest PR photos of two-tone Skyliners are in what could be called reversed Styletone, with the base color (i.e. white) on the lower body and top, instead of the production method.
Just like the Sunliner soft top convertible, the Skyliner was also available with any V8 engine offered by Ford for 1957, including the 300-hp Paxton-supercharged 312-ci top-of-the-line “F code” motor. Also available were all choices in transmissions, all three-speeds: manual, manual with overdrive, and Fordomatic. Even though the base price of $2,942 made it the most expensive Ford for ’57, most Skyliners were ordered with plenty of options, and the automatic is far more prevalent than the stick-shift.
While the first abbreviated year looked pretty good at 20,766 cars built, the car tanked in 1958. The recession of late 1957 hit all car sales, but luxury cars in particular took a beating. There was also a perception that America should re-align its priorities, since the Soviet Union had just launched Sputnik. But hey, even if the Commies had beaten us in space exploration, we had both the hideaway hard top and the Edsel. While it seems comical now, there were several of these comparisons at the time, and not in Detroit’s favor. It didn’t help that the ’58s were clumsily restyled and cluttered compared to the sleeker ’57s and only 14,713 were built for the Skyliner’s middle year.
By 1959 Ford had dialed in the styling, especially in the cumbersome trunk area. The previous two years of Skyliners came off as too boxy in the rear, as they had to fully enclose the top. But ’59 was boxy from stem to stern, so the trunk design generally came off well with the “shotgun” fins as a final flourish. Then again, 1959 can best be described as a freak show for Detroit designs in general.
However, sales slumped to 12,967 units. A new low-slung platform for 1960 meant it would be impossible to fit the lowered hard top into the trunk, and that sealed the fate of the Skyliner. Retractables disappeared for nearly 40 years, until Mitsubishi and Mercedes-Benz revived the concept of solid folding roofs. Cadillac re-entered the fray with the XLR in 2004.
The original setup, when properly adjusted, is more or less reliable in terms of operation. However, it is so fussy about being on a level surface that most Skyliners will only cycle on a billiard-table-flat parking surface. With the equivalent of a moving Heathkit catalog in the trunk, it goes without saying that a full-blown restoration is beyond the mechanically challenged, electrically ignorant, and financially weak.
But one strong point is that Skyliners were built to a better quality than garden variety ’57 Fords, which were noted for shoddy workmanship-even in an era when quality wasn’t exactly Job One. Due to specialized fitting of components and extra assembly steps, retractables were completed on the side assembly line at each plant so they wouldn’t slow down the flow of regular Fords. The luxury of more time made sure they were more sorted.
Our 1957 Fairlane 500 Skyliner Retractable was described to me as being a “bargain” at $22k. I would take issue with that statement, in that it seems to have been fully priced, at least in North America. Described in the auction company promotional drivel as both excellently preserved and restored-with only a period separating the two phrases-the car is neither. Reconditioned as necessary would best describe the car (the same as the vast majority on the market due to the previously mentioned complexity of the top mechanism), thus resulting in about #3 condition.
Any price guide out there has a #3 condition ’57 Skyliner within two bids of $20,000. Three years ago, I nearly bought a 1958 Skyliner in similar condition for $14,500, but another big chunk of Dearborn iron caught my eye and my wallet instead. 2005 auction results for Skyliners range from $35,310 for a #2 condition 1959 model by RM in September (SCM #39461) to $13,500 for a #4 condition 1957 model by Kruse in August (SCM #30129).
All in all, the nicest Skyliner (except perhaps a 1957 with the Paxton blower) will still cost you less than a concours-condition 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air two-door hard top. While the latter might be the most recognizable car from the ’50s, the former represents the better buy as the ultimate gimmick car of the ultimate gimmick decade.