Ford raised the roof in ’57 with their glitziest range ever, and the “Retrac” was a party piece. The world’s only mass-produced retractable hardtop debuted at the New York Show of ’56, and the first production version was presented to a bemused President Eisenhower in ’57. The Skyliner’s balletic routine was the most talked-about gadget for years and filled Ford showrooms with thousands of gawking customers.
Surprisingly reliable and actuated by a single switch, the Retrac’s roof had 610 ft (185 m) of wiring, three drive motors, and a feast of electrical hardware. But showmanship apart, the Skyliner was pricey and had precious little trunk space or leg room. By ’59 the novelty had worn off, and division chief Robert McNamara’s desire to end expensive “gimmick engineering” led to the wackiest car ever to come out of Dearborn being axed in 1960.
The Skyliner lived for three years but was never a volume seller. Buyers may have thought it neat, but they were justifiably anxious about the roof mechanism’s reliability. Just under 21,000 were sold in ’57, less than 15,000 in ’58, and a miserly 12,915 found buyers in ’59.
The Skyliner could be specified with four different V8s ranging from 272 to 352cid.
Options included tinted glass, power windows, power seat, and Styleton two-tone paint.
This was located behind the rear seat, not for safety, but because there was nowhere else to put it.
With the roof in place, the chunky giveaway rear pillar tells admirers this is a Skyliner.
The $19 Lifeguard safety package included a sun visor and a padded instrument panel.
Ford spent $18 million testing the Skyliner’s roof, and in mechanical efficiency terms, the investment paid off. Ironically, the Retrac’s biggest fault wasn’t electrical problems, but body rust.
TOP OF THE PILE
At two tons and $3,138, the Skyliner was the heaviest, priciest, and least practical Ford in the line. The Skyliner’s standard power was a 292cid V8, but this model contains the top-spec Thunderbird 352cid Special V8 with 300 bhp.
Ill-fitting window seals were an all-season annoyance.
Fins were down for ’59, but missile-shaped pressings on the higher rear fenders were a neat touch to hide all that moving metalwork. Supposedly a midsized car, the Fairlane was the first of the long, low Fords.
The trunk sat higher on Skyliners. Large circular taillights were very Thunderbird and became a modern Ford trademark.
With the roof up, the optional Polar-Aire air-conditioning made sense. Other extras that could be specified included tinted glass and, most important for the Retrac, a 70-amp heavy-duty battery. Skyliners came with a comprehensive troubleshooting instruction booklet along with a very slow and ponderous manual backup system.
Chassis had to be modified to leave room for the top’s control linkage.
Though a particularly heavy car, rear suspension was by standard leaf springs.
Trunk lid hinged from the rear and folded down over the retracted roof.
A switch on the steering column started three motors that opened the rear deck. Another motor unlocked the top, while a further motor hoisted the roof and sent it back to the open trunk space. A separate servo then lowered the rear deck back into place. It all took just one minute, but had to be done with the engine running.
S P E C I F I C A T I O N S
MODEL Ford Fairlane 500 Galaxie Skyliner Retractable (1959)
PRODUCTION 12,915 (1959)
BODY STYLE Two-door hardtop with retractable roof.
CONSTRUCTION Steel body and chassis.
ENGINES 272cid, 292cid, 312cid, 352cid V8s.
POWER OUTPUT 190–300 bhp.
TRANSMISSION Three-speed manual, optional three-speed Cruise-O-Matic automatic.
SUSPENSION Front: coil springs; Rear: leaf springs.
BRAKES Front and rear drums.
MAXIMUM SPEED 105 mph (169 km/h)
0–60 MPH (0–96 KM/H) 10.6 sec
A.F.C. 15.3 mpg (5.4 km/l)