The Ford "Fairlane" model was named after Henry Ford's Detroit area mansion which was also named "Fairlane".
The 1958 Ford Fairlane was quite a unique automobile, especially like the retractable hardtop version seen here. This Ford Skyliner model had a mechanism that folded the front and rear roof that turned a hardtop into a convertible. When the car was introduced in 1957 it represented the only hardtop convertible in the entire world. Over 20,000 Skyliners were sold in the 1957 model year which represented about four times the number of Ford Sunliners. The Sunliners used the conventional canvas roof. It appears that the novelty of the retractable hardtop was dying down in as much as only between 14,000 and 15,000 were sold during the 1958 model year, a large drop from the previous year. Another factor to consider was that the Ford Skyliner with it's retractable hardtop cost about $400 more than the conventional convertible the Sunliner. There was also the issue of much less trunk space when the Skyliner's roof was retracted.
Actually, the idea of having a hardtop automobile with a folding down roof was introduced a few decades earlier in 1934. The 1934 Peugeot 601 had a power-operated retractable metal top designed by Georges Paulin. Peugeot offered the same hardtop convertible in 1935 with the Peugeot 402.
The retractable hardtop mechanism at the Ford Motor Company was designed by a man named Ben Smith who previously worked for General Motors. The question was whether the mechanism would be hydraulic or electric. The electric version was decided on. The designing of this system actually began in the early 1950's with a working scale model built in 1953. After various issues arose with the first scale model another was built in 1954.
An interesting side note is that the retractable hardtop was originally targeted for Ford's Continental brand but was switched to the Ford line. The clay models first built were Continentals and then they were reformed into the Ford Fairlane style. One reason cited for the change from Continental to Ford Fairlane was that the production costs could be spread over more total units with Fairlane than with Continental.
Designing and Building the Ford Fairlane Retractable Hardtop
The retractable hardtop also posed another issue. It was obvious that a mechanism could not retract the entire car roof and fold it in one piece. Somewhere along the roof there would need to be a folding hinge. Some of Smith's engineers suggested that the roof fold in the middle. Smith decided on a front flap which was ten inches in length. This front flap would fold itself under the main roof section.
If you stand back and watch the Ford Fairlane Skyliner roof fold back in may seem like a simple process. To the contrary it was a very complicated process that utilized seven electric motors. The motors would obviously have to work in a sequence with relays and individual switches. There was also over 600 feet of wire required.
As mentioned above, sales enthusiasm for the Ford Skyliner peaked at about the same time the car was introduced. Ford designers had the Skyliner roof fold down into the trunk area and the roof itself was smaller than most other hardtops. To be sure, the retractable mechanism, as described above, was a complicated piece of equipment with a lot of moving parts. Things could easily go wrong with the apparatus and that coupled with the fact that a conventional Ford convertible cost about $400 less meant that hardtop convertible sales lessened greatly.
58 Ford Fairlane Skyliner Specs
Engine options in 1958 included a 352 cid 300-horsepower V-8 engine. Also Ford offered a 332 cid 265 horsepower version. Also offered was the Cruise-O-Matic transmission in place of the standard manual transmission.
Another interesting option for the 1958 Skyliner buyer was "air suspension". This suspension system included a compressor, pressure tank, airbags, and automatic leveling valves for both the front and rear.
The Ford Skyliner's gas tank was behind the rear passenger seats as opposed to under the trunk. The car's back deck was higher and longer.
The Ford Fairlane Skyliner's overall length was 210.8 inches, it's wheelbase 118.0 inches and it's weight 4,069 lbs.The new 1958 Ford Skyliner sold new for about $3,100 depending on options.
The Ford Skyliner's of the late 1950's were indeed unique cars with some unique ideas built in them. These cars were built during the era when Detroit automakers thought that they could do just about anything, and they did.
(Photos from author's private collection)