The automobile featured in this article is a 1959 Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner with a retractable hardtop. Ford produced the retractable hardtops on these models for the 1957 through 1959 model years. It was also the first retractable hardtop that was mass produced.
The Retractable Hardtop / The U.S. and Europe
The retractable hardtop had really been around long before the 1957 Ford Fairlane Skyliner. Back in the year 1922 in the U.S., a man named Ben B. Ellerbeck first came up with the retractable hardtop system. This allowed an automobile to quickly change from a coupe to a convertible. This system moved the car's, a Hudson, roof into the trunk manually. The process was not difficult and could be done by one person. This retractable hardtop process was only a one-off and never came into production.
About ten years later the retractable process appeared in Europe. The electric operated retractable hardtop was first introduced in France by Georges Paulin.. A concept car using this system was designed but never made it to fruition. Later, the Paulin system did make it to production as the Peugot Eclipse.and was introduced in 1935. This European model lasted until World War Two.
Back in the U.S. Chrysler came out with a retractable show car in 1940 but it never went into production. When Ford Motor Company came out with their retractable hardtop in 1957 the concept seemed to be all new to the public when in fact it was not. The Ford Fairlane and Galaxie model retractables however were the first massed produced in the U.S.
Ford promoted the models heavily and even used Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball as spokespersons. The automobile hit the market as a sensation. Some called it a "dream car" for the masses. The car was completely unique in the marketplace at the time.
Ford's Retractable Hardtops
The idea for a retractable hardtop appeared in Ford's Advanced Design Studios during the early 1950's. The idea caught on and the higher executives approved funds to continue with the concept. A clay model was produced in 1954. Ford's Skyliner retractable hardtops operated with several servo motors, relays, screw jacks, assorted cables, springs, and pivoting arms. Obviously many moving parts working in sequence. There was over 600 feet of wire required for the device.
The 1957 Ford retractable car required much more than just the retractable device itself. The car also had to be modified with its own special rear fenders, deck lid, tail panel, trunk floor, internal structural members, and a new gas tank. The convertible car also had to ride on heavy duty wheels and rims due to the 500 lbs added with the retractable roof and operating device.
The conventional 1959 Ford Fairlane Convertible model was named the "Sunliner".
1959 Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner Specifications
The 1959 Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner was built with a 352 cubic inch V-8 engine putting out 300 HP. Also available was a 292 and 332 cubic inch V-8. These 1959 V-8's were somewhat detuned for better gas mileage considering the recession that swept the country in 1958.
Transmission was a three speed automatic.
Brakes were four wheel hydraulic drum . Front suspension were independent coil springs with an anti-roll bar. Rear suspension consisted of semi-elliptic leaf springs.
Dimensions for the 1959 Ford Fairlane included a wheelbase of 118.0 inches, an overall length of 208.0 inches, and a width of 76.6 inches. Weight came in at about 3,450 lbs.
New car price for the 1959 Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner was around $2,600 depending on options.
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The Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliners are Popular Collector Cars
The uniqueness of the retractable hardtop and the good looking lines on the 1959 Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner helped make it a very popular car among collectors. The Ford retractables were in production for only three model years making them somewhat rare. The Ford Fairlane was first introduced in 1955. The Fairlane model was named after Henry Ford's mansion of the same name in Dearborn, Michigan.
As mentioned above, the Ford retractables were introduced with much fanfare in 1957 because of their technology that the cars as a whole are milestone automobiles. The cars were so impressive it was said that President Dwight D. Eisenhower ordered an early model of the Skyliner.
Valuations for the Ford Skyliners in general have been strong. On the high end a show quality model may have an asking price in the mid $30,000 range to the $40,000 range. Lesser but excellent models may be priced in the high $20,000 range down to the $20,000 range. If you find a non-restored model with a non-working electric hardtop device, the price can go much lower that $15,000 all depending on mechanical and cosmetic condition.
Reference material includes...Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner, 1957-1959 by Jerry H. Magayne. Also, The Complete Book of Collectible Cars by the Editors of Consumers Guide.
(Article and photos copyright 2015 Auto Museum Online)