Over the last few weeks we’ve tested and talked about numerous new cars and trucks. This week we thought we would road test something different, a ’57 Ford retractable. In fact, from now on we’ll be including tests of collector cars as part of our regular Test Drive Tuesday segment.
The Ford Skyliner name has in interesting history. First introduced in 1954 as a green-tinted acrylic glass roof option on the top of the line Ford Crestliner, it proved to be a modest sales success with about 13,000 sold. The main objection to the original iteration of the Skyliner was in most places in the South and West, it was unbearably hot to drive, even with the dark green tint.
When the entire Ford line was redesigned in 1955, the Skyliner option returned rechristened Ford Fairlane Crown Victoria Skyliner continuing into the ’56 model year. From a styling standpoint, the ’55-’56 iteration was much more attractive than the earlier car. These “Glass Top Vickies” featured stainless trim from the b-pillars across the roofline, separating the rear steel portion of the top from the front acrylic glass portion. The idea was to ape the styling of horse drawn carriages known as Victoria’s.
All of the ’54-’56 Skyliner’s had the same drawback; they were unbearable hot to ride in. On the ’55-’56 cars a snap-in interior sunshade was added to partially address the unbearably hot interior. Factory air-conditioning was also offered for the first time, which helped but did nothing to address the issue of sunlight streaming on one’s head.
Lincoln had been developing something totally different for the Continental line. A folding hardtop convertible roof was envisioned, and originally slated for the beautiful and under-appreciated Continental Mark II. The Mark II sold for north of $10,000 with Air-conditioning being the only option. This put the Continental pricing into rarified territory indeed, make it as expensive as a new Rolls Royce, or two Cadillac’s. Accordingly, Continental sales were understandably tepid making it difficult to amortize complex engineering costs.
It was soon realized that the electric folding top mechanism would add approximately $500 to the retail price of each Mark II making the price astronomical by the standards of the day. Quickly the decision was made to offer the new Rube Goldberg top mechanism as a Ford only option in the new upscale Fairlane 500 series.
As the top was originally slated for the Mark II with its close-coupled passenger compartment and short rear deck, adapting it to the Ford created new challenges. The Ford line was completely redesigned for ’57 including new more prominent canted tail fins. Designers adapted the complex top mechanism to the new Ford, making the entire conglomeration fit by shortening the passenger compartment, and lengthening the rear deck.
You can see the top go through its motions in our Test Drive Tuesday video segment. In operation “The Hideaway Hardtop” is something to behold. Quoting from Wikipedia, “The Skyliner top has seven reversible electric motors (only six for 1959 models,) four lift jacks, a series of relays, ten limit switches, ten solenoids, four locking mechanisms for the roof and two locking mechanisms for the trunk lid, and a total of 610 ft (185.9 m) of wiring.”
Driving the ’57 Skyliner is an experience much different than modern cars. Our test car was well restored and we expect drives and performs very close to as new. The red and white steering wheel is huge by modern standards. You don’t steer it as much as send word down to the engine room, and wait for the big Fairlane to respond.
The ride is traditional American full-size car of the 1950’s. One can hit a speedbump at 30mph, and barely feel it. The Sunliner is equipped with basic hydraulically actuated drum brakes, meaning that pedal effort is much greater than any modern car, and stops must be anticipated and executed early.
The Cruise-o-matic automatic transmission is a 3-speed, but in “Dr” range it actually starts in 2nd great. 1st is only for acceleration, or hill climbing. For starting the gear selected must be placed in “N.” The ignition switch is to the left of the steering post, and a turn of the key engages the starter with a beefy whirring sound, and the Y-block springs instantly to life. Idle is a bit lumpy but never objectionable and the Y-Block pulls smoothly, and never stalls or stumbles at idle, even in heavy traffic.
According to a 1957 Motor Trend test, 0-60 mph in 10.4 sec, 0-100 km/h in 11.1 sec, quarter mile time is 17.7 sec.
Absolutely the best part of the Sunliner is the Rube Goldberg top mechanism. The top switch is also to the left of the column, and pulling it toward you actuates the top mechanism. When it is first pulled there is a brief anxiety inducing delay before all those motors and switches begin doing their thing. One in motion the top is a mechanical wonder whose electrical mechanism was described to me akin to a 1950’s pin ball machine.
Driving this car anywhere guaranties honks, gawks, and waves. Children are in awe of the big Fairlane, but they are transfixed by the top mechanism. One more than one occasion I was asked if this was some sort of modern custom. So goes the life of the Skyliner owner.
- Three-tone paint in Red/White/Gold
- Fender Skirts
- Continental Kit
- Vinyl upholstery
- Power Windows
- Factory Air-conditioning
Technology and Safety Features
- Padded Dashboard
- Power Steering
- Vacuum assisted brakes
- Town & Country signal-seeking radio
- 312ci (5.1L) 245hp “Y-Block” Thunderbird Special V8 3.80″ bore X 3.44″ stroke
- 4-barrel carburetor
- Dual Exhaust
Miles Per Gallon
- 1957 Road-test 14mpg
- 2017 Abysmal 😉
Price as Tested
- 1957 base price $2942.00
- 1957 price as tested $3,500 (approximate)
- 2017 value $55,000
Comparison to Similar Models
1957 Chevrolet Bel-Air Convertible.
The ’57 Chev has been called the most popular used car of all time. It is mostly forgotten today that the ’57 Ford actually outsold the ’57 Chev. No fancy top for the Bel-Air other than a traditional convertible mechanism. The Chev did offer fuel-injection allowing the 283ci 283hp V8 to break the magic one horsepower by cubic-inch ceiling. The styling of the Bel-Air has become an American icon instantly recognized everywhere.
1957 Dodge Royal Lancer Convertible
Aww the poor Dodge Lancer. Chrysler Corp was known for cutting edge engineering like torsion-bar front suspension and poly-head (semi-hemi) or hemi-head V8 engines, and the new for ’57 Forward Look made both the Ford and Chevy look tall and old-fashioned by comparison. The Torqueflight 3-speed automatic transmission set the standard for automatics for the next two plus decades.
But let’s be blunt here. These cars were haphazardly assembled and are known rust buckets and are seldom seen today in any body style, much less the rare rag-top.