Ford Skyliner review
A car that represents the pinnacle of US automotive frippery but just might prove worthwhile...
Bargains for the brave
America is undeniably the home of the convertible, but Peugeot gets credit for building the first power-operated retractable hardtop in 1938. Fifteen years later, it was Ford’s Lincoln Division that copped the bill for turning a conglomerate of rams, solenoids and switches into an ingenious system that would see production in the 1957-59 Ford Fairlane Skyliner.
Skyliners were produced only with V8 engines and surviving cars generally have automatic transmission plus ‘comfort’ features including power steering and a heater/demister. Almost 50,000 of these retractable-roof Fairlanes were made and, although they are very scarce in Australia, excellent examples are available on the US market and can be registered here without RHD conversion.
The issue that owners faced when these cars were new (and still do today) is the complexity of the roof mechanism, which may jam and leave you with no option but to call a tilt-tray.
Rectification requires a methodical test and elimination procedure on two dozen potentially faulty components and 200 metres of wiring, plus skilled dismantling to rectify some failures. It is therefore not surprising that North American values for these cars only occasionally exceed US$30,000; they are seen as just too much darned trouble.
Finding a usable Skyliner already in Australia will be difficult and maintaining it is a challenge. However, for the opportunity to own a car that represents the pinnacle of US automotive frippery, the cost of finding and importing an excellent car just might prove worthwhile.
TRAPS AND TIPS
When inspecting a Skyliner, make sure the weather-stripping rubbers that seal against the roof are in good condition. Weather strips can cost serious dollars.
Finding the reason for a top failing to move can be difficult and very expensive.
Worn hinges or poor repairs can result in doors that are poorly aligned and won’t close properly.
Mechanically, these cars are relatively simple to maintain and rebuild; kits including pistons, rings and bearings cost about $1000.
FROM THE WHEELS ARCHIVES...
Words: Ben Dillon - March 2011
Innovation came with a painful birth, wrote Ben Dillon...
The vanishing hardtop design used on the Skyliner — the brainchild of Ford designer Gil Spear — was intended to be a technical showpiece for the company’s top-of-the-line Continental Mark II (released in 1955), but with escalating costs on the Continental project, Ford pulled the plug and instead gifted the technology to the 1957 Skyliner, the first mass-produced US ‘folder’.
The Skyliner’s roof technology must seem primitive, with 10 power relays, 10 limit swtiches, four lock motors, three drive motors and eight circuit breakers all connected together by 3.6m of wire to raise and lower the roof.
While the mechanical transformation is relatively straightforward, the opportunity for things to go wrong must have caused Ford engineers many sleepless nights as reliability testing of the roof went beyond 7000 cycles before the design was signed off.
Performance, even with the 352ci engine, was leisurely thanks to a kerb weight pushing 2000kg (more than 300kg heavier than the hardtop coupe the Skyliner was based on). Blame the chassis-strengthening, roof mechanisms, and the additional 305mm in length over a standard Fairlane 500.
Selling the retractable roof proved difficult and imaginations ran wild in the Ford marketing department, with the advertising literature claiming the 1958 Fairlane had undergone an impossibly rigorous worldwide testing schedule, duly hyped in a 1958 Ford Fairlane brochure: "Its sudden appearance in England left staid Britishers gasping. Across the channel it breezed into style-conscious Paris… but the real tests lay ahead — the steep winding passes of the Swiss Alps… the murderous roads of the Balkans… the broiling wastes of the Middle East… the ‘goat tracks’ of Central Asia…the steaming jungles of the Far East. Yet Ford passed each test with flying colours."
The sales reality for the Skyliner was a good deal less extravagant. After only three years, the Skyliner was dropped in 1959.
Number built: 48,394
Body: All steel, separate body/chassis hardtop convertible
Engine: 4458cc, 4786cc, 5114cc, 5441cc or 5769cc V8, OHV, 16v, single or twin downdraft carburettor(s), supercharger on 1957 F-Code
Power & torque: 155kW @ 4000rpm, 420Nm @ 2800rpm (5.8-litre)
Performance: 0-97km/h 9.8sec, 0-400m 17.4sec (1959 model)
Transmission: 3-speed manual, 2-speed automatic
Suspension: Independent with wishbones, coil springs, telescopic shock absorbers and anti-roll bar (f); Live axle with coil springs and telescopic shock absorbers (r)
Brakes: Drums, power-assisted
Tyres: 7.50 x 14 crossply
Price range: $10,000-$55,000
Contact us: Ford clubs throughout Australia
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