Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner (1958) Review

By: Ben Dillon, Photography by: Nathan Duff

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1958 Fairlane 500 Skyliner 1958 Fairlane 500 Skyliner 1958 Fairlane 500 Skyliner
1958 Fairlane 500 Skyliner 1958 Fairlane 500 Skyliner 1958 Fairlane 500 Skyliner
1958 Fairlane 500 Skyliner 1958 Fairlane 500 Skyliner 1958 Fairlane 500 Skyliner
1958 Fairlane 500 Skyliner 1958 Fairlane 500 Skyliner 1958 Fairlane 500 Skyliner
1958 Fairlane 500 Skyliner 1958 Fairlane 500 Skyliner 1958 Fairlane 500 Skyliner
1958 Fairlane 500 Skyliner 1958 Fairlane 500 Skyliner 1958 Fairlane 500 Skyliner
1958 Fairlane 500 Skyliner 1958 Fairlane 500 Skyliner 1958 Fairlane 500 Skyliner
1958 Fairlane 500 Skyliner 1958 Fairlane 500 Skyliner 1958 Fairlane 500 Skyliner
1958 Fairlane 500 Skyliner 1958 Fairlane 500 Skyliner 1958 Fairlane 500 Skyliner
1958 Fairlane 500 Skyliner 1958 Fairlane 500 Skyliner 1958 Fairlane 500 Skyliner
1958 Fairlane 500 Skyliner 1958 Fairlane 500 Skyliner 1958 Fairlane 500 Skyliner

1958 Skyliner. Retractable-roof fairlane was a US mass-production first.

Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner (1958) Review
1958 Fairlane 500 Skyliner

 

1958 Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner 

Coming from a time when only barbers cut hair and the cars they drove were as solid as the straight razors they used for a close shave - albeit not as wieldy - the Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner combined the best of open and closed motoring. It offered a unique folding steel lid decades before the Mercedes SLK and Peugeot 206CC made the retractable metal roof a common feature on today's convertibles.

For most of the 1940s and '50s, Ford played bridesmaid to Chevrolet in total yearly sales, with both companies fighting for the top spot year in, year out. Not content with having the lion's share of the market between them, the rivalry increased in the '50s with both companies engaging in a fierce price war to try and out-sell the other, much to the detriment of smaller companies like Studebaker and Hudson that couldn't afford the kind of loss-making cuts luring buyers toward GM and Ford.

As if the price war wasn't enough, GM and Ford spawned exciting 'halo' products like the Corvette and Thunderbird to get customers into the showrooms and give the rest of the range some sparkle. This, along with the cachet of having the latest technology like fuel injection and factory-fitted seatbelts, helped in the battle to lure buyers to each brand.

No surprise then that Ford was willing to gamble on the Fairlane Skyliner and its folding roof technology to challenge Chevy's market stranglehold. Ford beat Chevrolet in 1957 by almost 170,000 units, which is particularly impressive given that the '57 Chev is a car now regarded as one of the greatest US classics of all time.

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 on the roof as it would have added $2500 to its already high $9695 retail price - $4000 more than the most expensive Cadillac - and instead gifted the technology to the '57 Skyliner.

While the Skyliner was a bold technical statement at the time, it wasn't the first car designed with a retractable roof. The first retractable design is generally credited to Ben P. Ellerbeck, who proposed the idea of a manually-operated, non-folding design on a 1922 Hudson Super Six, which ultimately didn't make it to production.

The first retractable that did go into production was the Peugeot 402 Éclipse Décapotable released in 1934, nearly 20 years before the Skyliner. Not to be outdone, the Americans hit back with the futuristic Chrysler Thunderbolt concept in 1940 - designed by Alex Tremulis, who also penned the '48 Tucker - which was officially the first US production car to feature a retractable hardtop, even though its production status ran to only five examples sold to customers.

Thus, the Skyliner stands in the timeline of the retractable roof as the first mass-produced US 'folder' and a bridge between those pioneers of the technology whose time was cut short by World War II and the new guard that rediscovered the concept some four decades later.

Compared with modern retractables, the Skyliner's roof technology must seem primitive, with 10 power relays, 10 limit switches, four lock motors, three drive motors and eight circuit breakers all connected together by 3.6m of wire to raise and lower the heavy roof.

But despite the large number of parts in the actuation process, the mechanical transformation is relatively straightforward. Screw threads are worked via a flexible drive from an electric motor to lock and unlock the roof while spring counter-balancers take on load as the roof cycles through its range on threaded rod (for timing), with connecting rods to fold the front 'flipper' section and parcel tray.

The opportunity for things to go wrong if one side slipped even a little off its thread must have caused Ford engineers many sleepless nights as reliability testing of the roof went beyond 7000 cycles of 'open and close' before the design was signed off.

Under the bonnet, the Skyliner came standard with a 292ci V8 engine offering up 205hp (153kW), with the option of a three-speed manual and Ford-O-Matic or Cruise-O-Matic automatic transmissions.

Optional were the 332ci and 352ci 'FE' Interceptor V8s, both with four-barrel carburettors, punching out 265hp (198kW) and 300hp (224kW) respectively.

Performance, even with the 352ci engine, was leisurely thanks to a kerb weight pushing 2000kg (over 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.

The obvious negative of having a large roof folding into the boot was a reduction in luggage space, a problem no matter how enormous the trunk might be. Ford provided a central metal box - with optional fitted luggage set - as storage space for when the top was down, although owners soon discovered they needed to open the roof to retrieve any of it.

The Skyliner nameplate had previously been applied to a different 'open' Ford, and debuted on the 1954 Crestline before migrating to the Fairlane, named after Henry Ford's 1300-acre estate, 'Fair Lane'.

This Skyliner didn't have a folding roof. Instead, it featured a 6mm-thick tinted Plexiglas roof section which afforded great views skyward, but also cooked occupants during summer as excessive heat built up, even with the nylon headliner closed. The idea was well received at first but once owners had experienced this 'greenhouse effect', word spread and sales fell.

Selling the retractable Skyliner also 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.

"Months before announcement time, a new Fairlane 500 left Detroit, headed East. Its sudden appearance in England left staid Britishers gasping. Across the Channel it breezed into style-conscious Paris, where overnight its glamorous lines and thoroughbred performance made it the toast of the town.

"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 colors".

The sales reality for the Skyliner was a good deal less extravagant than the PR spin, with a near 30 percent decrease in demand for the '58 over the previous year's model, which wasn't so much a reflection on the quality of the car, but rather on the state of the US economy which was experiencing the short-lived 'Eisenhower recession', its greatest economic low since World War II.

This didn't help the business case for the unique Ford and after three years, the Skyliner was dropped in 1959.

OZ'S OWN RETRACTABLE

While US Skyliner production ceased in 1959, Ford Australia was interested in the hardtop convertible idea and gave Lew Bandt - father of the Ford ute - the task of designing a folding concept based on the local Falcon.

Bandt came back with a design and Ford commissioned Coachcraft in Geelong to build a handful of 'retractables' based on XL Falcon ute bodies. The result was an interesting take on the concept but it didn't make it into production and none of the six prototypes are known to have survived.

 

SPECIFICATIONS

'58 Fairlane 500 Skyliner

 

ENGINE: 5766cc V8, OHV, 16v, four-barrel carburettor

POWER: 224kW @ 4600rpm

TORQUE: 515Nm @ 2800rpm

GEARBOX: 3-speed automatic

WEIGHT: 1850kg

TOP SPEED: 183km/h

BRAKES: 11-inch drums (f&r)

PRICE: $3163 (1958)

NUMBER MADE: 14,713 (1958) - 48,394 (total)

 

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