Looking back over automotive history, it’s easy to pinpoint when the features we take for granted today first made an impact. In the 1980s, if your car had anti-lock brakes, fuel injection, or a turbo, you better believe your car had a badge to tell the world about it. In the ’60s and ’70s, if you were driving something from Europe or Japan and it had a slushbox, there was probably the word “Automatic” stamped in script across the back. But some innovations aren’t quite as easy to pinpoint. Take hardtop convertibles; while they came into vogue in the 1990s on cars like the Mercedes SLK, and recently have been offered by automakers from BMW to General Motors, they have a much longer history.
Maybe it’s because they’re generally seen on high-end cars like the BMW 4 Series and Ferrari California T, but hardtop convertibles still have a certain wow factor about them. It should come as no surprise then, that the first power hardtop convertible came from the most “gee-whiz” of decades, the 1950s. Its name was the Ford Skyliner.
The Skyliner cars were pioneers in several ways. In the early 1950s, Ford was neck-and-neck with Chevy as America’s best-selling automaker thanks to its aggressive pricing, handsomely styled cars, and cutting-edge Y-Block V8 — offered at a time when Chevy didn’t offer a single eight-cylinder engine. GM may have stunned the world with its 1953 showcars-come-to-life Cadillac Eldorado, Oldsmobile 98 Fiesta, and Buick Skylark in 1953, but for ’54, Ford introduced the Skyliner to bring some of that concept car panache to the masses.
The Skyliner (a name that’s since gone on to grace Ford vans and countless diners) bowed as the top trim for the ’54 Crestliners, itself the range-topper for the Ford lineup. Instead of offering an open-air driving experience, the Skyliner had a green-tinted acrylic glass panel across three-quarters of the roof, giving drivers a “freshness of view” unlike any production car that came before it. But like Tesla is finding out with the massive windshield on its Model X, all that glass made the car incredibly hot, and made sun glare a nightmare. But Ford stuck with the idea, carrying it over to the Fairlane Crown Victoria for ’55 and ’56. The company used darker tinted glass, and offered air conditioning and a snap-in sunshade, but the pricey, hot “Glasstop Vicky” never quite caught on with the masses.
But this was the ’50s after all, so instead of throwing the Skyliner name out with the glass roof, Ford raised the stakes even higher. The 1957 lineup was a watershed for Ford. Its cars were all-new, it would outsell Chevy yet again, and it had reimagined the Skyliner to wow Americans in the age of Sputnik. The company had been developing a hardtop convertible for the Lincoln Continental lineup, but just before the project could be completed, the beancounters pulled the plug. Not willing to let the technology go to waste, Ford kept it for its range-topping model, and the response was enormous.
It’s fitting that the Skyliner is from the Jet Age, because it’s about as complex as one. Longer and lower than standard Fairlanes to accommodate the top, the Skyline’s roof gracefully opened and arced back into a rear-hinged trunk in a matter of seconds. To accomplish this balletic feat took no less than six motors, four lift jacks, a host of electrical relays, 10 solenoids, four power lock mechanisms, and over 600 feet of wiring. Astonishingly, the mechanism proved to be fairly robust and reliable. For a $2,942 range-topper (over $1,000 more than a base Ford), sales of ’57 models were strong, with the Blue Oval moving 20,766 units. Three V8s — a 272, 292, and 310 cubic inch — were offered, with power ranging from 190 to 245 horsepower, proving that the Skyliner was no sports car.
Things started to take a turn in 1958. Ford’s new styling, with quad headlights, a fake hood scoop, and even more chrome, proved to be less popular than the ’57s. What’s more, the high visibility of the Skyliner looked great on TV and in advertisements, but buyers were skeptical of the new technology, bristled at keeping their luggage in a small footlocker inside that massive trunk (the roof mechanisms took up the rest of the space), and nearly three grand was a lot to ask for as the country sunk into a recession.
While the average American was suddenly having a tough time making ends meet, Ford was in the midst of the largest automotive crisis to date. On September 4, 1957, it launched the ill-fated Edsel brand, a $350 million ($2.8 billion today) folly. On top of costly failures like the Lincoln-spinoff Continental brand of ’56-’57, and yes, the Skyliner roof program, the once high-flying company was suddenly short on cash, and the 14,713 Skyliners sold in ’58 didn’t exactly help.
The world’s first power hardtop convertible entered its final — and arguably best — year in 1959. Sales would continue to slide to 12,215, but the gawkiness of the ’58 model was replaced by a cleaner, wider look. Its broad, chrome grille integrated the recently legalized quad headlight setup far better than its predecessor, and out back, a pair of massive round taillights recalled the afterburners on the U.S. Air Force’s finest jets. Power was up too, with the 212-horse 292 V8 as the base engine, and a 300-horsepower, 352 cubic inch topping the range.
Ford released an all-new lineup (including its first-ever compact, the Falcon) to ring in the new decade, and with that, the Skyliner was left behind in the 1950s. But the folding top mechanism wasn’t; in 1961, Lincoln launched its now-iconic Continental, and while its four-door convertible model had a soft-top, it still utilized the Skyliner’s design.
Today, the Skyliners — Glass Vickies and drop-tops — are some of the most sought-after Fords of the 1950s. They might not have set sales records, but they captured the public’s imagination by implying that a bright, luxurious, automated future was just around the corner. They embody Ike-Era optimism better than virtually anything else from the late ’50s and, besides that, are just plain cool. The hardtop convertibles of today generally don’t call attention to their roof mechanisms like the Skyliner, but after pouring over old films of the car in action, we kind of wish they did.