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Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner: the world's first mass-produced coupe-convertible

Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner: the world's first mass-produced coupe-convertible

The idea of creating a car with a retractable hardtop belongs to the American Ben Ellerbeck from Salt Lake City – back in 1922 he built the world’s first “transformer” with a removable hardtop, based on the two-door Hudson Super Six. The roof was a single unit with the rear window and moved backward through a lever mechanism, activated by a rotating handle on the right side of the car, “covering” the rear part of the body. Ellerbeck offered his invention to Ford and Packard, but it didn’t pique the interest of the car business at that time.

The typical interior of the fifties: a huge thin steering wheel and the frame of the panoramic windshield protruding into the door opening. Holes at the top of the frame are for the roof’s screw locks.

The idea was forgotten for almost ten years until, in 1931, it was revived by a Frenchman, Georges Paulin – a dentist by profession, but a designer and engineer by vocation. His construction, named Eclipse, was equipped with a bulky electric drive, and the roof “hid” in the trunk. At first, Paulin unsuccessfully tried to interest André Citroën with his invention, but later reached an agreement with the Pourtout body shop, and in 1933 the first car with a folding roof of Paulin’s design became the four-door Hotchkiss. Later, this construction was used in the Lancia Belna, produced in France, and in 1934 it reached Peugeot cars. At first, coupe-convertibles were built on individual orders, and the first relatively mass-produced “transformer” was the Peugeot 402 Eclipse (580 cars were produced from 1935 to 1939): an expensive electric roof drive was offered as an option, and the base model had a handle, similar to Ellerbeck’s design.

For the convenience of landing on the rear sofa, the backs of the front seats recline at an angle. And the back of the sofa is installed almost vertically – behind it is a gas tank.

In 1940, the idea of a retractable hardtop was recalled in America: one of the world’s first concept cars, the Chrysler Thunderbolt, was equipped with an aluminum body, the roof of which “flipped” into a separate compartment, rotating around an axis behind the seats.

The rear windows retracted into the sides, rotating around the lower mounting of the front edge.

After the war, the first to return to the idea of a coupe-convertible were Americans – specifically from the Ford corporation, whose managers thirty years ago had turned down pioneer Ellerbeck. Initially, the mechanism for retracting the hardtop was designed by engineer Gil Spear’s team for the 1955 Continental Mark II – the most expensive model in the Ford hierarchy, which was even decided to be promoted separately from the Lincoln brand. However, the demand for the base coupe was so low that Ford lost a thousand dollars on each unit sold (the car itself cost 10 thousand dollars). Therefore, in 1957, the model was discontinued. But more than two million dollars had already been spent on the development of the retractable hardtop, and they needed to somehow recoup this investment, so they decided to attach the wonder-roof to another model. However, for the Lincolns designed in the early fifties, the system did not fit in the trunk, and an entirely new model was only being prepared for 1958. The preparation of the new Mercury model range was also delayed. The new Fords were the closest to the assembly line. Thus, speaking in the language of today’s marketers, premium segment technology appeared on the “people’s” car, the Ford Fairlane 500, of the 1957 model year.

On the first Skyliners, the roof lever looked exactly like this, and only then it was replaced with a solid console in the center of the front panel. You pull on yourself – the roof is removed, you press – it rises.

Gentleman’s set: speedometer, odometer, fuel gauge, coolant temperature indicator, and automatic transmission mode scale.
To engage the first gear of the automatic transmission, you need to move the lever to the lowest position, Lo.

The coupe-convertible, named Skyliner, was the longest in the family: almost 5.4 meters from bumper to bumper, and nearly two meters wide. The Soviet ZIM, produced in those years, was only slightly longer (5,5 m/217.7 in).

We found a Ford Skyliner in Moscow – in the collection of the Kamysmash restoration workshop.

It’s so huge! The differential housing is similar to truck’s, and the rear suspension has six-leaf springs. The first thing I tried is to fold the roof – for this, a lever is installed to the left of the steering column. The process is controlled by a relay unit mounted in the trunk, which is connected to electric motors and limit switches placed along the path of the roof and accompanying mechanisms. There is a noticeable pause between phases – two to three seconds. In the absence of electronics, this scheme completely excludes a “conflict” of different elements of the mechanism: the roof will not start to fold with the trunk lid closed. But the whole process takes almost a minute!

Seven electric motors are involved in the transformation process: the first unlocks the two screw locks of the trunk lid, the second lifts the lid itself, the third folds its front section (it turns into a shelf behind the rear seats), the fourth and fifth unlock the locks that pull the roof to the windshield frame and the rear part of the body. The sixth, the most powerful, retracts the roof into the trunk, and the seventh simultaneously rotates the “visor” of the roof. After that, the trunk lid returns to its original position. The entire process lasts 58 seconds.

By the way, it is impossible to open the trunk manually – to throw a bag in there, you need to use the same lever to start the transformation process and interrupt it after the trunk lid is lifted (provided that the roof is already raised). And then – lower it back in the same way.

The 1957 Skyliners were equipped with a choice of four engines – of course, these were V-shaped “eights” ranging from 4.5 to 5.1 liters. The power of the base version is 190 hp, while the most powerful modification with a supercharger developed 300 hp. Our coupe-convertible is in the “mid-range” version with a naturally aspirated 5.1 engine (245 hp) and a three-speed Ford-O-Matic automatic transmission made by Borg Warner.

Let’s go!

The heater was offered for an extra $85 and the air conditioning (not available on this car) cost another $377.
The L.Air and R.Air handles located on the sides of the handlebar control the air dampers that direct air to the driver’s and passenger’s feet. On the right – a cigarette lighter disguised as other switches.

With a small key, like one for a mailbox, I start the engine, pull the steering column lever towards me and down, and with a noticeable jerk it engages. No, not first, but second gear. In Drive mode, the transmission only uses second and third gears, which is why Ford’s automatic is often mistakenly considered a two-speed.

The two-ton Skyliner starts off smoothly, and imperceptibly shifts into third gear at around 40 km/h. The “eight” rumbles contentedly and gently under the hood and forgives any mistreatment – even accelerating from idle in third gear. As the Americans say, there is no replacement for displacement.

The mighty 5.1-liter Y-block “V8” engine easily fits into the spacious compartment. The washer reservoir and nozzles were installed recently – the manufacturer started offering this option from 1958 onwards.

The hydraulic cylinder of the power steering is directly attached to the center steering rod.

The suspension is very soft, but on large bumps the body noticeably shakes, and on waves there is a swaying motion. However, the Skyliner ы sloppy! It holds its line decently, and body roll in turns isn’t too excessive. The steering is absolutely “dead” in the near-zero zone, but in turns, it unexpectedly fills with reactive force. The culprit is the weak power steering. Later, in the sixties, American car manufacturers made power steering strong and completely killed the “steering feel”. On the Skyliner, it’s barely enough. When the car is stationary, the power steering often “bites,” so the steering wheel must be turned old school-style – only after starting.

Interestingly, the character of the car does not depend on the position of the roof: if it is raised, the nearly perfect weight distribution between the axles hardly changes – the load on the rear axle decreases by only 2.4%.

The lining of the compartment has been lost over the years, as well as the “basket” for luggage, which was installed in the center. Along the sides, worm gears are located for raising and lowering the top, driven by an electric motor hidden in the spare wheel compartment (covered by a wooden lid). Next to them are spring balancers encased in housings, which ease the work of the electric motors. On the rear wall, a motor for the trunk lid is installed, also connected to the worm gears with flexible shafts.

The differential housing is like that of a three-ton truck, and the already sturdy frame is reinforced with an X-shaped insert made of thick channels. The rear suspension leaf springs, almost one and a half meters long, have progressive action: as they are loaded, the upper leaves come into contact with intermediate buffers, reducing the effective length of the springs by a quarter and thus increasing their stiffness.

The familiar blue ovals are not present on the Skyliner – Ford passenger cars from the late fifties had this emblem-crest, and the Thunderbird model even had its own logo.

Aerodynamics are not bad – in the convertible at a speed of 80 km/h (about 50 mph), even with the side windows down, the wind only ruffles the hair on the top of the head, though it’s already uncomfortable for the rear passengers.

Moreover, the coupe-convertible was not very expensive – from $2,942 for the base version, only one and a half times more expensive than the most affordable Ford Custom sedan. Of course, our Skyliner with a five-liter engine, automatic transmission, radio, heater, and power steering and brakes was priced at $3,464. But, for example, the sporty two-seater Ford Thunderbird cost at least $3,408 at the time, and the most basic Lincoln – $4,649. At a time when Soviet citizens saved for years to buy a small Moskvich, Americans could easily afford this unusual transformer car.

And they bought it! Cars of the 1957 model year, which for the Skyliner lasted only six months due to the late start of sales, sold in the number of 20,766 units and brought a large influx of customers to the showrooms. But interest in the complex and capricious design quickly cooled: only 14,713 updated Skyliners were sold in the full 1958 model year, and in 1959 only 12,915 cars were sold, after which the coupe-convertible was discontinued.

The Skyliner was ahead of its time. After all, no one ever made full-size open cars with a four-seater cabin and a hard folding roof after Ford. And the Mercedes SLK, the first mass-produced coupe-convertible of the “new wave”, only appeared in 1996…

The Skyliner appeared at the height of the fashion for tail “fins”.

By the 1958 model year, the Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner, like the entire “passenger” family, experienced a large-scale restyling. More engines of a larger volume appeared, the list of options expanded, which even included air suspension. And in the coupe-cabriolet, in addition, the mechanism for retracting the roof was modernized: instead of worm gears, hydraulic cylinders appeared.

Fords after the restyling of the 1959 model year are considered one of the most beautiful cars of those years. But neither the successful design, nor the transfer of the Skyliner model in the middle of the season from the Fairlane 500 family to the more prestigious Galaxie series (with only the nameplates changed) could improve sales. In the completely new family of 1960, only the regular Sunliner convertible remained, which previously sold three to four times better than the “transformer”.

Vehicle Specifications

CarFord Fairlane 500 Skyliner
Body typeTwo-door coupe-convertible
Seating capacity6
Curb weight, kg1920
EngineGasoline, carburetor
PlacementFront, longitudinal
Number and arrangement of cylinders8, V-shaped
Displacement, cc5115
Cylinder diameter / piston stroke, mm96.5/87.4
Compression ratio9.7:1
Number of valves16
Max power, hp/kW/rpm (SAE)245/180/4600
Max torque, Nm/rpm437/2600
TransmissionAutomatic, 3-speed
Gear ratios:
Final drive

Front suspensionIndependent, spring, with double wishbones
Rear suspensionDependent, leaf spring
Fuel tank capacity, l66

Photo by Stepan Schumacher

This is the translation. You can read the original article here: Игорь Владимирский протестировал первый в мире массовый купе-кабриолет Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner

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