The Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner: A Remarkable Original

Before the McLaren 570S Spider or Ferrari 458 Spider was the car that paved the way for hardtop convertibles: the Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner!

An Automotive First

1957 Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner -
1957 Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner -

Some cars have cemented their place in automotive history. The Volkswagen Beetle, the Chevrolet Corvette, the Dodge Charger, and the Toyota Prius all come to mind. Ford has its own entries on that list, including the Ford F-Series, Ford Mustang, and Ford Model T. There’s one car that sometimes gets overlooked though: the Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner.

Not only was the Fairlane 500 Skyliner flashy and artsy with an instantly-recognizable stainless steel stripe, but it was also innovative. It’s the first-ever large-scale hardtop convertible that was put into production. Though it’s now arguably overlooked, at the time, the Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner was a marvel of technology. Today we’re taking a look back at the impact this underrated vehicle had on Ford and the automotive industry.

Setting The Scene

1957 Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner -
1957 Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner -

The year was 1957. Milk was $1 a gallon, gasoline was $0.24 a gallon, and a house cost $20,000. The number one song on the radio was “All Shook Up,” by Elvis Presley. Dr. Seuss published ‘The Cat in the Hat.’ Sputnik I was successfully launched into outer space by the Soviet Union. In the automotive industry, 1957 was the first year that Toyota started selling cars in the United States. V8 engines had become commonplace in the cars of the 1950s. Americans felt empowered to put some of their money down on cars because of a booming economy. Ford and Chrysler were trying to outsell each other, but Ford was losing. Then came the 1957 Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner retractable hardtop!

Extraordinary Engineering

1957 Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner - Ellingson Classic Cars on
1957 Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner - Ellingson Classic Cars on

The 1957 Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner was the first retractable hardtop convertible, but other carmakers had tried it before. Automotive engineers had been trying to make the concept work since as early as 1919. That’s when engineer Ben. B. Ellerbeck designed a model for the roadster body styles of the time. It was called a ‘shiftable top’ on the 1/8-scale models Ellerbeck used to demonstrate the concept. By 1922, this transitioned from just an idea to being a fully functional prototype on a 1919 Hudson Super Six roadster. Automakers weren’t interested, though.

Ellerbeck kept trying. So did other developers throughout the 1930s and 1940s. Retractable hardtop prototypes were engineered for a 1941 Chrysler Thunderbolt and a 1946 Kaiser-Frazer sedan. Ford designer Gil Spear was next to toy with the concept in sketch form as early as the late ’40s. Designer Gil Spear was working with the idea of a retractable hardtop at the same time. His drawings caught the attention of William Clay Ford.

1957 Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner -
1957 Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner -

In 1952, Ford approved a $2.18-million budget for Spear to develop a working retractable hardtop. Spear worked on the idea with young engineer Ben Smith, who was recruited from his job with GM. The concept he was working on was originally intended for a 1956 Lincoln Continental, part of Ford’s separate luxury car division. Already increasing costs on the production of the 1956 Continental put an end to those plans.

In just 18 months, Smith accomplished Ford’s ambitious goal of producing a working retractable top. Smith developed a system that included power relays, limit switches, and seven small, electric motors that would lower, or raise, the top without leaving the driver’s seat. It was done with the push of a button. When the design was fully operational, the top retracted the hardtop into the boot. The successful completion of this project convinced Ford executive Robert McNamara to give this new invention to Ford instead of Continental. Instead of throwing away the idea, it was put in place on the 1957 Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner.

A Showroom Showstopper

Ford marketed the 1957 Fairlane 500 Skyliner as the vehicle with the “Hide-Away Hardtop.” It cost $2,942 to buy a Fairlane 500 Skyliner, making it Ford’s most expensive car of 1957. That didn’t stop people from buying the history-making car, though. Ford sold 20,766 units during the 1957 model year. Ford sales in 1957 increased dramatically, even surpassing Chevrolet. For the first time in years, Ford took back the spot as the number one selling car company in the U.S.

People gathered in Ford showrooms just to witness the novelty that was the retractable hardtop. They wanted to see it up close and in action. The look of the car added to its appeal. Whether the roof was up or down on the Fairlane 500 Skyliner, the car looked sleek and stylish. Two-tone body paint and two-tone leather seats upped its cool factor. Even the President of the United States, Dwight D. Eisenhower, purchased the Skyliner.

The End of the Line

1959 Ford Fairlane 500 Galaxie Skyliner -
1959 Ford Fairlane 500 Galaxie Skyliner -

Despite the initial success, the Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner seemed to end its run as quickly as it began. The recession of 1958 impacted new car sales in a big way. Ford changed Fairlane 500 Skyliner to the ‘Ford Fairlane 500 Galaxie Skyliner’ in the 1959 model year. A slight name change wasn’t going to help them, though.

The retractable top in the Fairlane 500 was expensive and complicated to produce. The very thing that made the Fairlane 500 Skyliner stand out also added to its demise. By the 1960 model year, the Skyliner retractable hardtops were removed from Ford’s lineup. In total, less than 50,000 models were made.

The Legacy Lives On

1957 Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner -
1957 Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner -

Despite its short-lived existence, the Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner will forever be known as the first-ever mass-produced retractable hardtop convertible. Since a total of just 48,394 were manufactured, they can be rare finds. To this day, they are hits at car shows and turn heads whenever they’re seen on the street. If a Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner retractable hardtop is on display, a crowd will almost always be gathered around it.

Get even more Ford history by reading 10 Weird Facts You Didn’t Know About Ford and looking at the Ford Thunderbird Through the Years. If the open road with the wind blowing through your hair is more your style, try browsing our feature on Convertibles: Everything You Need to Know.

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Jesse Batson

Jesse Batson earned his journalism degree from South Dakota State University. No stranger to newsgathering and reporting, Jesse spent 13 years in TV news. 10 of those years were spent working in Charlotte, NC, home of NASCAR. A highlight of his time there was being able to take a lap around the Charlotte Motor Speedway. His interest in vehicles, starting with Matchbox cars, a Big Wheel, and the Transformers, evolved into taking photos of motocross events. Now, he puts his research skills to use on car culture, reviews, and comparisons.

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