You probably thought the Chevy SSR’s folding hardtop was a nifty little piece of technology when it first came out in 2004. You maybe even thought it was a great idea stolen from those wacky Germans over at Mercedes-Benz, whose 1998 retractable-hardtop SLK coupe rocked our idea of what a convertible was supposed to be.
And you’d be way off the target. Almost seventy-five years off the target, to be exact. The first time someone thought of folding up the roof and tucking it away in the trunk was in 1922 for the Hudson coupe. Sadly, this didn’t work out, and the French became the first to use a retractable roof on the ’35-model 402 Éclipse Décapotable. Oddly, the engineering genius who figured out how to make it work on a production car was a dentist/car designer/british secret agent named Georges Paulin. No, really. Paulin started his career fixing teeth, then designed beautiful cars (including two that ran in LeMans in ’36 & ’37), before Germany invaded, motivating Paulin to channel his inner James Bond and chase out the Nazi scum that got in the way of building awesome rides.
The Americans weren’t ready to give up on the foldup hardtop just yet. In 1941, Chrysler stepped into the ring with a concept known as the “Thunderbolt,” a futuristic aluminum-bodied car built on a Crown Imperial frame. That’s when Uncle Sam decided to get in on the Nazi-busting action by jumping into the second world war in 1942. The subsequent war effort meant civilian vehicles were ditched to make room for airplane & tank building, dashing all hopes that the car would go into production.
However, once the third reich was good and dead and out of the way, Ford decided to make a real effort at building a retractable hardtop. Top brass put their money where their mouth was, dropping $2 million to install the first one on a ’53 Continental Mark II convertible. However, the marketing department pulled the plug and put the roof’s fate in limbo.
In 1957, the house of Henry decided it was time to try the retractable roof once more, and introduced the Ford Skyliner. Despite the fact that the luggage portion of the trunk was a wash tub borrowed from Granny Clampett, the roof’s reliability was up there with the Yugo, and it cost three times more than the base model Ford coupe, the Skyliner has developed a cult following.
One of those who developed a lifelong passion for the car was David Denby, of Thompson, Manitoba. He first saw the car in 1960 when someone drove a Skyliner through his hometown. “I just had to have one after that,” David recalls. Apparently, a lot of other people had to have one, too. In fact, Ford sold over 20,000 Skyliners that year, beating out even the Chevy Corvette. It seemed like the big, metal retracting top was the thing to have in 1957. Even Lucy and Desi thought so:
Part of this demand had something to do with the fact that this was a pinnacle of American engineering. After all, it would be twelve years before a person would land on the moon. In order to accomplish such a feat, the crack team of engineers developed this technology by using a lot of other technology. And by other technology, I mean they used a lot of electronic doodads. The total count of electrically powered parts looked something like this: 1 switch, 10 power relays, 10 limit switches, 4 lock motors, 3 drive motors, 8 circuit breakers, and 610 feet of wire. Having the only car on the market that folds in on itself without the aid of a head-on collision? Priceless.
David’s particular example was originally a Kentucky car. It changed hands a couple of times before it ended up in his posession in 1973. When he got the car, it was equipped with the 312-cubic inch Thunderbird Special V8, and the stock automatic transmission. In 1979, the car was re-painted, and a set of Cragar chrome wheels was added. He hasn’t toyed with it, outside of regular oil changes and tune-ups. The car is already awesome enough.
Unfortunately, Ford didn’t feel the same way. in 1958, the blue-oval boys started to round-out the styling cues and added quad-headlights, taking away from the ’57s good looks. And in 1959, the Skyliner nameplate was integrated with every other car name Ford had available at the time. It was now known as the “Ford Fairlane 500 Galaxie Skyliner.” Through a second stroke of engineering genius, the designers managed to fit the entire name on the trunklid without making the car three feet wider. Of course, they tinkered with the car’s looks in other ways, taking away even more of the car’s good looks. Sales dropped significantly in both years, with a meagre 12,915 units getting moved in what became the Skyliner’s last year.
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