Ford Fairlane Skyliner
Ford Fairlane Skyliner on Dearborn assembly line, 1957. Photo: Ford. Click image to enlarge

By Tony Whitney

I’ll never forget the first time I saw a 1957 Ford Fairlane Skyliner at a classic car show. Here was this huge “coupe” with, of all things, a metal roof that cleverly folded up on itself and hid in the trunk. Admittedly, the trunk was vast and looked big enough to accommodate a fair-sized motorcycle and still close properly. Even so, the big Ford had handsome proportions for a car of its day, and even the tailfins were fairly restrained. The Skyliner was a pioneer, the first mass-produced car with such a top, although several makers had tried similar roofs in the mists of automotive time, one such effort being the Eclipse, custom-built in France in 1937 on the Peugeot 402L chassis.

I love the look of that Ford to this day and my memories are revived by a rather nice 1/43rd-scale model of the car that graces my collection – with non-functional roof, I’m afraid to say.

Mercedes-Benz SLK varioroof
Mercedes-Benz SLK varioroof. Photo: Mercedes-Benz. Click image to enlarge

The Skyliner’s roof was bulky and heavy and took a while to fold or deploy with its complex – and hard to fix – electrical components. Poorly-maintained examples I’ve seen creaked and groaned in protest as the job was completed. But it was a groundbreaker without doubt, and lots of admirers of the concept back in the Fifties probably expected a similar efforts from rival automakers. Sadly, it was not to be, and it was several decades until someone in the industry thought that maybe the idea had some merit after all. The Skyliner itself lasted only three model years and sales were never strong.

Today, we have a huge selection of retractable hardtop sports cars to choose from, in a variety of price ranges. So enthusiastically has the auto industry embraced the idea of the folding hardtop that one wonders whether the good old ragtop is on the way out altogether.

Mercedes-Benz SL
Mercedes-Benz SL. Photo: Mercedes-Benz. Click image to enlarge

The great thing about folding hardtops, of course, is that these cars combine the benefits of a convertible and a sports coupe all in one car. For fine weather, the vehicle functions as a classic convertible with the top neatly tucked away. When bad weather threatens, the metal top glides snugly into place and the occupants have all the ambiance of a closed car with its weatherproofness, sound insulation and security.

The Mercedes-Benz SLK, now in its second generation, was the car that prompted automakers to take another look at retractable hardtops.

Cadillac XLR
Cadillac XLR. Photo: GM. Click image to enlarge

The first SLK I drove convinced me that it would start a landslide of similar models from all over the automotive world. It was just too nifty to be believed – an absolute delight. I believe that some Japanese automakers were playing around with convertible hardtop models for the home market before Mercedes launched its SLK, so perhaps the rebirth was taking place in several places at once.

Today, there are no fewer than five retractable hardtop models on the Canadian market, with two more about to arrive.

Cadillac has its striking XLR model with a metal folding top and like other cars in this growing class, it looks great top up or top down – something that can’t be said about every fabric top convertible. The Lexus SC430 has one of these tops and like its rivals, it uses a clever and sophisticated electro-mechanical system that gets the job done in a mater of seconds – literally, while waiting at a stop light.

2007 Pontiac G6 convertible
2007 Pontiac G6 convertible

2007 Volkswagen Eos
2007 Volkswagen Eos

2007 Volvo C70
2007 Volvo C70
Photos: Paul Williams, Grant Yoxon

Mercedes-Benz has two retractable hardtop sportsters, the aforementioned SLK and the larger and faster SL-Class cars. It’s just amazing how these tops fold down and still leave some usable trunk space. The roof part, with its heated glass rear window, folds in on itself in the most ingenious manner and when fully tucked away, the package is amazingly slim. These convertible hardtops all use some kind of fail-safe system that prevents you folding the top down if there’s any kind of obstruction in the trunk. It could be argued that poor trunk space is one of the penalties of tops like this, but in fact, this applies to just about any convertible, though some are better than others.

While most retractable-top sports cars fall into the luxury category and are thus an expensive buy, Pontiac has come up with a version of its G6 that’s priced in the low thirties. Perhaps this will herald a move to retractable hardtops with lower sticker prices, though I don’t know of any others “in the works.”

Last fall at the Frankfurt auto show, Volvo launched a retractable hardtop version of its C70 sports car, which in the past was available as a coupe or ragtop convertible. And Volkswagen has debuted its new Golf/Jetta-based Eos hardtop convertible in North America.

Will we see more retractable hardtops and fewer fabric roofs in the years ahead? I think that’s pretty well a given.

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