TBT: Ford Welcomes Warm Weather with Retractable Hard Top

May 18, 2023
Retractable Hard Top Click to Enlarge

As the weather in the Dearborn area becomes more welcoming to open-roof driving, we’re looking back at the introduction of the hardtop convertible — Ford was the first automaker to mass produce one — in the 1950s. It all started with the introduction of the “Roof-O-Matic” 70 years ago this month.

The all-steel hardtop concept, displayed for the media at the company’s then-new Styling Building in Dearborn, used a 3/8-scale model called Syrtis. The “first true hardtop convertible design for a sedan” was created by Ford’s Advanced Styling department. The use of steel was said to make the Roof-O-Matic safer and less noisy compared to traditional canvas tops. It would be a couple years before the technology was implemented, though.

Already the industry leader in convertible sales by a wide margin, Ford took the in-demand option a step further when it introduced the retractable steel roof on the 1957 Skyliner, a vehicle the company said was 10 years and $20 million in the making. The Skyliner became the first car to offer a hardtop convertible option using a variation of the Roof-O-Matic technology. The new feature was heralded as the biggest innovation in automobiles since the Model T era, after taking engineers some 40 years to create a folding convertible top.

A press release announcing the new option also noted that the feature was taking a different path to the mass market with its introduction coming in a high-volume vehicle rather than a higher-priced, lower-volume model.

Retractable Hard Top Click to Enlarge

In an effort to create an easy-to-use mechanism, Ford engineers put the retractable roof through the equivalent of 30 years’ worth of testing before it was released. The all-steel top retracted into the car’s trunk within 40 seconds with the push of a button on the instrument panel. An advertisement billed the car as “the miracle car of this generation … two cars in one!”

Ford knew the Skyliner would be popular with a car-buying public that was showing an increased demand for convertibles. Skyliner production in its first year was scheduled to be more than 20,000 units — more than the Thunderbird. The company sold 5,000 Skyliners in the car’s first two months on the market. Demand for retractable hardtop reportedly cooled quickly and by 1960 was no longer being offered.

And for those car owners who wanted the open-air freedom of a convertible with the all-weather practicality of the hardtop, Ford introduced the industry’s first manually operated sunroof on the 1960 Thunderbird. Not only for use on hot days, the sliding steel sunroof was also said to help improve the efficiency of the car’s heater in the winter when pushed about a quarter of the way open. 

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