Fully Automatic Convertible Tops

Automotive Mileposts
Image: Fully Automatic Convertible Tops

Below: 1957 Ford Skyliner Retractable with roof in operation

Owning a convertible was never easier than with these models, which went from the comfort of a weatherproof car to a fun in the sun convertible at the push of a button!

Image: 1957 Ford Skyliner

Convertibles have always been cool. Convertibles have usually been the star of the line up. When television ads for cars were shot during the classic era, which body style did they like to feature? The convertible! Normally the flashiest cars on the road were convertibles, and going for a ride with the top down was another new adventure for convertible lovers.

But all that flash came at a price. Convertibles were more expensive than their companion hardtop models, and were more expensive to maintain as they aged. The plastic or vinyl rear window would eventually get scratched or torn, and if it didn't the sun would turn it yellow, making it impossible to see through. The top material itself would eventually need replacement, as the sun also contributed to its deterioration in time.

Plus, some convertibles were a real chore to deal with when it came to raising and lowering the top. Once lowered, the boot would need to be snapped on to give the car a tidy appearance. Oh, and you didn't forget to unzip and roll and secure the vinyl or plastic rear window in place, did you?

Some convertibles were more work than others, obviously, and today on some of the current models the driver can sit in the comfort of their seat and raise or lower the top in less than a minute just by touching a control. Ah, technology has come so far, hasn't it? Well, not really, when you consider that cars made back in the fifties could also do that. So, we thought it would be fun to take a look at some of the "fully automatic" convertible tops of the past.

The first fully automatic top that comes to mind is the 1957 Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner. Made for just three years, the Skyliner was complex and expensive to build. Trunk space was difficult to find with the top down, as just a small box in the center of the trunk could be used for storage, the rest of the space was taken up by the top and its mechanisms. Since the Skyliner was a retractable hardtop, there was no rear window to yellow nor top material to tear, and the function of lowering or raising the top was fully automatic, other than holding a switch in place while the magic happened.

This magic was accomplished with 610 feet of wiring, 7 motors, 10 solenoids, 4 roof locking mechanisms, and micro-switches. All controlled by a single switch located to the left of the steering column.

For all its complexity, the retractable mechanism was pretty dependable, although an emergency manual hand-crank was provided with every car to complete the task, should something go awry mid stream.

The same basic design was used on the 1958 Continental Mark III, 1959 Continental Mark IV, and 1960 Continental Mark V convertibles. These models had a fabric top, instead of a hardtop, and folded somewhat differently as the top retracted into an area between the passenger compartment and the luggage compartment. The angled rear window was glass and power operated, and lowered into a channel behind the rear seat. The window operated independently of the top as well, so it could be lowered for ventilation without lowering the top. This design allowed for more luggage space, but these cars were huge, and that was the only reason why Lincoln was able to afford the space to stack the top.

Next are the 1958-1959 Ford Thunderbird Convertibles. Not quite as automatic as the Skyliner, as the driver was expected to unlatch the top from the windshield header, and unzip and secure the rear window, but after that, all it took was pushing a button under the instrument panel with the key on to unlatch the deck lid, which was raised manually after releasing an emergency catch. An extension panel was also raised manually and locked in place, then a switch in the luggage compartment on the driver's side would lower the top into the luggage compartment. The deck lid was closed manually, and you were cleared for take off!

In late 1959, the deck lid opening and closing function, as well as that of extending the panel on the deck lid became automatic, so there was a lot less work for the driver to do. This design was used on production Thunderbird Convertibles from late 1959 production through the end of the convertible body style in the Thunderbird line in 1966.

Lincoln Continental used the same basic Thunderbird retractable top design, except on the Lincoln the latching and unlatching from the windshield header were also automatic. For 1966, the rear window became glass and was permanently fixed to the convertible top, which meant it folded into place on its own and didn't need to be messed with at all.

The Lincoln Continental Convertible ended after 1967, and everything made after that required manual unlatching from the windshield as well as the installation of a soft or hard boot to cover the lowered top. General Motors did introduce a unique inward-folding "scissor" top in 1971, which allowed a full-width rear seat in convertibles. This design was much neater in appearance and was used through the end of factory production of Chevrolet, Pontiac, Oldsmobile, and Buick convertibles in 1975, and Cadillac Eldorado convertibles in 1976.

Image: 1958 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz Show CarFor the classic era, this makes the 1957-1959 Ford Skyliners, the 1958-1960 Continental Mark III-Vs, and the 1966-1967 Lincoln Continental Convertibles the cars with the most fully automatic convertible tops! An honorable mention goes to the 1958 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz Convertible Show Cars, of which five were built for display in the car show circuit that year. Its top was fully automatic, covered by a flush-fitting metal deck when the top was down. Three sectioned panels were powered by four electric motors that completely stored themselves when the top was up. A small humidity sensor was located on the rear deck that with the first drop of rain, automatically raised not only the top and locked it to the windshield, it raised all of the side windows, too! All of the cars were later sold to the public, and four of them are known to still exist. If these cars had been production cars, they would have truly been the winners, as no human interaction is required at all! What a scene that must have been to the unsuspecting passerby as the first drops of rain began to fall!


1957-1959 Ford Skyliner
1958 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz Show Car
1958 Continental Mark III
1959 Continental Mark IV
1960 Continental Mark V
1958-1966 Ford Thunderbird
1961-1967 Lincoln Continental Convertible

Image: 1957 Ford Skyliner

1957 Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner

Image: 1962 Lincoln Continental interior

1962 Lincoln Continental Convertible

Image: 1961 Ford Thunderbird Convertible

1961 Ford Thunderbird Convertible


The Humidity Control operates as shown below: (1) A model holds a dropper full of water; (2) a single drop of water is placed on the rear deck sensor; (3) the top boot cover raises and slides back over the deck lid, exposing the folded top; the two side panels (4) and (5) rotate open; (6) top raises up out of storage compartment, unfolds and comes to a rest on the windshield header; (7) top latches itself to the windshield header, securely locking in place; (8) power front door windows close; and (9) rear quarter windows close. This all happens automatically, in less than a minute, with no one touching the car, just the single drop of water!
Image: 1958 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz demonstration