The #5 Mechanical Prototype
of the 1956 Continental and
the predecessor of the first Skyliner in 1957


1957 Skyliner  painting by John Ranger at

From the Author

After a restless night, at about 2:30 a.m, I woke up thinking about a phone conversation that I had with Skyliners of Arizona secretary, Jill Jordan. She and her husband, Bob, were instrumental in the forming of Skyliners of Arizona Car Club, one of the nine chapters of Skyliners America. They met through a aost affiliation with the International Ford Retractable Club and both had lost their former spouse. Through their friendship in the car club, they fell in love, married, and currently “snowbird” between Washington State and Arizona.

Wow! I thought to myself- two lives, completely changed because of their mutual interest in the Retractable Car. I wondered how many other lives have been affected in various degrees because of the existence of this vehicle. My thoughts turned inwards as I asked myself- “Why am I here next to my beloved wife, Martha?” What series of decisions and events have controlled my life in a criss-cross pattern similar to those of the invisible electrical magnetic radiations that are captured in the “gillions” of cell phones?

Putting aside the decisions of my personal life and those of my faith in God, what was the single most important decision; the chief and pre-eminent decisions that would have a definite influence on the rest of my life? Where was I to live? Who was I to meet? What was I to be? Also, not only my life, but those of my children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. Reflecting on my 88+ years, I can truly say that the decision I made in May of 1953 was the “ONE” that affected my life to the greatest degree and it was made after prayer on the part of my wife and I and asking God for his direction for our lives.

This article is about the results of that decision to leave a supervisorial position in General Motors (something that no other engineer of my age had ever obtained) for only a dream assignment, and with less income. Sounds really dumb now, as I write this. However, the final outcome was to design the MP5- the Continental Mechanical Prototype #5. Without the existence of this car, the Skyliner never would have been built--- and the lives of ever owner of a Skyliner would have been affected to some degree, great or small.

For sake of brevity, I’ll write each event in chronological order.

The car specifications seemed simple. In Spring of 1951, Ford Motor Company Board od Directors through the recommendation of Ernest R. Breech, Executive Vice President and Lewis D. Crusoe, Vice President of Ford Division approval came for funding in the amount of 2.19 million dollars to study the feasibility of a steel top convertible.

Investments of this nature should return its value every seven to 10 years. Extrapolating the 2.19 million would be equal to 350-400million dollars in today's dollars.

In late 1952 or early 1953 the Ford Motor Company Engineering Staff, after almost two years of study issued a report that the idea was not feasible for production. I never asked to see the report ....... I wanted to start with a "clean sheet of paper".

William Clay Ford, youngest son of Edsel and grandson of henry Ford, headed the newly formed Special Products Division (SPD) with the responsibility to design and produce a proposed 1956 Continental, requested permission to explore the possibility of a steel top convertible for the forthcoming 1956 model. Permission was given in early 1953.

John Hoowell, who I had worked with previously on a proposed light car project, was appointed Department Manager with overall responsibility to build a prototype with a 2.19 million dollar budget.

In April 1953, John asked me to come work with him on the "secret" project at Ford. The problem was that I had recently been promoted to Section Supervisor at general Motors and was very well positioned at GMC. Also my salary plus bonus was more than his.

After several meetings, John finally told me the details of the "secret" project and that the funds were in place. My salary was equal to his and I would have complete control of the overall mechanical design. John would be responsible for the shop and al related details. At John's insistance he was to have his name along with mine on any patent that might result from the design and "get the roses" at the end of the program. Later we learned that company policy was that three names always appeared on a company owned patent; the inventor, his boss, and the person under him.

For two long weeks, my wife and I analyzed the pros and cons of leaving a very secure position at GM for "only a dream". After many hours of prayer and asking the Lord for His guidance, I felt comfortable about accepting the biggest challenge of my then young life.

On June 14th, 1953 At the age of 30, I joined Ford Motor Company with the sole responsibility to design a steep top convertible for the 1956 Continental.

The car specifications seemed simple. The car was to be the number one job:

• Production of the Ford Lincoln Continental with a retractable hardtop.

Skyliner prototype 1st model3/8 scale model prototypeFord skyliner prototype model

• The hard top to be one button completely automatic with timing to be equal to or less than a conventional convertible.

• The back light to retract (this was developed and incorporated into a future model of the Mercury but not used on the MP5 due to the timing of the prototype build.

• The deck lid was to open in both directions (later cancelled due to timing delays for Continental production.

• There was to be no compromise in the rear seat dimensions

The two weeks at the end of May to mid June (leaving GM and starting at Ford) were spent developing a very rough schedule reflecting what I thought would be necessary to build a prototype (including manpower, timing, build of prototype) with a completion date of 18 months. I intended this to be only a rough target with input from other to analyze and refine.

Boy! Was I wrong! My rough scheduling was accepted without other input and the program was off and running.

When I developed the above schedule, I also thought that we would have full cooperation from the Engineering Staff and other corporate facilities. Wrong again!

Since S.P.D. (Continental Division) was the “secret” division of the Company, the other divisions were responding with their own secrecy (unspoken, of course). In a few short weeks, it became crystal clear that we were on our own, as the unwanted “cousins” in the Ford family. Up to this time, Engineering Staff designed “all” models of “all” car lines for Ford production and corporate by-laws confirmed it so. But now, a car division of the company, for the first time, was going to design its own car. Many times during the next 18 months, my last words as I lay my head on the pillow were, “Lord, you helped me get into this, now you’ll have to get me out.” Often, I would wake up in the night, make a few sketches on a pad that I kept on my night stand, and the next day I had the solution.... but sometimes (most often) no dreams, but the silence meant, “Okay Ben, you can do it by yourself.”

retractable roof design drawingsSkyliner retractable roof blueprint

The U.S general Patent Office granted us patents with about 80 original counts (or 80 separate patents) for the Continental designs. Later another patent was granted for the Skyliner with an additional 50(est.) counts. The patents are in my name, but ownership is FMC. In anticipation of the Retractable not being practical for the Continental, I had be engineers explore the possibility to package the design on a high volume Ford product. The reason being, that should the Continental Retractable have problems, it would not affect the entire sales program of the car line. We found that the 1957 Fairlane was a possibility.

I informed Ben Mills of the Fairlane possibility. Of course, his question to me was "are you sure?" When I assured him of a 95% possibility he arranged a secret meeting with Bob McNamara. Bob McNamara was the President of the Ford Division. Ben Mills, my boss, was Vice President of the newly formed Continental Division. Both were members of the "Ten Whiz Kids:" hired by mr. Ford after the war, to reconstruct the Ford Motor Company.

In late September or early October of 1954 (this was before the MPS was completed) we made a formal presentation to the Ford Division showing the feasibility to adapt the Retractable to the '57 Fairlane. Bob McNamara was interested and directed his staff to include it into the 1957 preliminary line-up. A white paper was prepared to kick off a preliminary study by the Engineering Staff to include the Retractable in the 1957 Fairlane car line. We were to assist in the study, if they requested.

Skyliner drawing 33

After an exhausting 18 months of extensive design and build, on january 5, 1955 at 11:30 a.m. the prototype was ready to take its first trip outside of the shop. It had nor even been driven around the block but time was of the essence and short cuts had to be taken.

Beside me, sat Ben Mills, Vice President of the newly formed Continental Division and in the back seat were Harley Copp, Chief Engineer of Continental Division, and my boss, John Hollowell. I was bursting with pride and joy as we drove out of the door to the applause of the entire crew. My pride and joy soon turned to dismay and embarrassment as only a few miles down the road the car came to a grinding stop. Luckily, I had pulled over to park. The drive-live engineer in charge of the rear axle had failed to add the oil! Ben Mills was very gracious and tried to relieve my embarrassment but always remembered that “no oil” episode for a good laugh in our future contacts.

In late January, 1955, the car was presented to the Board of Directors at FMC.  With enthusiastic applause they rushed from their seats to have a close-up look at this new concept. Result- they gave unanimous approval that it should be considered for the Continental.

At that time, the Continental marketing program was to build 10,000 units for 10,000 invited guests at the prices of $10,000 each- by far the most expensive car of the “big three.”

A quick market poll revealed that 90% of the guests would pay $2500 extra for the retractable model.

In February 1955, I recommended that the program was too risky and there was too little time left to assure a quality product for the Continental, but the company should consider this for the Ford 1957 car line.

In January and February of 1955, we were bombarded with requests from all the car lines to view the MP5 and what could be done to incorporate it into their product. It was a busy time.

During this hectic period, we decided to make a company-wide demonstration of the MP5. It was an invite to the V.P’s and two or three of their top people. It was, frankly, the most important show of the year regarding new features for all car lines.

Ford Skyliner prototype frame

Representatives from Engineering Staff, Manufacturing Marketing, Sales, Purchasing, even the Legal Department were invited. Ben Mills gave the presentation and I was there to answer questions. The group was extremely enthusiastic; this truly may be the car of the future.

While all were gathered around this car, viewing the up and down cycles,a member of the engineer for Engineering Staff asked if the top would work on an uneven surface. I said that we had tried it with the front wheel on the curb. He then brought out two ramps, 3-4 inches high, and place one at the left front tire and the other at the right rear tire. He asked if I would drive the car onto the ramps and work the top. What a spot! Engineering Staff had to prove that they were right.

Ben Mills tried to deflect the test, but I got into the car with a prayer, “Lord, you can make this car as light as a feather and this is possibly a go or not event... it’s in Your hands.”

I drove the car up on the ramps with a bit of groans and creaks in the sheet metal. Should I get out in order to lighten the load? Now that’s a stupid question to be asking at this time. I pushed the button and the deck lid opened, the rood came out and locked and the lid closed. PERFECT!

The group gave the car a rounding applause. The members of Engineering Staff were very quiet for the rest of the meeting! You might say, “Ben, you were lucky”... I don’t think it was just luck.

In late January, Engineering Staff reported that the Retractable was not practical for 1957 production on any car line and it was also doubtful for any future production car. This news coming almost simultaneously with my recommendation that it should not be included in the Continental, left me devastated.

All this work for nothing? My thoughts were, “Lord, you didn’t get me into this just for a prototype- what can I do?” Some will think that I’m reading too much of “God’s will” into this, but I had experienced too many solutions in the pat 20 months for them all to be just attributed to luck. What was about to happen was no less than miraculous.

Once again, I was awakened during the night. Why don’t we, as Continental Division, act as on outside supplier and design the 1957 Fairlane for the Ford Division? What a crazy idea! All I had to do was convince Ben Mills and Bob McNamara that we (the Continental Division) could do it and act as that supplier to the company. Boy! This was thinking “outside the box.” It should be easy, but 50 years of corporate policy had to be changed within a month!

Ford Engineering Staff had the sole responsibility to design ALL Ford products... Period! Even items such as radios, clocks, small electric motors, etc. had to be tested and approved by Engineering Staff. No way possible!! A small newly formed Continental Divisions was proposing to design a new idea to be incorporated into the car line of Ford’s largest division. The consequences of failure were tremendous; Corporate change failure; defiance of Engineering Staff’s position; expenditure of at least 180 million dollars in today’s money; and personal failure on decisions made by President Robert McNamara, and Vice President Ben Mills. All of these would be riding upon a presentation of a 32 year old engineer.

Of course, there were a few items that I failed to stress. Some of the basic designs of the MP5 had to be changed. The locking system on the MP5 was hydraulic and had to be changed to the newly developed 2” electric motor that I had contracted with American Bosch to develop specifically for the Retractable.
The shelf panel was attached to the back of the seat with two small slaps folding down to permit passage of the roof control arms when the roof was up. Also the electric system on the MP5 was controlled by a circular disc telling each moving part to start and stop in relation to the other parts.

Ford Skyliner retractable hardtop front locking mechanical hardware drawing

The choreography of deck lid, top and shelf panel all moving at the same time was a dance of beauty, but if perchance, the deck lid or any other part had a problem, the results would be a disaster. This had to be replaced with sensor switches so that the deck lids would move and stop before the roof would start. These were only the main items to be changed.

After several meeting with Ben Miller, he was sufficiently convinced that I could engineer a Retractable with reasonable assurance of a successful conclusion. I had finally convinced Ben Mills that was could do it supported by a timing schedule and a complete budget forecast. With a bit of refining, Ben Mills presented this to the Ford Division.

Bob McNamara accepted it providing I increase the budget by 50%. I later found out that Engineering Staff’s budget was almost three times more than my budget, so even with the increase, it was still approximately half of theirs. The Board of Directors approved (March 1955) an exploratory program that was put in place by releasing preliminary funds toward a 1957 Fairlane prototype. The retractable had a change of survival- a miracle indeed!

Our Engineering Department was housed in the newly constructed building for the Continental Division. Engineering Staff assigned several engineers to assure that the released drawings were to normal procedures. In a few months our entire proposal was approved with Job #1 coming four months after the normal 1957 introduction.

I drove the MP5 for the next two years as we developed the 1957 Skyliner.

I thank the Lord for His help- I’m sure without Him, the Skyliner would never have been produced.

Because the Retractable was produced, each of you Skyliner owners, to some degree, have had your lives changed and I’m so proud to welcome you, “my kids”, into the family.*

With kind regards,

Ben J. Smith