Lebowski

1957-59 Ford retractables-fun to own or too many problems?

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I'm considering buying a '59 up in Wisconsin but I've heard they're a PITA with all the electric motors required to raise and lower the top. Has anyone owned one and, if so, would you buy another one? Is there anything else I should know before I take the plunge? Thanks.... :)

 

 

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It’s just a car. With a lot of analog switches. If all the wiring harnesses have been replaced, all you need is to understand the switches. Not impossible, just time consuming. It wouldn’t bother me in the least. 

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Unless you are a working electrician I'd pass, unless the top is locked in the up position. 

 

 

Bob 

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Are you a mechanically inclined electrical engineer who is also a chronic gambler? Then this is the car for you!

 

Every time I sell one (or a Thunderbird or Lincoln with the same top mechanism) my advice is this: DO NOT PLAY WITH THE TOP. Put it down in April, put it up in November, and unless it's a monsoon, LEAVE IT ALONE.

 

It might be reliable today and fail tomorrow. I bought a '62 Thunderbird Sport Roadster two years ago and made the seller put the top up and down twice before I paid him. Great! Took it home and the minute we tried to put it down for photos it croaked. $2000 later, it was working again. I just sold a '65 Thunderbird to a guy and told him to leave the top alone. Nah, he put it down as soon as he got it off the truck, put it up and down to show it to his neighbor, put it down to go to dinner, his wife complained so he stopped to put it up, then drove it to work the next day with the top down, put it up in the parking lot, took buddies out to lunch and put it down, put it up to park after lunch, put it down to drive home, and pulled into the driveway and decided to wash it, so he put the top up and it stopped halfway with the trunk open like a parachute that wouldn't fit into his garage. He sent me an angry message telling me the car was junk and I had to pay for the repairs. He used up about five years' worth of top operation in less than 24 hours. I pointed to the big, bold letters in the operating instructions I gave him that said LEAVE THE TOP ALONE.

 

Think of it this way: it was designed for perhaps 1000 duty cycles. After 60 years, it's probably on 987. Every cycle after that is a miracle from God.

 

If you're a gambler and like the thrill of not knowing what will happen when you press the button, Retractables are otherwise nice cars. Good road manners, a little ponderous, but they do make a statement. The standard cloth top Sunliners drive better and have better proportions, but they're not quite the same. The systems are understandable and you can learn to fix them (the manual is actually pretty good) but diagnostics are a chore and parts can be scarce. Each switch and relay has to operate correctly and in sequence, and if one fails none of the others will work, either. Sometimes that makes diagnostics easy, sometimes it's maddening. And if relay #1 is broken and you can't even get into the trunk, well, good luck. There are ways in, but none are easy.

 

Do you feel lucky punk? Well do ya?

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I tend to agree with what Matt says.

When VL got her 57 up here from Texas I found that the rams were quite tight.

They are a long threaded rod and the old grease had gummed up pretty good.

I cleaned all that and got the top working pretty well.

She insists on showing it off however and I cringe when I see her parked at a show with the thing in half up position.

As suggested, a lot of patience and a general knowledge of electricity as well as a bit of logic and one should be able to figure one of those retractables out within a summer.

 

When I own a convertible I put the top down the day I get it and unless it rains it stays down until I am taking pictures to sell it.

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A few years back an acquaintance of mine had a Thunderbird with a retractable top.  He was showing some folks how it worked, but forgot that he had a can of paint in the trunk.  It absolutely crushed that can, shooting a gallon of latex all over his newly-restored trunk liner.

 

Doesn't say anything about reliability, but it would seem that the mechanism is not underpowered.

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My brother had a 59 retractable and a Sunliner, his first wife got the retractable in the divorce, his second wife got the Sunliner and I bought his Ranchero. He would buy another of either if his present wife would let him.

 

Automatic retractable hard tonneau tops are problematic  and it doesn't seem to matter who made the car, or when it was made. More power moving parts means more places for problems and they all have problems after they get to be a few years old. The newer cars are computer controlled pressure sensing hydraulic and the old Ford here is simple switch and relay logic.  If the wire harness insulation is rock hard or brittle pass on the car, if you can make a 180 bend and not split the insulation there isn't anything in this top that can't fixed by a guy that can fix an old pin ball machine. 

 

 

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Posted (edited)

Neighbor had one and the top locked in the halfway position (according to him.) I'm not trying to advocate against or for a car I've never owned, just relating to you the experience of an old car guy whose opinion I respect. (He has a '36 Ford that he rebuilt from the ground up.) The more info you have, the better. They are among those most visually awesome cars of the 1950's. though.

Edited by JamesR (see edit history)

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Thanks for all the tips and comments. Since I'm not very good at fixing things and the car is 500 miles away I guess I'll pass on it...

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I like retractibles, won't have another cloth top. But then I have an SLK.

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@JACK M I have been heeding your advice the last couple years. It was just a little at first and 2 shows I promise!

 

I 💕 mine and it’s an attention getter! The Skyliner group has a tech adviser you can reach and the top manual is probably a must. Plus a friend like @JACK M if your not mechanically inclined. 

10 hours ago, JACK M said:

I tend to agree with what Matt says.

When VL got her 57 up here from Texas I found that the rams were quite tight.

They are a long threaded rod and the old grease had gummed up pretty good.

I cleaned all that and got the top working pretty well.

She insists on showing it off however and I cringe when I see her parked at a show with the thing in half up position.

As suggested, a lot of patience and a general knowledge of electricity as well as a bit of logic and one should be able to figure one of those retractables out within a summer.

 

When I own a convertible I put the top down the day I get it and unless it rains it stays down until I am taking pictures to sell it.

 

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C8F4D29C-E4C8-4A25-89A4-A2CA619F43B4.jpeg

2348310F-10B9-4A73-B571-14DE6B50AF04.jpeg

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16 hours ago, Matt Harwood said:

Are you a mechanically inclined electrical engineer who is also a chronic gambler? Then this is the car for you!

 

Every time I sell one (or a Thunderbird or Lincoln with the same top mechanism) my advice is this: DO NOT PLAY WITH THE TOP. Put it down in April, put it up in November, and unless it's a monsoon, LEAVE IT ALONE.

 

It might be reliable today and fail tomorrow. I bought a '62 Thunderbird Sport Roadster two years ago and made the seller put the top up and down twice before I paid him. Great! Took it home and the minute we tried to put it down for photos it croaked. $2000 later, it was working again. I just sold a '65 Thunderbird to a guy and told him to leave the top alone. Nah, he put it down as soon as he got it off the truck, put it up and down to show it to his neighbor, put it down to go to dinner, his wife complained so he stopped to put it up, then drove it to work the next day with the top down, put it up in the parking lot, took buddies out to lunch and put it down, put it up to park after lunch, put it down to drive home, and pulled into the driveway and decided to wash it, so he put the top up and it stopped halfway with the trunk open like a parachute that wouldn't fit into his garage. He sent me an angry message telling me the car was junk and I had to pay for the repairs. He used up about five years' worth of top operation in less than 24 hours. I pointed to the big, bold letters in the operating instructions I gave him that said LEAVE THE TOP ALONE.

 

Think of it this way: it was designed for perhaps 1000 duty cycles. After 60 years, it's probably on 987. Every cycle after that is a miracle from God.

 

If you're a gambler and like the thrill of not knowing what will happen when you press the button, Retractables are otherwise nice cars. Good road manners, a little ponderous, but they do make a statement. The standard cloth top Sunliners drive better and have better proportions, but they're not quite the same. The systems are understandable and you can learn to fix them (the manual is actually pretty good) but diagnostics are a chore and parts can be scarce. Each switch and relay has to operate correctly and in sequence, and if one fails none of the others will work, either. Sometimes that makes diagnostics easy, sometimes it's maddening. And if relay #1 is broken and you can't even get into the trunk, well, good luck. There are ways in, but none are easy.

 

Do you feel lucky punk? Well do ya?

 

Same way we feel about '57 and '58 Cadillac Broughams. The electricals are only slightly less complex than those om the space shuttle. I think it is actually impossible to have all the various systems working at the same time although I did meet a fellow at a CLC show who claimed to have all systems working for almost a full day.

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6 hours ago, victorialynn2 said:

@JACK M I have been heeding your advice the last couple years. It was just a little at first and 2 shows I promise!

 

I 💕 mine and it’s an attention getter! The Skyliner group has a tech adviser you can reach and the top manual is probably a must. Plus a friend like @JACK M if your not mechanically inclined. 

 

 

 

 

 

I have to admit that that looks pretty cool like that. How many times would you say that you've raised and lowered the top since you've had the car? Any problems? 

 

The seller just put a video on YouTube of him lowering the top so it obviously works well now but you guys seem to think that it won't keep working for long, right? Bummer!

 

 

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10 hours ago, Lebowski said:

Thanks for all the tips and comments. Since I'm not very good at fixing things and the car is 500 miles away I guess I'll pass on it...

 

Don't sell yourself short, the factory service manual for this top was written for the average 1950's mechanic and if you can follow written instructions and can use simple hand tools, you can fix one of these. 

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Here's the thing with owning a retractable: the only reason to own one is to display it at shows with the top half-mast, as shown above. Doing that tends to be hard on the hardware and it's a lot of extra duty cycles running it up and down at every show. If you don't put the top up, it merely looks like a slightly porky and awkward Sunliner convertible. Top up, it looks like a slightly porky and awkward hardtop. Either way it's still a convertible that weighs a few hundred pounds more than a standard Sunliner cloth top convertible, so it's not as energetic to drive. Yes, they're cool, but the entire reason they're cool is that top and if you're not demonstrating it at shows, the car is just kind of meh (meaning no offense to those who love them). However, demonstrating it all the time is a shortcut to having to fix it sooner rather than later. It's certainly serviceable and you don't have to be a genius to do it, but there's an investment in knowledge that you'll have to make and surely an investment in time at some point in the future to repair it. Do you enjoy that part of the ownership experience? Let that be your guide.

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I've always gotten a kick out of seeing the tops half down, or as an optimist would say, half up!  Reminds me of the saying about armadillos when I lived in Louisiana, that they were "born dead on the side of the road", since that's the only way you ever saw one.

 

I've owned a '67 Lincoln convertible and a handful of 64-66 Thunderbird convertibles, and the relays are definitely a pain. I understand the frustration, both of keeping them operational and selling a car that has them.  I once sold a '66 Thunderbird when I was in New Orleans, about a month later the owner called me yelling that the top was down and wouldn't come up, and as mentioned, I'd sold him a POS.  Naturally, the top had failed down in a thunderstorm, and somehow he was hot under the collar even though his collar was soaking wet.  I like helping people, and had he asked nicely I'd have gone to help him, but it just doesn't work when the first words you hear on the phone have to do with your family tree, or absence thereof.....

 

I'm really surprised that no one has come up with a solid state solution to the problem, I like keeping things original, but a computer with the brain power of the mouse on my computer could easily sequence the different operations for these tops.  Then, all you'd have to do is make sure the pressure switches work.  Even those could be replaced with other types of devices that are more reliable, even electric eyes!

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Posted (edited)
6 hours ago, Lebowski said:

 

I have to admit that that looks pretty cool like that. How many times would you say that you've raised and lowered the top since you've had the car? Any problems? 

 

The seller just put a video on YouTube of him lowering the top so it obviously works well now but you guys seem to think that it won't keep working for long, right? Bummer!

 

 

Mine need some replacements of the struts that are back there. The outer housing parts are broken. My dad must have been working back there as some of the interior trunk panels are off it and the tub is new in a box. The struts are available and I don’t think too expensive. I haven’t been working due to moving back closer to dad after working a year in Medford, so I don’t have $$ to spend on it now. It seems to be working fine with a delay mid cycle, but that could also be due to a low battery as I’ve used it when it’s first started for the season and been sitting. Because of the delay, I am a little nervous to use it. There is a way to help it manually that I did before Jack worked on it, but I don’t remember the details, although it wasn’t hard. 

Recently I’ve only been lowering in the spring and raising in the fall. Before that I did it a few times for a total of about 10-12 times in three years. Ideally, I’d like to get the new parts and have it gone through so I could confidentially use it at shows. I’d be happy to spend 2k+ for that. My biggest issue is I am not at all mechanical. Not at all! I’m too afraid to drive any older car in case of issues, but I have towing through JC Taylor. I can raise and lower inside my garage so I typically do. If it got stuck half way it wouldn’t get through the door, but fits in the garage. 

All of this being said, I love it and the ride is really nice. I get tons of waves and smiles. More than the Bronco even. The one you are looking at is a beautiful color. The Skyliner club is a great resource but less online, more phone support, in person. Might have to wait a day or so for a call back. I think any old car mechanic with a phone call to their tech advisor could figure out any potential issues. You might go to their page and talk to one for more info. I think Wayne Rawlings was who Jack spoke with but Jack had already figured out what he worked on. I know there are a few experts, so depending on where you live, the Skyliner club could help you. My car had sat for probably 10 years so I was impressed it still worked at all!

I love my car but at first not so much. It is also special because of my father, but the car has really grown on me beyond that more than I thought it would. I’m headed to a show today with it. The first one of the season!

honestly don’t think you’d regret it because they are special cars. I’ve also been told these early ones are easier and more reliable than the 60’s ones to work on but you could confirm with the club. Owners consistently tell me they are not as problematic as we all believe. 

http://www.skyliner.org/contact.html

Edited by victorialynn2 (see edit history)

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I just watched the video and his works perfect and the pics show his trunk and struts, etc are in much better shape than mine. Go for it! 

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2 hours ago, 60FlatTop said:

They all seem to get stuck in the same spot.

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That’s certainly the joke at shows!

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3 hours ago, Matt Harwood said:

Here's the thing with owning a retractable: the only reason to own one is to display it at shows with the top half-mast, as shown above. Doing that tends to be hard on the hardware and it's a lot of extra duty cycles running it up and down at every show. If you don't put the top up, it merely looks like a slightly porky and awkward Sunliner convertible. Top up, it looks like a slightly porky and awkward hardtop. Either way it's still a convertible that weighs a few hundred pounds more than a standard Sunliner cloth top convertible, so it's not as energetic to drive. Yes, they're cool, but the entire reason they're cool is that top and if you're not demonstrating it at shows, the car is just kind of meh (meaning no offense to those who love them). However, demonstrating it all the time is a shortcut to having to fix it sooner rather than later. It's certainly serviceable and you don't have to be a genius to do it, but there's an investment in knowledge that you'll have to make and surely an investment in time at some point in the future to repair it. Do you enjoy that part of the ownership experience? Let that be your guide.

I haven’t been to many shows, but I drive it with the top down and it gets lots of attention, so there’s that. Also, have you worked on a Skyliner? I’m told much easier than the 60’s hard tops you mentioned. I obviously can’t verify that, but I’m told that by owners so I’m curious. 

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As I think I said it before, they are probably the most visually impressive cars of the 1950's. Even though I could never own one (not enough money or skill or patience) I do love them dearly. Why? Because they're emblematic of the optimism that characterized America in the 1950's: "Look what we Americans are now able to do...never mind how difficult it is or the amount of effort that's required to keep it working!" You have to love that attitude if you're an American. Here's my favorite car commercial of all time:

 

 

 

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56 minutes ago, victorialynn2 said:

I haven’t been to many shows, but I drive it with the top down and it gets lots of attention, so there’s that. Also, have you worked on a Skyliner? I’m told much easier than the 60’s hard tops you mentioned. I obviously can’t verify that, but I’m told that by owners so I’m curious. 

 

I've had two retractables and both were trouble-free during the time I had them. However, I am adamant about not over-doing it with the top, which means we put it up and down once for the video to prove it worked but beyond that, I don't play with it. We've had three '60s Thunderbirds with problematic soft tops that needed servicing, plus the one that I recently sold and the guy broke it by using it 10 times in 24 hours. With those statistics, I suppose you could say the retractables are more reliable than the Thunderbirds, but that's not really an accurate cross-section. Obviously not all of them will break, but at the same time, when/if they do it's still an ordeal. The system is not all that different between the two and the things that go wrong seem to be common to both vehicles (the switches that control the movement of the top itself are the most problematic, followed by those that control the "flipper" panel). Like I said earlier--it's always a gamble. It might work perfectly for years or, like the Thunderbird I bought, it might work perfectly now and two hours later be expensively broken. Just no way to know because there are never any warnings with electronic devices. It's not like they develop a rod knock or start to slip the way engines and transmissions do.

 

Ultimately I can't say whether one is easier to service than the other nor that there's a consistent place for them to fail. All I know is that sooner or later, something probably will break and it's a major PITA to fix and parts are expensive (the broken switch on the car with the broken top in the field was about $450).

 

I will say I was pretty fond of this particularly car simply because it was an ultra-rare E-code car with dual 4-barrel carbs. Someone spent a FORTUNE restoring it so it was in very good order while it was with us.

 

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All that said, I do think your pink retractable is FANTASTIC. If you're going to have an iconic '50s car, you may as well have a remarkable model in a remarkable color.

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4 hours ago, trimacar said:

Reminds me of the saying about armadillos when I lived in Louisiana, that they were "born dead on the side of the road", since that's the only way you ever saw one.

 

David, Why did the chicken cross the road ?   To prove to the armadillos that it could be done.

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