Classic Car Buyer's Guide: 1957-1959 Fairlane Skyliner
The Fairlane Skyliner was the Ford's flagship car of Tomorrow. A rolling showcase of electronic wizardry, Skyliner's big draw was a metal roof that folded itself and disappeared under the deck lid in seconds. It was two cars in one, a practical hardtop during inclement weather and a stylish convertible for the weekend or sunny evenings. The Skyliner was the top option in the Fairlane 500 series and is one of the most desired 1950s styling icons. The time is excellent to buy one of these before the market climbs upwards. 1950s classics have been experiencing a surge of popularity and bona fide classics will be the first to rise in value. Here's a guide to help you sort and find the best one for you!
A styling icon and engineering marvel, the Skyliner is a 50's classic.
Year by Year Identification: The 1957 model featured single headlamps, a simple bar grille and a full length body spear that points forward on the door panel. The rear deck featured rocketship brake lamps and a simple bumper. The very early production Retractable roof didn't have the Skyliner script on the sail panels.
Every year sported a different grille, this is a 1957 model.
The 1958 model was restyled with a new heavy hexagonal grille that spanned the width of the car and used twin headlamps. The hood had a small central scoop and the side body spear is very wide and tapers towards the bottom as it reaches the quarter panel. For 1959, the Fairlane had a new grille with star motif and a heavy front bumper with turn signal assemblies at each corner. The body spear reverted to a simpler design similar to 1957 only the door panel trim points to the rear instead of the front. Once again, the rear deck has rocket booster brake lamps. Another detail exclusive to 1959 was a shorter folding flip down roof panel.
Engines: In 1957, 272 cubic-inch V8was standard equipment. A 292 V8 with ranging from 200-212 horsepower was optional and the premier engine was a 312 V8 with 240 horsepower. For 1958 two new engines appeared, a 332 cubic-inch was standard while a 352 V8 was optional. The earlier 272, 292 and 312 Y-blocks were discontinued. In 1959, the 332 and 352 returned. All of these engines were reliable and parts supply isn't a big problem. Some pieces are costly but availability is not an issue. The transmissions offered included Ford's automatic and early Cruise-o-matic. Both transmissions were similar, the Cruise-O-Matic had a center support and used a one-way clutch, pinion carrier and different valve body. Both models were relatively simple units. The Cruise-O-Matic case sometimes cracked in the center support area. A chattering noise in reverse gear often indicates case damage. The original type fluid used in Cruise-O-Matics and Ford-O-Matics limited their life span on the street to about seven years of driving. Improved fluids allow the same transmissions 100,000 miles easily due to less wear on the clutch packs and housings. A rebuild is highly recommended with barn finds or long term storage cars.
Skyliners relied on the Ford Y-block V8 ranging from 272 to 352 cubic inches.
The engines may smoke a bit due to blocked oil drain holes in the rocker arm chambers. Bad leaks at the valve covers gaskets towards the firewall is indicative of this problem. Old stored cars will likely have this situation with the ethyl leaded gasoline creating sludgy build up. If the car was restored in the last ten years, a smoking engine is likely caused by defective rings or poor assembly practices. It's not uncommon to find the coolant pipe passages changed up front to prevent scalding burns while working on the car. The twin cross over arrangement makes working on an early overhead V8 a safety challenge.
Desirable Options: The Skyliner is an expensive car to start with so options are somewhat limited. There are a few that can really stand out and one is power windows. The padded dashboard, Town & Country pushbutton radio and safety belts are desirable features. Other popular options included the Continental Kit which included external spare tire cover and extended rear bumper with color coded filler panel. These have been added on many cars during restorations. Power brakes and power steering are desirable but fairly rare. The power brake system was a Bendix Master Vac unit. Adding one or replacing worn out systems will cost over $500 just in parts. Not many cars came with so many extras however. If you're happy with a "base" Skyliner, this will be easy to do. You should be saving your money for the major expenses in any restoration, the body and paint work. On a Skyliner this can be very expensive indeed.
Rare Skyliner options are power windows and a/c. This one has radio, power steering, brakes and padded dash.
Things to Watch for: Sadly, the technical wizardry of the disappearing top has scared many a buyer away from owning a Skyliner. They all read about the vast 300 feet of electrical wires, switches and relays and head for the hills. It is quite ironic that the crushing blow in Skyliner restorations isn't the hardtop operation. Indeed, it is largely hydraulic, not electrical in nature using a pair of screwjacks and clever rotator links to fold the front top down. While cumbersome and lengthy today, the wiring system is pretty reliable. The major hang ups usually appear in examples suffering from humidity where you'll have some inconsistency in operation. The big cost in restoration lies in the body because Fairlanes are notorious for rust.
Buyers fear the electrical wiring of a Skyliner, yet most examples work well as it was thoroughly tested before sale.
The moving force behind the roof are actually hydraulic screwjacks which seldom fail.
The Fairlanes rust just about everywhere from the 1957-1959 era. The sheetmetal sections next to anodized and stainless trim rust due to bimetallic corrosion. The lengthy air ducts that drape over the front wheel wells frequently lose or plug up their drain hoses near the cowl, pooling water and debris over time and rust away. The driver side floor pan can rust out due to condensation cycles set up with a muffler and heat shield trapping moisture overnight. The top of the headlamp crowns frequently rot out and its common to find them full of bondo. The lengthy rear quarter panels are easy to dent and bondo was commonly used to fill in low spots where repairs were made. The panels are unique to Skyliners and replacements dried up a long time ago. The rear frame rails can hold moisture and dirt so they can rust away.
Front fender air ducts rust out, these 1959 ducts had to be custom fabricated.
Floor pan above muffler shield rots out, wrecking nearby frame rails. This 1959 had a section of checkplate welded in at one time.
Headlamp hood sheet metal replacement is common, bimetallic corrosion between trim and metal causes the majority of panel rust on Skyliners.
Some weatherstripping isn't reproduced so replacing window seals can be a challenge if yours are cracked or dry rotted. Examining a Skyliner body is very important if a restoration is planned. The back half must be as pristine as possible because a donor car is the only source for rusted metal. The front fenders can be worked with or replacements found. The frame is a bit spindly for the weight of the car, a rough example will be bent and stress cracks are possible. In fact, you should spend 70 percent of your inspection time checking the body and frame integrity and the remaining time on the drive train and rare options if any. Finding date coded glass, correct steel trim and options will consume time and money so a car that has a good body but no glass or interior to speak of isn't necessarily a great deal. Skyliners used lots of one year only trim and it can add up when replacing them.
Each year Skyliner have unique parts, be wary of buying a stripped project car.
The best advice I can offer is before you go shopping, know clearly what you're looking for. Do you want a concours show winner or just a nice cruise night car? They're two different machines and the cost to build a show winner is frightfully expensive. The best way to get a show winner is to buy one or find an excellently preserved example and do it correctly.
Documentation: The Skyliners were built in the pre mandatory VIN number era. Ford also had a primitive casting number system compared to GM at the time. Determining exactly which Y block your car has is a bit of a crapshoot unless it is partially disassembled. The basic casting code for a V8 cylinder head is 6090 and every V8 Y block head from the 239 up to 312 cubic inch used that number. Even the letter codes stamped into the heads aren't very specific. A typical head letter code is ECZ-G which denotes a 272 cid, 312 or a 292 V8. It will depend on the combustion chamber size, valve size and actual date of production!
The Y-engine block all share the same 6015 number and simply denotes Ford V8 Y block. Since the 292 and 312 blocks are visually identical from the outside you'll have to rely on letter codes to gain more info. Accurate identification is best done with oil pan off to examine the main bearing caps. Often a 292 coded engine on the outside may have the larger 312 main bearing caps, identifying it as a 312 engine. The block letter codes are found above the oil filter on Cleveland foundry engines while Dearborn units have the letter codes near the distributor or above the generator. After 1957, most engines were cast at Cleveland. Given the complexity of engine parts id, many owners simply rely on having a block date coded before assembly of car and having the appropriate letter codes on the outside. If you're paying top dollar for a restored example, some proof should be provided by the seller since it cannot be easily done once assembled and installed.
The data plate is found on the driver side A-pillar near the vent window area. This plate tells you trim, paint code, engine, axle and model of car. It also supplies the area where it was sold new under the District Sales Code (DSO). Decoding the plate is done using the correct year shop manual and gives you a good idea what the car was like from the factory. The data plates have been available as reproductions for years now so you can't rely on it alone for proof. Having extra documents verifying the authenticity of the car really is worthwhile. A sales receipt with options listed, a build sheet or a factory authorized report from Ford is solid documentation. Follow this advice and you'll be admiring the sky instead of watching the ground whiz beneath your feet.