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April 25, 2010

News & Features

A rare car and a rare skill meet up in Michael Hall's Tacoma garage

Special to NWautos

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Michael Hall is one of a handful of people in the country who fixes retractable hardtops, specializing in the Ford Skyliner. He's shown here with his 1957 model. (Jeff Layton)

There's no arguing that the Ford Skyliner is a unique car.

When it was built, the car featured cutting-edge technology. Beginning in 1957,
Skyliners became the first retractable hardtops ever mass-produced.

Flip a switch on the steering column and fully automated motors lift the rear deck like a Tic Tac box. They then unlatch the roof and rock it backward into the trunk before lowering and sealing the deck lid. In less than a minute, the hardtop transforms into a convertible.

Eventually, cutting-edge technology from the '50s will show signs of wear and tear -- flippers no longer seal, wires fray and motors die.

That's when collectors and restorers call Michael Hall.

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Michael Hall works on a 1959 Skyliner at his home in Tacoma. He's the only retractable top specialist in the Pacific Northwest. (Jeff Layton)

Hall, 58, is one of a shrinking group of people skilled at fixing legacy cars such as the Skyliner. He draws his clientele by specializing in a single feature: Hall has a reputation for being the guy in the Northwest -- perhaps the West Coast -- who fixes rare retractable roofs.

"You can tell when something's not quite right by the sound of it," Hall said recently at his Tacoma home, where he works as an audio-visual salesman. He does classic-car repair as a side business.

As if to prove his point, he raised the top on a customer's blue-and-white '59 Skyliner and one of the electric motors grabbed and growled. "Now that's not quite right," he muttered.

The car was in need of a flipper adjustment (the part that connects the roof to the windshield). But Hall says there are always cable drives to be lubed and brass oil lube bearings -- called bushings -- that need replacing.

About the Skyliner
  • Fewer than 50,000 were produced from 1957-1959.
  • The roof engineering cost nearly $4 million to develop ($32 million in today's dollars).
  • The tops are made of steel and weigh more than 300 pounds. A fully equipped Skyliner weighs about 4,000 pounds.
  • The convertible tops don't use hydraulics, only electric motors.
  • Retractable hardtops never caught on because of limited trunk space, their weight and the hefty sticker price (equivalent to an $80,000 car today).

"All of the old guys who know how to fix these things are dying," Hall says.

He can think of only three other people in the country who are adept at fixing retractables. "I get business from Montana, Canada, California," Hall says. "Can you believe there's no one in California who does this?"

Most of the problems Hall encounters involve switches that have corroded from water exposure. Another common problem develops from a wire that was installed too tightly around the frame, resulting in a crimp. "There's a half-mile of wire in each top," he jokes.

Despite its technical wizardry, the Skyliner was in production for only three years and fewer than 50,000 were made. However, the "flip tops" have remained popular with collectors, and the mechanized tops always draw crowds at auto shows.

Hall says he got into hardtops at 17 when his father convinced him to pay $200 for their neighbors' old beater -- a yellow-and-white '57 Skyliner. They worked together, side-by-side, to get it running again.

Like most restorers, his motivation is partly financial. But mostly, he is just nostalgic about the cars.

Hall lowers the top one final time. It will take him about seven hours to get it working again. "I just love watching them," he smiles.

Michael Hall can be contacted via e-mail at mb57@harbornet.com or phone at 253-229-1608.


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