When it comes to Fords with folding solid roofs, everybody thinks of the full-size Skyliner hardtops of the late 1950s, which are hugely collectible today. Fewer people realize that Ben Smith, one of the Skyliner’s original designers, developed a prototype of a retractable Mustang in 1966, but the idea didn’t fly and the car was almost certainly scrapped. He’d revisit the idea in the 1990s, producing a handful of prototypes from first-generation Mustangs, along with between 35 and 50 conversion kits, roughly 10 of which were built by his son David into complete cars. On October 17, one of these rare retractable-roof Mustangs heads to auction in Aurora, Nebraska.
Smith was involved in an early prototype of a retractable, a Lincoln Continental Mark II, that was fully functional but never saw the light of day. Its complex operating system, however, was incorporated nearly intact into the first production Skyliner of 1957.
Smith was rewarded by being promoted to chief engineer for Ford of Argentina, before William Clay Ford tapped him to be director of advanced packaging in Dearborn. By this time, Mustang fever was in full flight, and Ford was already looking for derivatives of its original three-box body style. The first was the 2+2 fastback, which Lee Iacocca approved on the spot. A variety of removable hardtop designs were considered, and Smith ultimately pitched the idea for a retractable Mustang—with some key differences.
From the outset, Smith intended his prototype to use a manual folding roof. He took a well-optioned 1965 Mustang and added torque boxes and rocker-panel reinforcement before slicing off the roof. The Mustang’s rear overhang was lengthened by 2.5 inches, so the top could stow in the trunk. But rather than retracting in one piece like the Skyliner’s roof did, Smith created a clamshell design that would fold in half, and could be retracted and stowed manually, using torsion bars to counterbalance the assembly. There were no wires, switches, solenoids or motors involved—at least, not until Ford brass reviewed the prototype and decided they wanted a powered version.
They got it, too, but the break-even estimates ultimately sacked the Mustang retractable. The power-roof version that Smith developed ultimately vanished while he was on overseas assignment for Ford.
Undeterred, Smith took an early retirement from Ford in 1968. In 1993 he bought a used 1966 Mustang and set about re-creating the prototype from the 1960s, again using a manual clamshell roof, which was shown at the national Mustang convocation in Charlotte in 1995.
Three prototypes were built, including a red 1966 with a black interior and a white roof; a powder blue 1965 with a blue interior; and a gunmetal gray car built for Ben A. Smith, another son. The project eventually evolved into conversion kits, incorporating Smith’s structural reinforcements, up to 50 of which were sold.
One of the Smith-designed retractable prototypes eventually wound its way into the 100-car collection of Nebraska native Harvey Bish, who reportedly purchased it from Ben Smith at a 1996 Barrett-Jackson auction. Described as a prototype, the car doesn’t fit the description of the three prototype cars built by Smith in the 1990s, although the door plate indicates that this car, a 1966 model, began life as a Y paint code car, finished in silver blue metallic.
Could this be prototype two, the “powder blue” car? If so, the top has been recovered, and both the car’s exterior and interior have changed colors. There’s also the matter of production year; the second prototype was a 1965, while this example is clearly a 1966. It can’t be the red car featured in the October 2005 issue of Hemmings Classic Car, as this was owned by Rae Smith, not Harvey Bish, when the article was published.
In the end, it doesn’t really matter. Less than 50 of these cars were ever built, making them rare by anyone’s standards, and a guaranteed attention-getter at any car show. The retractable Mustang will be offered at no reserve at the VanDerBrink sale, and Harvey will be on hand to reminisce with old car buffs. Find out more, including the wide-ranging inventory of cars being sold, by visiting VanDerBrinkAuctions.com.