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1965 Ford Mustang GT Retractable Hardtop
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Willmar Car Club 2014 Kandi Mall Display



This article originally appeared in the October, 2005 issue of Hemmings Classic Car.

There exist no new ideas.
Whatever variation of synapse connections you’ve managed to form in a method new to you has almost surely taken place in the minds of men years, generations, or centuries before. No offense, that’s just what happens when billions of people inhabit one planet over several millennia. Watch a television show or listen to a song on the radio and you’ll swear you’ve seen that plot or heard that lyric before.
Another prime example–convertible hardtops.
The Lexus SC430 offers both the safety and comfort of a hardtop over your head and the thrill of open-top motoring, as it has since 2000. But the Mercedes-Benz SLK offered the same option back in 1996. The Mitsubishi 3000GT introduced the bodystyle two years prior.
Automakers on this side of the pond have only brought retractables back to showrooms recently, with the appearance of the Pontiac G6 for the 2006 model year, the Cadillac XLR in 2003 and the Chevrolet SSR about the same time.
Pie-in-the-sky dream cars have used the feature as a gimmick for years. Benjamin B. Ellerbeck, of Salt Lake City, Utah, patented a retractable metal roof in 1922, then fitted it to a 1919 Hudson, but he couldn’t find a manufacturer to bring his dream to life. Coachbuilders and infinitesimal-run versions of production cars have employed it as far back as 1933, on the Hotchkiss Eclipse by Pourtout.
Right about in the middle of it all came Ben J. Smith and his desire to see a retractable hardtop fitted to a Ford Mustang.
Smith, 82, can be likened to a latter-day Ellerbeck, if only in their tenacity in pursuing this common idea. Ellerbeck, after building his Hudson, pursued a one-man publicity campaign for the idea in the automotive journals of the day. He tried unsuccessfully to attract Packard as a builder and claimed he took several orders, but Ellerbeck’s idea seemed not to earn him much fame nor money as he continued his publicity march through the 1930s.
Smith, however, stood a better chance for success. A Detroit native, he went to Ford where he started as a wood pattern maker in 1940. He said he remained on deferment until an acquaintance reported him to the draft board, so rather than face Uncle Sam’s wrath, he enlisted in the Navy in 1944 for 17 months. Smith returned to Ford for its Light Ford program; then, in 1949, moved to Nash and later took a job with General Motors’ Fisher Body Division, engineering hardtops and convertibles.
In about the same time span, Ford Advanced Studio designer Gil Spear penned the retractable hardtop idea. Whether he knew of Ellerbeck’s efforts has never been mentioned, but his idea resembled Ellerbeck’s–a hardtop that simply slid down over the trunk lid. Nothing to stow away, no complex mechanisms. (Dick Teague, the legendary AMC stylist, penned a small retractable in 1946 for Kaiser-Frazer that also used the same basic principle, though the concept never progressed beyond paper.)
Spear’s first drawing emerged in October 1948, according to Jim and Cheryl Farrell’s book, Ford Design Department Concepts and Showcars, 1932-1961. But the idea didn’t re-emerge until it appeared on Ford’s 1953 Syrtis show car. By then, Spear had refined the idea to drop the hardtop under the trunk lid. The Syrtis ultimately met the business end of a sledgehammer multiple times, but Spear had convinced William Clay Ford, Ford’s general manager of Special Products Operations, that the Continental Mark II project–which got the go-ahead in 1953–had to include a retractable hardtop.
Harley Copp, the chief engineer for the Mark II project, brought his brother-in-law, John Hollowell, into the project. Hollowell, who worked with Ben Smith on the Light Ford project, in turn hired Smith away from GM. With a budget of .19 million and 18 months, Hollowell and Smith finished MP#5, a Mark II mule fitted with a fully operational powered convertible hardtop. The car generated great applause, but the project’s leaders sacked the idea when they realized that Ford could only build the Mark II in one bodystyle.
To recoup the investment, Ford had Smith integrate the concept into the 1957 Ford, hoping the additional million invested in modifying the Fairlane body and in tooling would amortize over an anticipated larger run. The Ford retractable hardtop, introduced in mid-1957, and called the Skyliner in 1958-59, used essentially the same system developed for the Mark II. Smith had to extend the Fairlane’s rear sheetmetal by three inches, shorten the hardtop 3.75 inches and relocate the gas tank, but he finished the design work right at the December 1956 deadline.
Ford sold nearly 48,400 Skyliners over the car’s three-year run–good enough to give Ford bragging rights as the first to mass-produce such a design. But the sales didn’t justify the investment, so GM and Chrysler decided not to compete.
Smith, though, never forgot the idea. Maybe because he drove MP#5 on the streets of Detroit for two years, until he came back from vacation to find it scrapped. Maybe because he later read about the Peugeot Eclipses of the 1930s. Whatever inspiration he took, it lay dormant in his mind for the better part of a decade.
From 1959 to 1964, Smith served as chief engineer for Ford of Argentina. In 1964, he became executive engineer for Ford’s Commonwealth zones, and a year later William Clay Ford tapped him to head up advanced package engineering in Detroit.
By this time, the Mustang had become Ford’s darling. Demand continually outstripped production, and its first-year sales broke the record set just a few years earlier by the Falcon. Ford product planners really had just the two models to offer to begin with, so they scrambled for more.
"We had worked up such a head of steam on the first Mustang that we were already looking for variations on the theme," Gene Bordinat, Ford’s styling chief at the time, said in Gary Witzenburg’s Mustang: The Complete History of America’s Pioneer Ponycar.
For that reason, Bordinat’s Mustang styling group whipped up the fastback bodystyle and Lee Iacocca approved it the minute he saw it. Though designers played around with prototype removable hardtops and rejected the idea before the Mustang’s April 1964 introduction, a dealer-installed folding sunroof made the options list and some dealers at the time offered aftermarket removable hardtops for the convertibles.
So what better time to pitch a convertible hardtop for the Mustang?
Rather than reprise the Mark II/Skyliner design, Smith had a simpler idea. Instead of adding the 13 switches, 10 solenoids, nine circuit breakers, five motors and 610 feet of wire that powered the Skyliner’s retractable top, Smith wanted the Mustang’s top completely manual. And instead of dropping the roof as one piece into the trunk–something the 1957 Fairlane’s styling permitted–Smith designed a clamshell-style roof that worked better with the Mustang’s long-hood, short-deck styling.
To the best of our research, clamshell design appeared just twice prior–on the 1948 Playboy and on a car designed by J.R.V. Dolphin of Buckingham, England, the same year. We’ve found little additional information about Dolphin’s design, other than that it was installed on an Allard chassis, and the Playboy, of which 97 total were made, used the top section as a rigid boot directly behind the seat. Smith’s design, however, placed the entire top under the trunklid, leaving the rear seat open for passengers.
Smith actually started working on his idea in mid-1965. He had a discretionary budget of about 0,000 and said he spent between ,000 and ,000 developing a retractable hardtop for the Mustang with the help of his assistant, Roy Butler, who followed Smith to Ford from GM, and of Ford designer Dick Papps. Before long, he decided to approach upper management with the project.
"We finally got authority (from Ford) for 5,000, but it could have been a quarter-million dollars, I simply don’t remember," Smith said. "So I let a build contract out to John Hollowell. He left Ford and started his own engineering company (in 1962), so he did some manufacturing himself.
"I ordered a 1965 coupe special off the production line–it had all the bells and whistles and the biggest engine you could get at the time. I put double torque boxes in the front and added on to the rocker panel to strengthen the chassis for when we cut the roof off. Anything I designed for that was an add-on weld. I could put the front right wheel on a curb and the back left wheel on a block and open the doors without losing any structural integrity.
"I increased the length of the car about two and a half inches, just in the rear overhang, so I could fit the roof in the trunk," Smith said. "The wheelbase stayed the same; I just extended the sheetmetal back. Well, that required new taillamps and a new rear bumper. And the decklid, I had to turn it around, so it could open from the front. Yes, the decklid styling came from my Lincoln styling days, but we also needed the space in there to stow the top when it was down."
In addition, the gas tank and filler moved behind the rear seat, just as it had on MP#5. Smith even envisioned four additional tops for the project: one of brushed aluminum, one of stainless steel, one vinyl-covered fiberglass top and one stamped-steel top. He said Hollowell could only fabricate the latter two, but even those remained on the sidelines, not a part of the car’s overall presentation.
"The whole project was a quickie," Smith said. "From concept, we had the car built in seven months. It was completed in the spring of 1966. We didn’t have to get any staff engineering approval, so that cut through all the red tape."
Smith said he doesn’t remember whether Iacocca saw the car, but he did present it to Henry Ford II and Don Petersen, then head of product planning. "We never showed the car in public, but I remember we did take it to Cincinnati to do some market research next to then-current convertibles," Smith said. "It had raving reviews. People said they’d rather have it than a convertible, and nobody said anything about it not being mechanized.
"So it was all ready to go, but Petersen, he wanted it mechanized, and he knew we could do it, so he went out and took another study. He asked, ‘Do you want it manual or mechanized?’ Something like 92 percent of the people said mechanized. Well, that was cheating –you know what the answer to that question’s going to be. I don’t even know if that product planning showing even took place."
Nevertheless, Ford assigned Smith with the task of mechanizing the retractable Mustang.
"I made the top counterbalanced, so it wasn’t necessary to power it," Smith said. "It was so simple to do it. The maximum lifting weight was around 10 pounds. I had my five-foot-two secretary come out to operate it, and she had no problem putting it up and down."
Smith and Butler took another four months to design a power-operated top, but at the end, told upper management Ford couldn’t reasonably add the power mechanisms to the retractable hardtop.
Smith said he sent off some strongly worded letters to Petersen and his product planning people, to Bob McNamara and to several others in Ford management, telling them the company was headed in the wrong direction by axing his project. That one prototype remained, though, so Smith drove it around Dearborn for several months as a personal car.
"I remember the back seats folded down, so I could use the deck compartment for hauling luggage," Smith said. "I once loaded a good amount of lumber back there too."
But as with the Mark II mule, Smith returned from a vacation in late fall of 1966 to find the Mustang gone. Smith said he never saw the scrap order for the retractable Mustang.
"When I saw that it was gone, I went into styling, where they let me see the paperwork for scrapping cars," Smith said. "They told me, ‘Ben, you don’t want to follow that one.’ So I’m sure it went to some higher-up."
Rumors also persist about that original retractable. Smith said he heard once that someone had spotted a retractable Mustang in Oklahoma City, but he never could verify that. Another rumor places the car in the basement of Ford world headquarters.
Shortly after, Smith went to Ford of Brazil as product director. Then in February of 1968, he decided to take a leave of absence–essentially an early retirement–from Ford, on the condition that he wouldn’t work for GM or Chrysler.
But he never forgot that retractable Mustang. Nor did his kids. Smith’s son, David, said he still has a framed photograph of himself as a boy standing next to that prototype. Sometime in the late 1980s, Smith wrote an article about the Mustang for the Skyliner club’s book on retractables, which spurred some interest in the car.
"For years, my kids asked why I didn’t do another one," Smith said. "So I started to do it as a lark."
In September or October of 1993, while living in Arizona, Ben Smith bought a used 1966 Mustang coupe. At around the same time, David Smith, living in Connecticut, bought a similar 1965 coupe. Ben traced the outline of the Mustang on his garage wall and sketched his ideas for another retractable hardtop, following the original design, but keeping the car’s overall length, gas tank, filler location, taillamps, passenger interior and rear bumper intact.
He took cardboard templates down to a local fiberglass shop and, by December 1993, had the first sets of molds completed and ready for installation by Magnolia Auto Body in Santee, California. He reprised his torque boxes and chassis strengtheners from the original prototype.
"I didn’t use any drawings," Ben said. "We just made a top, cut it in two, then did all the modeling of the roof panels and trunklid."
David, who runs a body shop, said Ben flew the molds to him in January of 1994, enabling him to finish the work on his 1965 in his own shop.
"We wanted to use the tops Dad made for the original," David said. "So we called up the manufacturer that built those tops, thinking they kept them stashed in the rafters, but they were gone.
"By April 10, we had designed the hardtop, made it, and put it on two cars. The 1966, we called Prototype One, it was red with a buckskin interior and a beige top. We showed that one at Knott’s Berry Farm in California the weekend of the 13th. The 1965 was Prototype Two, it was powder blue with a blue top. We showed it at the national Mustang show in Charlotte, North Carolina, the same weekend."
At the Charlotte show, David met Ron Bramlett, the owner of Mustangs Plus in Stockton, California. That meeting led not only to Mustangs Plus’s chassis strengthening kit, using all the pieces developed by Ben and manufactured by David, but also to Mustangs Plus retailing a retractable Mustang kit. Mustangs Plus built one of the earliest of the kits and continues to use that car in their promotions today.
A third prototype followed–this one in gunmetal gray–built for Ben’s other son, Ben A. Smith. Around the same time, Ben decided to form a limited partnership, Retractables Unlimited, to produce and assist with the installation of retractable hardtop kits. Ben said the effort lasted about two years, with total production of between 35 and 50 kits, all signed and numbered. David constructed about eight to 10 of the kits in his shop, Coastal Collision of New London, Connecticut, and sold them as complete cars. His father never sold any complete cars, and Ben A. Smith sold two complete cars, including Prototype Three.
Whatever the number, Ben said he never made any money on the venture simply because he didn’t have the time to devote to marketing. He bought out his investors, dissolved the partnership and shipped his entire inventory to David.
Like many people who first encounter the Mustangs, Rae Johnston, of Goshen, Indiana, had never heard of the retractable hardtop. But while in Phoenix about seven years ago on a business trip, he met Ben Smith and got to see and purchase No. 8, our driveReport car, painted maroon with a white top, just like his 19641Ú2 convertible.
"I liked the uniqueness of it," Johnston said. "Sure, it’s not automatic, but it’s still one-tenth of the work of a normal convertible. It has torsion bars, so once you pick it up, it goes back and forth without any effort.
"This one came with factory air conditioning and the two-barrel, single-exhaust 289, so my wife likes it, though I usually like cars with a little more zip. But because of the frame rails (chassis strengthening kit), the retractable handles better than a regular Mustang."
Ben Smith said he likes seeing the number of modern cars adopting the retractable hardtop concept–it’s a sort of vindication for him. In fact, he claims he sketched a clamshell-type convertible hardtop for the chief engineer of Mercedes over dinner four years before the introduction of the SLK. However, he wonders how many modern interpretations will actually last.
On hearing news that an aftermarket company is considering developing a retractable hardtop for the new, retro-styled Mustang, Smith said he believes it’s doable.
"I know this is a push-button age, but I’ll disagree with any complexity," he said. "It could be very easy, like mine was, and I think something very simple would turn into a classic."
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