Skyliner & Mustang Retractable History
This will be a bit long, but is an account of the work of Ben J. Smith, Father Of The Retractables for the 1957-1959 Skyliner and the 1965-1966 Mustang.
Ben Smith was born October 17, 1922, in Oklahoma and grew up in Detroit Michigan. Although named after his father, Benjamin Harrison Smith, his birth certificate was issued as Ben Jr. Smith. “I’ve had to prove more than once that the Jr. is in the middle rather than at the end and that it is just plain ‘Ben” rather than ‘Benjamin’” he says.
Ben J. Smith ~ Father Of The Retractable Car Top
“My maternal grandfather was on, what you might say, foreign assignment in the Indian Territory of Oklahoma before statehood, in charge of the strip-mining operation for a Pennsylvania coal company. He was a direct descendant of the Benjamin Franklin family. My maternal grandmother was a Cody, from the “Buffalo Bill” Cody family, and a second or third cousin of Annie Oakley. I remember my mother telling me of a French General and an Indian princess from the Seneca tribe somewhere in our lineage.”
Ben held his first job at age 12 in a drug store and later worked in a grocery store while in high school as a Senior. The job was only for the summer, but at 17 he was promoted to manager, going to school in the mornings and working there in the afternoon and evenings. In April, 1941, he married his first girlfriend, Flossie K. Callaghan. He was 18 and she was 17.
After their marriage, he worked in a bank for awhile and then was hired by Ford Motor Company. For two years, he worked as aircraft parts inspector, wood pattern maker, and tool and die maker apprentice. He also attended the Henry Ford Engineering School (later to be known as Henry Ford Community College). He was the very first graduate of the school. In 1943, he was transferred to die design for the B-24 bombers that Ford was making and soon became leadoff draftsman of the group.
In October, 1944, he entered the Navy, but after 17 months and only four days at sea, he was back at Ford. He was given the job as chassis draftsman in a new light car research program. His first job was to design the brake and clutch systems for a small car. So he did it in a simple way, “the only way that I knew.” He hung it from the firewall. His boss didn’t like the idea, but finally allowed him to build a small mock-up model. The car was built with the hanging pedals, and, today, every car in the industry has hanging pedals. If you don’t like the hanging pedals, you can blame him!
After a brief stint as senior project chassis manager at Nash, working on the first Nash Rambler in May, 1949, he went to Fisher Body as a body engineer. One of the projects he was assigned was a complete wrap-around windshield with the accompanying knee-knocker dog-leg in the door area, which was also designed into the ’57 Ford. (And the Squarebird, as we all know from the bruises we get on our knees from that dog-leg! Now you know who to blame for that, also!)
Ben was transferred to the hardtop and convertible section at Fisher Body and in April, 1951, at 29, he became the youngest supervisor that Fisher Body engineering ever had. From there, he moved back to Ford to work on the retractable hardtop. During this time frame, he had asked Roy Butler’s group to make a retractable study for the Lincoln. The clamshell type was proposed but not accepted because of the problems being experienced by engineering for the Ford retractable. After the retractable program, he was involved in many projects, including the re-design of the Falcon for Argentina and a truck for Turkey. On January 1, 1964, he was promoted to Executive Engineer for International Engineering involving a lot of international traveling.
The next year, William Clay (Bill) Ford asked him to come back to the Design Center and take over a position Ben had previously suggested they create: an engineering arm for the Styling Group, to assist in advanced engineering techniques. While there, the curved side glass and the Mark IV Continental were introduced. During this time he designed and built the 1966 retractable Mustang. This car was one sweetheart of a car. He said he will always regret my inability to get it into production. The market research clearly showed its acceptance as manually operated, but the marketing people thought that accepting anything less than automatic operation would be going backwards. They also “knew” that I could make it power-operated if I were forced to do it. In this case, they read me wrong. I felt strongly that any type of power added to that particular design would eventually be so complicated that it, in fact, would become an engineering abortion. I simply refused to do it! But someday that car will be produced…manually operated. The creation of a major Ford, Mercury and Lincoln body interchangeability was created while there, saving Ford millions.
In 1967, he became the Product Director of Ford of Brazil and was slated to become General Manager, an appointment cut short by his retirement. He also suggested Ford build the Renault car under a Ford name. His peers thought him to be crazy for such an idea, but six months later, Ford was producing the car.
Ben and his wife, Flossie, had four children: Carol Lee Ann, born July 8, 1942; Ben Alan, born March 19, 1945; Kathleen Diane, born August 8, 1948; and David James, born March 22, 1951. When Flossie was diagnosed with cancer in May, 1967, Ben asked for reassignment to the States. In January, 1968, he requested permanent leave of absence to care for Flossie, who died in May, 1971. In February 1986 he married his current wife, Martha.
Ben has helped form a Christian college, served as a trustee to a college, as well as working with several Christian organizations. He has developed land, helped build retirement complexes and had his own consulting companies. “The Lord has blessed me immensely and has given me abilities and drive that are far above average, and I thank Him for it,” he says. “I came from a poor but good family. My mother and father taught me the moral and Godly values of life, which I know far outweigh any earthly materials they could have given me. To them I say thank you.” His involvement and successes in the retractable projects, he feels, “demonstrates that others, too, can reach their dreams and lofty ideas if they dare to believe in themselves and have the determination and perseverance not to take the easy way out. I would rather try and fail than fail to try.”
The above is taken from Ben’s book “Skyliner: The Birth Of The Retractable” and used with his permission given during a recent enjoyable telephone conversation with him. He is now 88. He is the guest speaker at the upcoming International Ford Retractable Club (IFRC) Convention in Dayton, Ohio later this month. He will be presenting his new book, a pictorial essay on the Ford Skyliner Retractables.
In the mid ‘90’s, the Ford Mustang retractable became a reality after Ben formed Rectractables Unlimited, marketing a manual rectractable top for the 1965-1966 Mustang. They produced some 30-50 kits, all signed and numbered, but this effort lasted about two years because Ben did not have the time to market it. There are said to be about 14 1965-1966 Ford Mustangs left out there with Ben’s retractable top. For more information on this subject and pictures with the top, go to this Hemmings article.
Here you can see other pictures of a Mustang with a retractable kit.
Here is a pic of Ben Smith at 34, one of the original '66 Mustang with the retractable top he created. And one of the remaining 14 1965-1966 Mustangs with the retractable top kit he created.
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