While the name Starliner sounds like a passenger ship for the cosmos, it was a natural extension of Ford styling and marketing themes of the era. Automobiles were the technological marvels of the early 20th century, but they had become thoroughly commonplace by the post-World-War-II era. In such a mature market, it was natural to attempt to associate cars with increasingly more glamorous feats of engineering: first piston-engine airplanes (think of the grille of a 1949 or '50 Ford), then jet aircraft (the afterburner taillamps and faux side scoops of 1952), and after the October 1957 launch of Sputnik I, outer space.
Ford really liked that "-liner" tag in the 1950s. First came the Crestliner, which arrived for 1950. The Crestliner utilized Ford's conventional pillared sedan body, but with a padded roof and extra trim to create a halo model to compete with the Chevrolet Bel Air hardtop. Although the Victoria hardtop became available with the 1951 line, the Crestliner continued in production alongside.
For 1952, Crestline (the "r" dropped) became the top Ford trim level and encompassed not only Victoria hardtops but convertibles, which Ford for the first time dubbed Sunliner, a name that would last almost a decade. For 1954, another 'liner joined the Crestline series: a variation on the hardtop with a transparent panel above the front seats, called the Skyliner.
Ford was a company in transition in this era, and the Crestline series was replaced for 1955, with the new Fairlane series (named for Henry Ford's estate in Dearborn, Fair Lane) slotted at the top. The Sunliner was a part of this series, as was the Skyliner, where it formed the basis for the memorable Crown Victoria Skyliner of 1955 and '56.
The Fairlane 500 series offered considerable luxury for a Ford-branded car and accordingly received both the Sunliner and Skyliner models. The Skyliner badge no longer denoted a transparent roof panel on a hardtop, however. Now, instead, the car's entire steel roof assembly retracted into the trunk area to provide true open-air motoring and completely weather-tight comfort in the same car.
Although it was produced through 1959, the retractable Skyliner was heavy and expensive. It also mandated a roofline that was out of step with styling trends in the late 1950s. Chrysler had introduced its Forward Look line for 1957 with the tagline "Suddenly it's 1960." General Motors responded first, scrapping the last Harley Earl "longer, lower, wider" designs and coming out with the swoopy 1959 body, which included a fastback-style hardtop that was quickly dubbed the "bubble top."
Although the 1959 Ford is now considered a classic and indeed was even selected for a Gold Medal for Exceptional Styling at the World's Fair in Brussels, Belgium, Ford stylists clearly thought something more in the vein of the Forward Look was warranted. After all, Mopar had gotten to 1960 three years early.
When the full-size Ford debuted for 1960 (alongside the new Falcon compact), the derivative styling was obvious. In many ways it resembled a Fordified 1959 Chevrolet. Even the trademark round taillamps had been discarded in favor of a half-moon design, six to a side, which seemed to echo the 1960 Impala. While objectively good looking to many observers, the traditional Ford buyer was repelled, and sales suffered accordingly.
Ford built 464,336 examples of the 1959 Galaxie (the first year for that nameplate, which was created above the Fairlane 500 and used a Thunderbird-style roofline), but the 1960 numbers fell to 289,268, of which 68,641 were the new Starliner hardtop. Ford may have felt the Victoria name, which had previously graced hardtop bodies, warranted replacement given the nature of the new roofline—and the fact that the older body name dated from the carriage era and was first used by Ford on the Model A.
More pedestrian Starliners could be had with the sedate and thrifty 145-hp, 223-cu.in. six-cylinder; the base, 185-hp, 292-cu.in. Y-block V-8; or the 352 V-8 with 235 or 300 hp. Transmission choices were all column shifted: a basic Borg- Warner three-speed manual, an overdrive version of the same, or the well-respected Ford three-speed automatic.
For 1961, Ford learned from buyer response and kept what worked (the basic chassis, the driveline, and that sharp Starliner roof), discarded what didn't (the excessive size and GM-like styling), and created a Galaxie that looked entirely new from the beltline down. The full-width grille was totally different, the horizontal fins were replaced by the modest canted type first seen in 1957, and the afterburner taillamps were back. On the posh Galaxie line, ribbed-aluminum stone guards (often termed "washboards" by enthusiasts) showed up behind the rear wheels.
The 1961 Starliner was a more manageable size than its 1960 predecessor. The 119-inch wheelbase remained, but overall length was down to 209.9 inches. The newer car was also lighter, at 3,615 pounds with the base Y-block V-8, now down-rated to 175 hp. The Mileage Maker six was also down in power, to 135 hp. The big news, however, was with the FE-series engines. The 352 was now relegated to two-barrel induction, with 220 hp. The basic block had been bored and stroked to displace 390-cu.in. for the hotter engines. More practical lead foots could order the hydraulic-lifter 300-hp Thunderbird V-8, and those willing to periodically adjust mechanical lifters could have the 375-hp Thunderbird Special. A dealer-installed manifold with triple two-barrel carburetors boosted the rating of the 375-hp engine to 401 hp, and proved a credible threat on both the drag strip and the NASCAR tracks.
Sales rebounded for 1961, with a total of 349,665 Galaxies produced, though only 29,669 of those were Starliners, making them rarer than the 1960 edition. Ford evidently blamed its styling, giving the Galaxie line a slab-sided makeover for 1962, which included eliminating the Starliner hardtop to focus solely on the Thunderbird-type formal roof, which had been reintroduced for 1961. Even the Club Victoria name had been revived.
The losers were those on the NASCAR ovals, where the "box top" roofline proved far less aerodynamic and placed the Ford hardtops at a disadvantage, despite a new 405-hp, 406-cu.in. version of the FE V-8. Ford revived the Starliner roof in an attempt to skirt the rules—instead of being permanently attached to a hardtop car, the roof was called the Starlift and intended as a removable hardtop for Sunliner convertibles. NASCAR disallowed it after just one race, and it appears none were ever sold to the public.
Finally, partway through the 1963 model year, Ford found its solution. The 1963½ Sports Hardtop revived the aerodynamic properties of the Starliner, though not its actual shape or the name. The 1965 Mustang fastback roof was closer and if you look at present-production Mustangs, it's clear that the Ford Starliner, while around only briefly, had a lasting effect on Ford styling.
There's more to the Starliner story than just racing glory, however. The styling of the 1960 and '61 Fords, before the Cuban Missile Crisis and President Kennedy's assassination, was the last hurrah of forward-looking '50s optimism in auto design. Those who own them recognize the Starliner as the pinnacle of those trends and cherish them appropriately. Whether you think of them as ground-bound starships or just time machines to the early '60s, there's just something wonderful about a Starliner.
Article courtesy of Hemmings, written by David Conwill.