One-of-a-kind Falcon retractable hardtop

Tim Sutherland has always been mesmerized by retractable-roof cars.

“I always wanted a ’57 Ford retractable hardtop,” Sutherland said, “but I couldn’t afford one, so I decided to build one for myself.”

But instead of cloning a ’57 Ford retractable, he chose to go with something even more difficult: a 19631/2 Ford Falcon hardtop. And he managed to pull it off.

Sutherland has been a Falcon fanatic since the day back in 2002 when he spotted a ’63 Falcon Sprint convertible while on the prowl for a full-sized vintage Ford.

“I was looking for a Galaxie, but I was able to buy the Sprint for $1,000,” he said. “It took me three years to get it on the road.”

Since then, he has built several Falcons and acquired an impressive collection of Falcon parts cars. He has served as president of the Wheat State Falcon Car Club and attended numerous regional and national meets of the Falcon Club of America.

Sutherland’s most ambitious project to date was to take a solid steel-roofed Falcon hardtop, slice the roof off, and figure out how to retract the whole thing into the rather diminutive trunk, turning the vehicle into an open-air convertible. The project began in November 2008.

“Originally, I was going to do it like the old-style retractable and fold the roof (in two pieces), but there was not enough room to clear the back seat,” he said.

The solution? Subtly stretch the rear of the body by four inches, which would allow the roof to remain a single piece.

To do that, he cut the project car’s body vertically through the rear-wheel wells. The rear end of that car had been crunched in an earlier accident, so it was discarded and the rear end of a four-door Falcon body, with the needed extra four inches of sheet metal, was skillfully grafted to the hardtop body.

“Unless you know what you’re looking for, you can’t even tell it’s there,” Sutherland said of the added length.

Since the unibody car was going to lose much of its structural strength by taking the top off, Sutherland proceeded to tie the front and rear subframes together with pieces of rectangular steel tubing, making the car, in effect, a full-frame car.

With the extra room in the trunk, it then became a matter of figuring out how to lower the roof from its upright position into the trunk. A total of seven electrically driven actuators lift the roof away from the windshield header and gently ease it backward and down, where the open trunk swallows it and then lowers to cover the stowed top.

“For about a year, I didn’t say a word about it,” Sutherland said. “Then I finally told some people what I was doing when I got the roof mechanism and the trunk to work.”

It was a lot of trial and error as he fabricated the unique roof system.

“I had to do away with the window cranks and the armrests in the back, so that meant I had to go with electric windows, which no Falcon ever had. I just figured it out as I went,” he said. “I knew from Day 1 that I wanted it to be black. So I knew it had to be straight, so I always took the time to measure and tweak it.”

A friend, Danny Hand, immediately volunteered to paint the car for Sutherland when he saw it.

“He finished the body work and prep and did a super job on it,” Sutherland said. “I’ve never had a car this nice.”

The car was finished in PPG Jet Black basecoat/clearcoat. Art Carlton of Innovators West in Hutchinson topped things off with a set of custom-made “retractable” badges that blend into the side trim. Modified Galaxie wire wheel hubcaps on 14-inch wheels sets it all off.

Inside, Sutherland wanted the car to look factory-built, so he went with standard Falcon Sprint bucket seats and center console and an under-dash air conditioning unit. The console houses the switch panel for the top’s workings and a hidden MP3 music system. The upholstery is all black to match the exterior.

Sutherland wanted the reliability of a more modern engine under the hood, so with the help of several car buddies, he rebuilt a 5.0 liter V-8 out of an ’89 Mercury Grand Marquis, keeping it basically stock, but adding a late model Mustang computer and fuel injection. The Marquis’ automatic overdrive transmission was also used. Coupled to a 3.50 Maverick rear end, Sutherland hopes to cruise at 28 to 30 miles per gallon on the highway.

As if all that wasn’t enough work, he decided to build a special trailer to stow the rear tonneau cover when the car is on the road in its hardtop configuration. What makes a better trailer for a ’631/2 Falcon than another ’631/2 Falcon, sliced and diced, with the front grille and rear end blended into one unit? The trailer, which also opens and closes thanks to electric actuators, is designed to open from the side, not the front or the back.

The car was finished in time for the Falcon Nationals in Louisville last year, but not the trailer. The car won a best modified hardtop award and a ladies choice award. Sutherland displayed the car with what appears to be a factory-issued Falcon Retractable owners manual and build sheet, fooling even some Falcon experts into believing it was a rare prototype that never made it into production.

“I have already had so much fun with this car, messing with people’s heads,” he said.

When he finished third at a local car show in a mildly modified class, he said the judges never recognized it was not a factory-built car.

“To me, that’s a compliment,” he said.

This weekend, the ’631/2 Falcon Retractable is on display at the Falcon Nationals in Tulsa, with its Falcon trailer in tow.

Related stories from Wichita Eagle