September 18, 2005 Retractable hardtops have been all the rage this year at the Frankfurt Motor Show with Nissan’s Micra C+C, Opel’s Astra TwinTop, Volkswagen putting the Project C into production and Volvo’s second generation C70 coming with an innovative three-piece retractable hardtop.

But the idea is not new. Several cars with retractable hardtops exist on the market today, such as the Peugeot 307 CC. Indeed, Mercedes Benz has had a retractable hardtop, called the vario roof, in production continuously on its SLK-Roadster for a decade. And prior to that, Ford manufactured an electric retractable hardtop for three years in the mid-fifties called the Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner – just wait until you see the size of the trunk on the Skyliner (images and links inside). It’s the size of a football field and when the roof is stowed, it is FULL! But this week we came across images of what is surely the original production retractable hardtop. Peugeot changed the face of the convertible car market when it showed the first production car with an electric folding roof at the Paris Auto show - the Peugeot 401 Eclipse. You won’t believe what year it was!

The year was 1934 and the Peugeot 401 Eclipse was shown as the result of a collaboration between the designer Paulin, the Peugeot concessionaire Darl'Mat and the Pourtout body construction firm,

In researching the Peugeot 401 Eclipse we came across some wonderful web resources on the subject, including this snippet from MotorTrend magazine where a 1935 Peugeot 401 Eclipse Convertible Coupe showed at the 2004 Pebble Beach Weekend and an original publicity shot of the Eclipse at the Peugeot Fan Club pages that isn’t even available through the Peugeot archives.

The Ford Skyliner is equally remarkable. Apart from the fact it could easily transport the Japanese Sumo Wrestling Team in the boot (with the roof up), it is atypical of the era of massive American V8 cruisers. There’s a lot more available on the Skyliner, including the International Ford Retractable Club web pages, detailed coverage at Antique Car and Cars and Stripes and a series of high resolution images showing the car in all its glory at Classic Cars Etcetera, including this set of images of the Skyliner’s roof emerging from the trunk.

In the modern era, Mercedes Benz were the first to develop the technology to build a genuinely compact and no-hassles retractable roof with the vario-roof, which celebrated its world première in 1996 in the SLK-Roadster. Indeed, now that most major manufacturers have such tehnology in production, Mercedes (and its original collaborator in the project, Karman) can rightfully claim to have set new trends in the development of open-top motoring.

At the touch of a button the folding hardtop turns the two-seater from an open-air summer roadster into a car for all seasons with the practicality and noise protection of a coupé. The Mercedes engineers have technically perfected the brilliant idea of the vario-roof in the new SL and developed an even more space-creating concept to the benefit of the boot capacity.

Researching the vario roof we found a lot of ongoing development at Mercedes, and further evidence of the progress made in the design of the vario-roof since the launch of the SLK-Roadster is provided by the stopwatch: the new SL needs only around 16 seconds to complete the transformation from coupé to roadster (or vice versa) – in the SLK this process takes 25 seconds.

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