A Custom Built 1954 Ford Crestliner Roll-Top Convertible

 

We’d be willing to bet that you’ve never seen a 1954 Ford Crestliner retractable-top convertible in person. Heck, we’d bet you’ve never even seen a picture of one. Why? Because there is only one. And although this wasn’t put together with the precision and craftsmanship of the entire Ford engineering and design departments, it was entirely hand-built out of what was once a 1954 Ford Crestliner four-door sedan.

This car belongs to Bud and Teri Kirkpatrick of Silverdale, Washington, and it is a labor of love that was built over a two-year span by Bud’s hands. When we first saw the car, and witnessed the top roll back, it was hard to even grasp what we were watching. Of course, we had to find out more, and the more we learned, the more impressed we were by the build. “I’m one of those very focused people. When I start on something, I finish it,” Bud explained. “I would say that I have 2,000 hours into the car.”

The Beginning

Howard Hutchinson was the original owner of this car, and he purchased it in 1954. Back then, it was a four-door Ford Crestliner with a 239 cubic-inch Y-block engine and a three-speed manual transmission. Howard took good care of his car. He changed the oil when it was due, and when the time came, he passed it along to Bruce, one of his three sons. Howard also kept an extremely detailed log book of all the purchases and maintenance on the car—which Bud still has. “It’s actually thrilling to have this book,” Bud said.

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This is a picture of the car shortly after Howard purchased it brand new in 1954.

Bud is good friends with Dennis and the two of them build a 1939 Chevy resto-rod together. Dennis brought Bud over to Bruce’s house to look at a dent in Bruce’s Mustang, and that’s when Bud saw the car and something about it piqued his interest.

If you didn't know what you were looking at, this car could easily be mistaken for a factory build.

“I asked Bruce if he wanted to sell it, and he said no, it was a family car,” Bud explained. “But Bruce had a Corvette sitting there that needed an engine, so I offered him an engine and transmission in trade for the car.” Bruce accepted the offer.

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The New Beginning

Dennis, would you mind if I cut it up? – Bud

Bud had the car sitting in the paint booth, and he knew that even though it was a cool car, it was a four-door sedan and if he put $10-$15,000 into it, it would never be worth that much. He thought about it, and knew what he wanted to do. That’s when Dennis came over and the two talked about Bud’s plans. He had the car taped up to show what he wanted to do, and that’s when Bud asked him the big question: “Dennis, would you mind if I cut it up?”

Bud added the A/C out of a Lincoln and the headliner was crocheted by his wife Teri. It looks really unique and works great with the paint scheme of the car.

Dennis was unsure about it at first, but consented that Bud could cut the car up and build something new out of it. So, when it was time, Bud called Dennis over and let him make the first cut. Even after agreeing to the car’s surgery, Dennis did have one request that Bud honored, even though it made the project a whole heck of a lot more challenging. “Dennis wanted me to save the back window with the decal in it,” Bud told us. “It’s from his high school days, and it was important to him. To be able to keep that back window in, and have the top move like it does made the project considerably more difficult.”

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Bud thought about a few ways to accomplish the task, and then settled on one and got to work cutting the car. A lot more went into the modifications than you can even see, and just from looking at it, a lot has changed. One thing that you wouldn’t be able to tell is that the car has been widened by 2 inches, and lengthened by 8 inches. That was done so the roll top could go down and fit under the rear deck.

Here is the progression of motion when the top rolls back into the deck.

A Massive Undertaking

If it were easy, everyone would do it. There would be retractable-top cars driving all over, which would be really cool. but unfortunately, that is not the reality we live in. Bud was wading in uncharted waters, and taking on a task that nobody has ever taken on before. The closest thing that you can use as a benchmark for this car is the Ford Skyliner convertible, but even that has a retractable top, not a roll top. What’s more, Ford had leagues of engineers and big money to throw at it the design. This was built in Bud’s garage with the help of a few friends and a lot of hard work.

These are just a few pictures that Dennis took over the course of the project.

The first step in the process was getting the electronics figured out. It’s one thing to build the mechanical system that can make the top roll into the deck, but another thing entirely to get the movement sequence to go in order and to get the timing just right. It just so happened that Bud was taking a cross country train trip as he was designing the schematics of his computer controller. The train was the perfect place to brainstorm and put together a circuit.

Bud used the wood template to get things setup for the dash while he still had everything out of the car. Not only that, but he designed the dash to come out by removing just two bolts.

They could make a suggestion and I would think ‘why the hell didn’t I think of that?’ – Bud

Building this car came with many challenges, and Bud is thankful to have had help along the way. “It’s been great to have good friends like Rick, Dennis, and Bruce, to bounce things off,” Bud explained. “As you progress with a project like this, you must look at and listen to the car. They could make a suggestion and I would think ‘why the hell didn’t I think of that’?”

This was the car at the start of the project in Buds paint booth.

The Roll Top

Getting the top to move smoothly and have all of the gaps at the deck line up was one of the biggest challenges of the whole project. Bud doesn’t like big gaps, and he wanted things to line up perfectly, so he had to spend quite a bit of time working out the deck design. “The biggest challenge was designing the circuitry for the timing on the deck lid so that I could get the tiny gaps that I wanted without guides,” Bud explained. “I had to design the hinges so that the lid lifted up so that gap would be as small as possible.”

You can’t see it in the stationary pictures, but in action, the deck lid lifts straight up just slightly before it begins to swing open. When the deck lid opens and the top is going down, the deck gets to the top of its swing and another motor kicks in swinging out the deck extension that covers the package tray area. This was another challenge for Bud, to be able to get the extra range he needed for the lid to extend and collapse fully. He setup the piston on a floating mount so it actually moves the entire base of the piston as it goes up.

When the deck lid closes, the whole piston assembly climbs the rod that it's mounted to so that it sits tight against the lid.

The circuitry behind the timing for the top motion is mind boggling, and the effort put in by Bud to get things to work just right is beyond impressive. What’s really cool though is the quality control efforts that he went through to ensure that everything would work every single time. Bud spent a lot of time and effort making sure that his top system was bulletproof.

Bud did everything he could to get the system to trip up; stopping it at different times, activating and deactivating it, and putting it through as much strain as possible, all while making sure the system still operated perfectly. “It’s bulletproof,” he explained. To top it all off, everything is completely controllable by a wireless key fob remote. He can make the top go up, down, and stop without even touching the car.

The Engine

I’ve talked to a lot of Y-block people that say you can’t do it, but I did – Bud

While the retractable-top is clearly the focus of the car, there is still a lot to be said about the way it drives, and in particular, the way that it sounds. Bud didn’t want to keep the solid-lifters that were in the Y-block Ford engine. He didn’t like the way that it sounded, and he didn’t want to have to adjust them all the time. “I’ve talked to a lot of Y-block people that say you can’t do it,” Bud told us. “But I did.”

We were really impressed by the way that Bud put the hydraulic lifters into this engine. Not does it sound better, but he no longer has to worry about adjusting them!

Never taking no for an answer, Bud went to his library of books and found a lifter that was just a shade bigger than was already in it. The hydraulic lifters out of a Type II Volkswagen looked like exactly what he needed. He modified the block by drilling through the front of the engine and then through all the lifter bores. He inserted a hardened steel plug into each hole so that the drill would drive in straight.

Making Things Just Right

If you are familiar with the 1954 Ford Crestliner and are an astute observer, you’ll notice that the instrument cluster is slightly different from stock as well. As a matter of fact, a fan of the early Ford Thunderbirds would recognize that as the speedometer and upper instrument cluster out of a 1956 Thunderbird. That decision wasn’t made purely for looks either.

 

“I wanted all four gauges, but the car only had two in the dash,” Bud detailed. “I didn’t want to change the dash and I didn’t want them hanging down like everyone does.” He found that the instrument cluster on a 1956 Thunderbird closely matched the stock cluster of the Crestliner. They differed however, in that the Thunderbird had the fuel and temperature gauges built in. The built in gauges meant he could add an amp gauge and oil pressure gauge into the dash. Although many cuts were made, none show.

Almost none of the trim on the car is stock either. Bud has completely customized the look by moving, cutting, welding, and modifying nearly every piece of stainless on this car. He has a way of knowing what he wants and seeing how to get that in the pieces and trim from other cars.

The chrome ring around the taillight on the spare tire cover is a shower handle ring that Bud bought at Habitat for Humanity. He intentionally left the blue and red hot/cold indicator dots on it as evidence of where it came from.

The interior door handles are from a ‘60s Lincoln, and the ribbed ring around the taillight and the stainless bullets on the fender are from a Lincoln hubcap. There are modified trim pieces on the car from various other makes and models, like the hood ornament, which is off of a 1956 Oldsmobile. “I always liked that hood ornament,” Bud explained. “And I figured it’s my car, so I’ll do what I want to it.”

The stainless trim on the top is more than just a great design choice. The top rests on those when it folds back into the deck so that it doesn't scratch the paint. They also work to divide the two-toned colors on the top.

In the end, Bud has an amazing custom car that is unlike anything that we’ve ever seen. It’s built so precisely that it looks just like something that could have come from the Ford factory. And that’s just what he wanted too. But told us, “I wanted people the think gosh, I didn’t know they made these that year.” We think he got just what he wanted.

Bud also wanted to put a self-adjusting brake system on his car, but there wasn’t one available for a ’54 Ford, so again, he had to figure something out for himself. He took the part number off his Ford and searched until he found another that used the same part number with auto-adjust. He ended up finding that a ’65-’66 Mustang was a match, specifically, the Carlson Brake parts.

The part numbers for these brakes are two-each of H2515 and H26516. 

The horn ring is something that was given to bud during the build. “The power steering horn rings are rare,” he explained, “you can’t beg, borrow, or steal one of those. I was working in the shop one day, and Bob walked up and handed it to me.” That meant a great deal to Bud and he really appreciated Bob giving that to him.

Bud wanted to make sure that special thanks was extended to all who helped him over the course of the project: Bob Mahleman, Rick Ward, and Dennis and Bruce Hutchinson. Without any one of them, the project would not have been possible.

About the author

Kyler Lacey

A 2015 Graduate from Whitworth University, Kyler has always loved cars. He grew up with his dad's '67 Camaro in the garage and started turning wrenches at a young age. At seventeen, he bought his first classic, a '57 Chevy Bel Air four-door, and has since added a '66 Plymouth Valiant and '97 Cadillac Deville to his collection. When he isn't writing for Power Automedia, he's out shooting pictures at car shows, hiking in the forests of the beautiful Pacific Northwest, or working on something in the garage.
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