Taking many rodders by surprise is the street rod potential which all early model Buicks have. The 1937 and 1938 Buicks are high on the list of many collectors. In addition, Buicks rightfully possessed the reputation for being the fastest cars on the road during the 1940’s. The overlooked Buicks are also credited with being among the first to introduce the pillarless hardtop in 1949. This of course is the most sought-after body style for the street machine set. And there’s much more to the Buick story. Read on.
The Beginning of Buick
The roots of Buick can be traced back to the turn of the century and a man named David Dunbar Buick. Buick owned a plumbing business and from it shared what could have been his most successful business venture. He gave America its first porcelain bathtub. Sadly, Buick as a businessman was a flop and by the end of 1902 he had relinquished ownership of such financially plagued companies as The Buick Auto Vin & Power Company and The Buick Manufacturing Company. These companies produced L-head engines for marine and stationary use.
Then, in 1903, The Buick Motor Car Company was formed, however the first Buick did not appear until one year later. In the early going The Buick Motor Company was saved from financial failure many times by Walter Marr, Eugene Richard, the Briscoe Brothers and William Crapo (“Billy”) Durant, the latter of which built Buick (and many others) to the huge enterprises we know today.
With Durant at the helm of Buick, by 1905 production totaled 750 units, a far cry from the 28 produced the preceeding year. Engines and transmissions were built in Flint, Michigan while bodies were produced in Jackson, until 1907 when Flint became the permanent home of Buick. The Buicks of this period attained power via an opposed dual cylinder L-head engine rated at 22 horsepower.
Buick production for 1908 was 8,820 cars, second only to Ford. This success is due to two reasons; the first being Buick’s Model 10, the car that made Buick. The second was the merger with Olds, forming General Motors, under the guidance of Durant. Also in 1908 unassembled Buicks were shipped to Canada for assembly and marketed under the name McLaughlin.
The early McLaughlin bodies differed greatly from the U.S. Buicks but as time passed they resembled one another more and more. McLaughlin production lasted until WWII, therefore Canadian rodders should find an abundance of Buick-like tin awaiting the chance to be taken out of retirement. The same applies to British rodders, as in 1910 Buick’s export theme was carried over to Britain. Thus, Bedford Buicks began selling throughout Britain.
Buick in the 1910s
1910 marked the beginning of Durant’s wild buying spree of other car makers and Buick’s treasury was dipped into whenever extra funds were needed. To add to Buick’s troubles the following year, the inexpensive Model 10 was dropped as Buick made the move into the high-priced, big-car range. By 1912 all Buicks had sprouted doors and new, smoother lines consisting of barn-shaped hoods and radiators with front and rear fenders taking on a semi-circular shape. The engines powering Buicks of the teens had their vertical cylinders cast in pairs with non-removable heads, while rocker arm assemblies were fully exposed. For 1914 Buick introduced a new six cylinder to be added to its popular four cylinder line. New this year were the self stater, an electrical system and left hand steering.
During the mid to late teens, hoods became semi-oval in shape and from the side the fender radius outline gave the appearance of a section of roller coaster track, with steep inclines at the ends; this, of course, represented the fenders themselves. In 1916 Buick’s first sedan appeared, the Model D-47, which had an off- center mounted door. The doors on this Buick were placed where you’d expect to find the rear doors on a four-door sedan. This made for a highly unusual entrance, even more so than the actual center mounted doors appearing on so may Ford T’s. The roadsters seemed to have a channeled look to them while many Buick interiors employed the use of jump seats.
Frames were extremely long and narrow but this was compensated for by utilizing five crossmembers. Semi-elliptic leafs mounted directly under the rails in front, but canti- lever type leafs mounted outside the rails in the rear. Unlike the rear axle placement of today, where rear ends are placed in the center of the leaf spring’s length, Buick engineers placed rear ends directly at the end of the leaf springs. Such a suspension arrangement would be an invitation to a Jag or ‘Vette rear end, perhaps with four coiled-over shocks. There is ample room for sure. Of equal interest would be the afore- mentioned Model D-47 with a chopped top, thus doing away with the car’s rather high roofline.
1920s Buick History
For 1920 Buick production numbered 115,176, the highed priced of which sold for $2,700. Sedans and coupes were becoming popular, yet the open cars were still king. 1921 marked Buick’s change from letter to numeral denotation with the new series 21. In that same year, second cowls, located at the back of the front seat, disappeared on Buick tourings.
Valve covers debuted on all engines for the first time in 1922. The Sport Roadster and The Sport Touring of this year are identified by their rectangular rear windows while all others bear oval rear windows. 201,572 Buicks left Flint in 1923, good enough for third place, behind Chevrolet and Ford. Six 4-cylinder and nine 6-cylinder models were available this year, many equipped with Buick’s big accessories, the rear mounted spare and/or the accessory trunk. Headlamps had a miniature drumlike shape and a single tail lamp mounted on the spare tire, dead center.
The four cylinder was discontinued in 1924, leaving Buick motivation to a 255 cubic inch six rated at 27 horses. The face of the radiator shell took on an interesting shape, looking much like the curvy Packard shells of the same time. Suicide front ends vanished as a four-wheel braking system became standard. Sheet metalwise, overall appearance was improved in the mid-to-late ’20’s. This pertains not only to Buick, but to all manufacturers as the “buggy carraige” look disappeared from the drafting boards.
Buick hoodlines rose almost even with the highest point of the cowls, eliminating long and sweeping cowls. Tourings and roadsters had slanted windshields, the closed cars had vertical ones. The huge front semi-elliptics made for distinc- tive snub-nose type splash pans covering the frame horns. Buick offered “closed tourings” in 1925 which went on to last until the early ’30’s. These so-called “closed tourings” featured a fixed roof, something like a Carson or California top. The Buicks which they appeared on were given an open car look, with the exception being they were non-removable, and had roof pillars with sliding windows opening halfway. Split windshields were replaced by one-piece units with vacuum wipers. Frames remained long a narrow, yet ride improved with the now standard front shocks.
Buick in the 1930s
By 1930 Buick fell to sixth place due to the depression and the new Pontiac/Oakland team. Strangely enough, they were from another stall of the mightly GM stables. On the positive side, there were such new Buick innovations as bullet-shaped headlamps, smoother hood, radiator and cowl contours, three-bar bumpers and the famed “H” shift pattern. On roadster and touring models the windshield folded flat across the cowl.
As of 1930 Buick had turned out a vast majority of improvements and new innovations to the automobile industry, many of which are advantageous to the modern street rodder. Due to frame width, rack and pinion steering pirated from a small import or domestic economy car should fit well. The long frame, making for lengthy bodies, especially on the tourings, should allow for ample firewall setback without sacrificing precious legroom. The lenghty rear leaf springs make for lots of space by the rear portion of the frame rails. Space for an extra big fuel tank or a scratchbuilt tendem rear end, allowing for an interesting truck with Buick sheetmetal and ornamentation.
As things went, dozens of fine coach builders extended Buick frames and bodies for their own unique delivery/panel trucks, really long limos and taxis and bubbletop hearses. Such coach builders were located throughout the world and the practice lasted through the teens up into the ’60’s. For the novice or economy minded rodder something in the straight six cylinder range of the durable little Chevy 230 incher should fit an early model Buick engine compartment made to order. Then, of course, there’s Buick’s ornamentation: the side-mounts, dual or single, the windwings on the open cars, the distinctive Buick grillework, the sharp wire wheels, all of which make an outstanding appearance. It was during the ’30’s and ’40’s when GM relied heavily of the same basic body lines, letting ornamentation denote the different models. Buick by far was the car sprouting the sharpest ornamentation of all the GM vehicles.
Three new engine versions were released in 1931 in straight eight form, resulting in discontinuation of the six. Cubic inches were of 220, 272, and 344 respectifully, delivering horsepowers of 77, 90, and 104. The major exterior changes were the elimination of one bumper, as bumpers were of the dual-bar type. Chrome had begun sharing plating tasks, along with the old standby, nickel. Buick still relied heavily on wood in the construction of the bodies. This is especially true since closed cars were becoming unpopular.
Only 41,522 Buicks rolled off the lines in 1932, as Buick fell to seventh spot in the industry. With Buicks of this era selling at $1,500, GM announced a sales campaign whereby Olds, Buick and Pontiac were to be sold through one dealership, in other words, from the same showroom. As a result, 25 percent of the Buick dealerships folded, and the campaign was withdrawn after one and one-half years. In styling, Buicks took on rounded edges and flowing lines with the aid of slanted windshields, fuller hoods and radiators, with longer but tapering headlamps and fender-mounted turn signals. Dual stoplights appeared on Buicks for the first time, also in 1932, along with outside horns and single-bar bumpers. This was the last year for the headlight bar, and the first for opening panel louvres in the hood’s side, like the Chevrolet of the same vintage.
1933 brought on radical streamlined cars from every car maker. Buick was no exception, however the 1933 styling theme prevailed in Buick design through 1935. “V” shaped grilles were well recessed behind front fenders, as fenders themselves hinted of full wheel coverage by starting to nose-dive toward the bumper. As the headlamps grew in diameter the horns grew in length. Windwings were the coolest new idea from Buick. For the 1934 model year grilles really angled back on both sides, separated by a piece of sheetmetal running vertically down the center of the grille, where one might expect to find an extra wide grille bar. Also it must be noted that grilles were not vertical and sort of wrapped around the hood’s side. The panel louvers on the hood were replaced by chrome strips running horizontally while fender-mounted running lights vanished.
The straight axle lost out to coils as the front suspension became independent on all Buicks in 1934. Although leafs still held everything together at the rear, the frames did receive an X-member for added strength. The 1935 Buicks were almost exact reproductions of the 1934 models, with one exception. The grille bars on the 1935 models slightly bend inwards, whereas on 1934 models they are straight. The most accurate description of a 1936 Buick would be a 1936 Chevy. The difference is that all 1936 Buicks house small submarine-like running lights atop the front fenders; many 1936 Chevys do not. This type of styling similarity might have a huge advantage on any GM cars of the same year. Bodies, fenders, doors and what have you are often interchangeable, so long as Buick ornamentation is placed on a body shell of the same make.
1937 and 1938 were to Buick what 1932 was to Ford. These two years are often considered Buick’s best by restorers and rodders alike. Clamshell fenders had more to them at the rear of the wheels, as they sloped down, gracefully rounding off and dropping to the running boards. Headlights nestled between the fenders and hood while the grille angle and curve to the bars gave Buick a high priced look. Chrome vents ran down the hood side and bumpers have a rib in their center, running horizontally.
All convertible tops folded down into the package tray, eliminating the cluttery look which soft tops had been noted for. Despite this, open cars were meeting their demise as three and five window coupes were increasing in popularity. Front and rear stabilizer bars were incorporated into the 1937 suspension system, but that’s not all. The following year coils replaced the leafs in the rear as styling became even sharper. The 1938 Buick does resemble the previous year’s styling. The change was in the reduction of the number of grille bars, therefore they are spaced farther apart.
Dynaflash Eights supplied the go for the amazingly fast Buicks, the most powerful of which was the 248 cubic inch block, cranking out 141 horses at 3,600 rpms. This high output engine was available in the Century, Roadmaster, and Limited models. The Special had to make do with a 107 bhp version of the 248 engine. 168,689 Buicks were produced in 1938, carrying tags anywhere from $1,200 to $2,400.
The 1939 Buicks underwent a facelift, this time looking like an Olds, of about ’40 vintage. The depressions between the inner fender and the side of the hood were filled by flowing fenders. Awkward headlamps still protruded atop the fenders witha rather small split grille rising up in the center, like that of a dirt track roadster. Optional chrome strips ran along the semi-circular rocker panels, doing away with running boards. Again optional, sunroofs hopefully compensated for the now extinct rumble seats. Column shifted Buicks appeared for 1939 and went hand-in-hand with the already popular banjo steering wheels.
Ornamentation Takes Buick Into The ’40’s
With GM’s look-alike styling still going strong, ornamentation made Buick stand out in the years before WW II. For example, the 1940 Buick grilles were much fuller with the aid of heavy horizontal bars. Headlamps receded well into the fenders, but on the 1941 models they were recessed completely. In addition, there’s less emphasis on the rise in the grille’s center and outside grille molding tapered as it ran down the edge. While everyone else had their new front-opening hoods, Buicks opened from either side, from the right side up or the left side up. Windows were bigger, with slanting roof pillars and both were rounded at their edges. Overall room in the 1941 Buick coupe is excessive compared to others of that time. So they have an outstanding contour to their rear decks and those of you considering a trailer for long treks should consider a Buick coupe instead.
Taking Ford and the rest of the entire GM line by surprise, Buick unveiled a new style for the 1942 model year. New grilles smiled at onlookers and kept smiling at them in one form or another until 1954. “Airfoil” fenders swept the entire length of the car. Front fenders ran back, trailing off in height, into the rear fenders, just above the gravel shield placement. Thick double belted chrome strips ran along the bottoms of fenders with huge bumpers wrapping around the sides of them. Then the effects of WW II crept slowly upon Detroit. Cast iron pistons substituted for aluminum ones, causing the 248 cubic inch Buick to drop from 125 horsepower to 110 but the 320 incher stayed at 165 horses. Buick production went into hibernation in February and began turning out Pratt & Whitney engines (no relation to J.C.) at a rate of 1000 per month.
The long awaited 1946 models were all reserial ’42 models, yet Buicks were the most modern with their “new” 1942 styling. A big hit with the public were Buick’s bombsight hood ornaments. Parking lights were simple round units under the headlights for 1946 as opposed to the chrome side-sweeping strips which curved around the fenders on the 1942 Buicks. The way to tell a 1946 Buick from a 1947 is just as simple. The 1946 Buick’s center grille bar ran up into the hood’s molding crown, which reads, “Buick Eight”.
On the 1947 models, this center grille bar does not run into the crown. The 1948 Buicks carried on the same bodystyle as the two previous years, but, there’s one dead give-away in identification. It’s called Dynaflow, Buick’s first fully automatic transmission. Buick also built 12 prototype Holdans in 1948. The big selling Australian-made Holdans were powered by a six cylinder engine and looked very much like a Morris Minor, with that strong pre-’48 styling theme.
With the dawning of 1949 there came a new and different body style from Buick. They called it the hardtop. Holes in the hood side were also new and went on to become a Buick hallmark. With wider grilles, parking lights were now placed atop the fenders with spearlike chrome strips trailing them. Gone were the balloon fenders and running boards of the ’40’s. Belt lines, now the very top edge of the front fenders, ran straight back from them, just a few inches below the side windows, fading into the bulging curved rear fenders. Within these fenders were frenched taillights like those of a ’56 ‘Vette. 1950 belt lines ran down the car’s side, midway in height, casually rising to form the rear fenders.
Taillights could pass for ’58 Chevy items, placed vertically, at the fender’s bottom end. Nine massive smiling grille bars looped over the bumper, tucking out of sight and were blockaded by huge bumper guards at both ends. For 1951 the grille bars reduced in width and consequently added in number to 25. They now stopped at the bumper, instead of enveloping at as they did last year. As the model years passed changes became less noticeable. On the 1952 Buicks, a chrome spear, just ahead of the rear wheel well, swept forward ending atop the front wheel well. On the 1951 models this spear had a stray piece to it which ran above the rear wheel wells.
1950’s Buick Super Cars
Despite the fact that chrome was rearranged to denote one model year from another, the Buicks of the early ’50’s are super cars. They have a unique styling all their own and their size makes for plenty of room, even in the 2-door models. Automatics were the rage as 85 percent of all Buicks built in 1952 were equipped with Dynaflow. That fellas, is a good excuse for a second rod for the lady of the house. Even with their watermelon appearance they are surprisingly fast haulers. They became even faster when Buick celebrated their 50th year in 1953 with the new overhead valve V-8s, in two versions no less! These engines were capable of producing 188 horsepower at 3,000 rpms from a 322 cubic inch block, fed by four barrel carburation. These engines also had the highest compression in all of Detroit with an 8.5:1 ratio.
Style remained the same, with the exception of cluttered headlight shrouds and new taillight configuration. To really celebrate their golden anniversary Buick introduced America’s first family-sized sporty car, the Skylark. Built in convertible form only, they had a short run of 1,690 for 1953, selling at a flat $5000. The Skylarks resembled the other Buicks of the same vintage, yet their soft tops, wire wheels and fully radiused rear wheel wells were all that was needed to set them apart.
In 1954 the Skylark’s price was lowered to $4,355 and in production to 836, making them extremely rare. Clean and well proportioned lines on the 1954 Buicks were evident. There were panoramic wrapping windshields, longer quarter panels and smoother hoods without the huge bubble running down the center. Interesting to note is that some models were identified by their rear wheel wells. Some being of the slit type while others were semi-circular. 1954 also marked the first year for all steel bodied wagons.
The one-millionth hardtop left Buick’s assembly line in 1955 and under it a fresh new body style. Buick this year parted with their smiling front ends, a Buick hallmark since 1942. The mesh grilles were enclosed by a bulky bumper dipping in the center, with missile-type bumper guards protruding near both ends. Boomerang shaped chrome housings ran the full height of the rear fenders, for taillight and backup lamp placement. Buick was still a top performance contender, despite their somewhat sluggish appearance. Redesigned cams, manifolds and carbs fed an outstanding 9:1 compression ratio.
These durable engines could push their 4,200 pounds of Buick sheetmetal to speeds in excess of 110 mph while 0 to 60 was reached in 11.2 seconds. Grillework received a minor rearrangement for 1956 as hoods had a slight point to them. With the new two-tone paint nobody missed the bombsight hood ornaments. Also in 1956 Buick departed from the slit type rear wheel wells, giving the cars a much better side view. Prices ranged from $2,400 to $3,700 during the mid ’50’s.
The Powerful Sleek ’57
Buick engineers again were busy redesigning body lines for the 1957 models, but this was a common practice with all manufacturers in the late ’50’s. The new Buicks looked somewhat like a chopped, stretched out ’57 Chevy. They were low and long, with the Specials and Centurys being 208 overall while the Supers and Roadmasters were longer still, 215 inches overall. High slanting fins were dominant but blended well with the rear roof pillars which were angled forward,allowing for a wrap-around back window. The new 364 cubic inch engines had 9.5:1 compression ratios, developing 250 horses at 4,400 rpm’s or a 10:1 ratio developing 300 horses. These engines were powerful and fast, especially for their time. Therefore street rodders Buick-bound who would prefer to keep it all Buick, a Buick eight from the ’50’s could be an ideal power source.
Although the 1958 Buicks kept last year’s roof line and fins there were new curves in the sheetmetal again this year. The 1958 Buicks almost passed for Oldsmobiles of the same year, equally sharing the same amount of afterthought chrome. Production was a low 257,124 setting Buick in fifth. Buicks were capturing the prestige market’s attention (or visa versa) as prices reached a high of $4,700, and strangely enough, a low of $2,900. Debuting with the Edsel, and being outlived by it, was Buick’s air bag suspension.
A fan belt driven compressor fed air to a tank located between the frame horns. From there the compressed air was routed to each of the four air bags, which replaced the coil springs. Fortunately, this system was optional, front and rear, this year. In 1959 it was optional on the rear only, then faded out of production. Getting back to 1958, Buick offered a dual exhaust system with two resonators placed before and after each muffler. 1958 also marked the debut of Germany’s four-cylinder Opel, which was to be sold through American Buick dealerships.
Small Cars of The ’60’s
Price dropped slightly for 1959 with the most expensive Buick selling for $4,300 and at year’s end Buick was seventh in sales. Fins ran the entire length of the car protruding out over the headlamps topped by a flat roof supported by thin, graceful pillars. Buick’s two millionth hardtop was sold this year and it’s one millionth Opel gave Buick an early start in the small car rush of the ’60’s. Buick itself changed only in grillework for 1960. In the early ’60’s Buicks became more streamlined than before using frames of the “K” type (no X member) and of the “X” type (X shaped with no siderails). In 1962 there was Buick’s new 198 cubic inch V-6 and the following year there was the luxurious sporty Riviera. 1965 saw the debut of the Skylark Gran Sport, Buick’s muscle car, and the rest is history.