COAL: 1953 Buick Special Riviera

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“Big Blue” is my vehicular soulmate.  She’s my 4000 pound friend: beautiful, unhurried, unique, glorious, etc.  I ogled this car from afar for about two years before it came up for sale, but had to work the next day; so I sent my dad with a check,  telling him, “If it’s not a rusty mess, buy it.”  It wasn’t rusty, but it was a mess all right.

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Mess or no, the ’53 Special was a multitude of “lasts:” the last straight-eight Buick, the last Buick with a six-volt electrical system, and the last Buick with lever shocks in the front (to be fair to Specials, all Buick models had lever shocks in ’53).  Honestly, the 1954 models were the first “modern” Buicks, with wraparound windshields and hoods that flowed into the fenders somewhat more gracefully.

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Even though the above pictured ’54s might be more conventionally “’50s modern,” my favorites have always been from the 1940 to 1953 era.  I caught Buick fever when I was a young man visiting nearby Sloan Museum in Flint. Nothing in the world smells like a Buick from the forties or early fifties; the odor is a concoction of crankcase fumes and aging interior that is quite unlike the odor emanating from other old cars.  That smell stuck with me for years. Leaving nostalgia aside, I think my ’53 is beautiful; I still giggle when I look at it and drive it.

Model 45R, the hardtop “Riviera” model, actually outsold the two-door sedan by about 5000 units, but I seem to see more sedans than hardtops when I do see other ’53 Specials, which is rare.  Buick sold 100,000 four-door Special sedans in ’53, and a healthy 58,000 two-door hardtops.  Perhaps not surprisingly, 91,000 Super Rivieras with the new 322 “Nailhead” were sold.

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Anyway, Big Blue showed up in my driveway looking like this–old chalky pitted paint (which was kind of cool), running on about five and a half cylinders.  It leaked transmission fluid on the driveway in puddles the size of saucers.  The interior wasn’t bad; someone had obviously redone it years before.  The front shocks had no oil to speak of.  It ran pretty hot.  Oh boy…what had I gotten into?

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Needless to say, this became a familiar sight in my driveway.  I immediately diagnosed a zero compression situation in cylinder #8, and found that the compressed air I pumped into that cylinder was immediately finding its nearest exit, right through the exhaust pipe.  The head came off about two days after I bought the car, allowing me to inspect its egg shaped, cracked #8 exhaust valve.

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Thousands and thousands of words could be wasted discussing the mechanical work I (and my machine shop) performed on this car between day number two and today, nine years later.  Therefore, I’ll try to cover the highlights.

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In 2007, the radiator (which I had had boiled out) sprung a leak and the engine started making a bunch of noise at roughly the same time.  The radiator had to be recored ($450), and I decided that my garage, where I was knee deep in Mustang metalwork, was no place to rebuild a straight eight.  I farmed the engine rebuild out to the machine shop.  They found two broken rings and a few other incidentals, but the noise culprit was actually a broken pushrod end.  It sure didn’t sound like one.

Fascinatingly, the engine number (which is the title number) is pretty much the numerals in my birthday backward. Pretty neat.  Cosmic coincidence or no, this car was bleeding me dry.

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While the engine was out at the shop, I did a reasonable job degreasing the engine compartment, and I replaced the front pump seal and converter o-ring (by the way, a Dynaflow stops leaking only once, when it’s out of ATF). As an aside, this car was built in the Atlanta BOP plant, probably around July or August of 1953, so it’s a late in the model year example.

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There aren’t too many good ways to lift a straight-eight.  The shop manual recommends lifting it by its rocker shaft (!), but I didn’t have the balls for that kind of maneuver, so I pulled the rocker shaft and lifted it by two bolts, which probably is worse in retrospect.  Either way, the engine is tall and long, the car is tall and long, and that’s about 650 pounds of iron hanging there.  I heaved a sigh of relief when it touched the motor mounts and I was able to bolt it to the transmission.

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Here it is in all its glory, the last of the straight-eights, 263 cubic inches of raw…um…130 horsepower (gross).  I guess she’s putting about 60-70 horsepower to the wheels through that Twin-Turbine Dynaflow.  As Top Gear would say, naught to 60 comes up in about 20 seconds, give or take.  This car was designed for the 55 mile-per-hour two lane road, so I tend to drive 60-65 on the freeway.  Average MPG?  Probably 10, maybe 14 on the highway.

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Until Buick introduced the Nailhead, there were two basic straight-eight designs, with the “big-block” 320 finding a home in Roadmaster and Century models.  In fact, in ’41 and ’42, the 320 came with “Compound Carburetion” and 165 horsepower.  After WWII, Buick no longer offered Compound Carburetion, ostensibly because their engines were creeping dangerously close to Cadillac levels of power.  In fact, Buicks were among the fastest cars of the early forties, especially the Century models.

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I had tossed around the idea of repainting the ’53, but I had never pulled the trigger, because I kind of have a thing for old machines that actually look old, but an unfortunate incident in my driveway made the decision for me.  I managed to have a mishap with my oil change ramps, mangling the left front fender and rocker molding.  I was genuinely embarrassed and suffering from a healthy dose of self-loathing, because I love this car more than just about anything, and I hurt it.  Ouch for both of us.  The paint was bad enough that matching it would have been impossible, so I had the repair shop paint the whole car, and I paid the extra on top of the repair.

Fortunately, I ran in the house immediately and looked online for a molding, and found a decent pair.  It was a fortuitous occurrence, seemingly rare in the quest for obscure car parts.

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I think the Buick looks great now.  The previous owner had the rear bumper rechromed, but the front bumper is original.  I looked into the price of rechroming it and the grill bar, and the quotes I received immediately made the current chrome look completely acceptable.  Luckily for me, I’m far from being a perfectionist.

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I used Big Blue as the subject for an article about replacing torque ball and torque tube seals for a Buick Club magazine.  Pulling the torque tube out of an antique Buick isn’t really hard, but it is heavy and tedious, so it’s something I don’t like doing too often.  It is something I’ve had to do several times, however, so at least I know the drill.

Just to save someone a headache in the future, if you replace the rear axle and pinion seals, you’ll need to vent the axle housing somehow.  The old seals were felt, allowing pressure to escape; the new ones are lip seals.  A local parts guy came up with the cool idea of using a brake bleeder to vent the housing; the rear cover bolts are open to oil, so I just replaced one with the bleeder and attached a hose capped by a fuel filter.  Instant vent!

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Crawling out from underneath and opening the door, you’ll notice that the interior is nice, but not perfect.  It has non-original seat covers, a replaced headliner, newer carpet, and recovered door panels.  Like I said, this was one area that didn’t need too much work.

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There’s nothing like being behind the wheel of Big Blue.  There’s no power steering or brakes, so parallel parking is a bit heavy.  I can’t deny it; I feel like more of a man because I can park it proficiently.  My wife had the sun visors redone to match the interior, which really improved its general appearance.

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I just love this picture (pre-paint job).  It actually ran in Hemmings Classic Car during a Buick retrospective.  The car was also pictured in Collectible Automobile for an article on the Buick Special.  A photographer came to my town and took about 200 pictures of it, but only two or three ran in the magazine.

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I could go on for days discussing the work I’ve done on this car.  None of that really matters though, because it is a work of art to me.  After years of tinkering with it, I can usually just get in, push the accelerator (remember, Buicks have starter switches on the carburetor), and drive away.  It was completely unreliable when I bought it, but most neglected old cars usually are.  I’ve only seen a handful like it in person, and if I’m lucky, the next owner will buy her from my estate.  Or I’ll just drive Big Blue until the end of time.