There was a time when I didn’t care much about prewar cars. That time was most of my life. I’m not sure why the past few years have brought an appreciation for these cars’ design, but I’m glad for it. It’s opened a whole new-to-me era of cars to explore. And as I’ve explored, I’ve come to really enjoy the GM cars from just before the big war. I think they’re especially good looking and well proportioned. And I think Buick looked the best of these prewar GMs. So it was a great day when I came upon this for-sale Buick Special by the roadside.
My teenage sons and I were on our way home after a couple days away hiking in beautiful and hilly Brown County, Indiana. The boys are used to me pulling over to photograph old cars by now and even sometimes point one out that I might not have seen. I’m raising them up right! Anyway, this Buick came into view as the narrow highway curved into tiny Bean Blossom, famous for being the home of bluegrass legend Bill Monroe.
It’s not in Concours condition, given those gray, painted bumpers and some missing trim bits. But it looks like it’s got good bones. The body is straight and unblemished.
If you’re like I was until recently and can’t tell one 1930s car from another, let’s look for a minute at how Buick styling evolved through the 30s. Notice this 1934 Buick’s upright windshield and cabin that narrows sharply up front, for shoulder-to-shoulder, nose-to-windshield driving.
In 1936, GM introduced the first B and C platforms, which are held in some veneration here at Curbside Classic (reluctantly, for some of us). This resto-modded 1937 Special rides on it and shows how the styling was being modernized. The windshield has a rake. The cabin is wider up front, by about five inches. The fenders have pontooned and the grille is a little less prow-like.
That modernization continued right until war broke out. By 1940, the headlights were integrated into the fenders and the grille had moved down and across.
In 1941, those headlights migrated out to the front corners. This photo is of a C-bodied Super with a more formal roof, but the Special’s snout was much the same. In 1942, the front fenderline would finally flow back through the doors to the rear fenders, creating what arguably can be called a modern design. While still bulbous compared to what would come, the styling was more linked to the future than to the past, and defined Buick styling themes that carried into the 1950s.
Here’s a photo of the ’41 Super coupe, just because the coupe is so delightful. Yes, this is a gratuitous car shot.
But back to the car at hand. It saved Buick, whose sales volume had cratered in the Great Depression’s early years and was at risk of being shut down. GM installed wunderkind Harlow Curtice into the division president’s seat and charged him with turning Buick around. He immediately ordered that an entry-level Buick be built. It was first known as the Series 40, but was soon renamed the Special. It led Buick’s resurgence, and by 1941 Buick sat in fourth place behind “the low-priced three.”
On its introduction, the Series 40/Special rode on a shorter wheelbase than the upmarket Buicks. In 1940, that wheelbase spanned 123 inches, which is hardly short. But like all Buicks, the Special packed one of Buick’s straight eights. In 1940, that would have been a 100-horsepower, 248-cube version. Buick was justifiably proud of its eights. They earned a reputation for durability and low-end torque, which probably made Buicks fairly rewarding to drive.
Here’s what that badge looks like when all the parts are present.
This Special’s interior is in lovely condition, with gleaming faux-wood trim (nicely-done wood-grained painted steel).
Out back, there’s a bustleback trunk. This design element’s years were numbered.
Normally when I find a Curbside Classic close to home I shoot the same five shots and run. I’m always pressed for time, and I prefer to be left unaccosted by passersby and owners. But I was under no time pressure this day, and I was inclined to linger. I actually hoped someone would appear with knowledge about this car so I could hear some of its story. Alas, nary a soul stirred in Bean Blossom on this overcast summer day. That this car survived this long will have to be story enough.