(first posted 11/26/2013) The early 1950s is commonly considered to be an era of dull conformity. This attitude bleeds through to American cars of those years. Everyone made cars that were the same shapes, with the same kinds of engines and transmissions and suspensions, and there just was not much variety there. Well, perhaps we should rethink this “conventional wisdom.”
Speaking from a mechanical standpoint, there was not all that much variation in the final years before the Second World War, and the sameness would reassert itself by the late 1950s. But that period within a few years either side of 1952 gave us some of the widest choices available in a generation.
Engine? You could get a modern, high performance V8 (Cadillac, Olds, Chrysler, Studebaker, Lincoln) or an old-school flathead V8 (Ford, Mercury). If you prefer an inline 8, you again have a choice of flathead (Pontiac, Packard) or overhead valve (Buick). Prefer a 6? Another choice to be had between an overhead valve (Chevrolet) and the venerable flathead (including the Hudson Hornet’s monster of a mill). There was even the unique Willys F head (here).
Transmission? Automatics were becoming all the rage, but again, there were several kinds. The four-gear HydraMatic was probably the market leader, but there were also torque converter automatics like the Buick Dynaflow, or torque converters that locked up for a “high gear” (Packard UltraMatic). Some three speed automatics also used torque converters, and even acted like two speeds in normal operation (Ford, Mercury, Studebaker). The Stude even added a lockup torque converter. Or, you could skip the complexity and just have a two speed automatic (Chevy Powerglide). Chrysler, of course, offered a variety of old-school semi-automatics mated either to a torque converter or a straight fluid coupling. Then, there were the ubiquitous three speed manuals, either with or without overdrive.
All finished? Not quite. We still have to consider whether you want an open driveshaft (most brands) or a torque tube (Buick, Chevrolet, Nash). Now, when we take these various choices between the old and the new, the common and the unique, they could be mixed and matched into a dizzing array of choices.
For those who opted for an overhead valve straight eight, a torque tube drive and a torque converter automatic, you got . . . (envelope, please) . . . a Buick! And quite a Buick it was, too.
Let’s start with that engine. Buick had been selling nothing but inline eights since 1931 (CC here), all of them of the “valve-in-head” design. Actually, there were two of them – a smaller engine in the lower lines and a big 320 cubic incher in the Roadmaster. By 1950, the smaller Buick Eight was up to 263 cubic inches, but was not long for this world with the Nailhead V8 planned for the 1953 models. Still, for the traditionally-minded, you could do a lot worse than the smooth, torquey old straight eight. Actually, the smaller Fireball Eight as used in this car would appear for the last time in the 1953 base-level Buick Special, with the Nailhead reserved for the upper models. And in a switch, the ’53 Super (Buick’s middle child) would no longer have to share its little brother’s engine, but would get the same shiny new V8 that was in the Roadmaster.
The Buick also retained the traditional torque tube. I have always been fascinated by this now-obsolete design, which rigidly attached a tube that surrounded the driveshaft to the transmission, making the entire engine/transmission/driveline/differential assembly a single assembly (with a single universal joint to account for suspension travel.) The torque tube design allowed Buick to become one of the first cars to employ a soft coil spring rear suspension, because the car’s drive forces were transmitted to the car through the engine and its mounts instead of through heavy, bulky rear leaf springs.
There was nothing traditional, however, about the Dynaflow automatic transmission that lived between the other two old-time components. Where Oldsmobile, Cadillac and Pontiac sold a lot of cars with Hydra-Matic Drive, this was not an option available to Buick. The original Hydra-Matic was a sort of jerky unit that would have transmitted an intolerable amount of harshness through the car due to the torque tube, so something smoother was necessary. Voila – nothing smoother than a pure torque converter which (at least in normal operation) completely eliminated gear shifts. Nothing slower or less efficient, either. But did a Buick buyer really care?
One new feature for 1952 was power steering, and Buick spent quite a few ad dollars letting everyone know about it. Although Chrysler beat GM to market by a year, it did so by using a less advanced system that provided boost all the time, and not just when called for. The system used by GM did not supply hydraulic assistance until there was some steering load. This system provided traditional road feel when cruising straight ahead, and power boost only when needed for turning.
Enough about this cars oily innards. This is, after all, a BUICK! In 1952, a car did not get any more “establishment” than Buick. Which, in 1952, was not really a bad thing. Doesn’t this thing just scream “I Like Ike?” Buick had been churning out big, comfortable, attractive, well-built cars for decades by then, and had developed a well-earned reputation as the standard by which all near-luxury cars were judged. A Buick in that era was the car that every other purveyor of higher-priced cars compared their cars to.
Doesn’t this big Super just reek of “Buick-ness?” Then (as now), there was nothing more desirable than a big, good looking car with that bank-vault-like Fisher Body and all of the trim touches that told the world that you were someone to be reckoned with. The Europeans and Japanese may occupy this ground in the minds of many today, but in 1952, cars like this were built by Buick. The guy who first bought this Buick probably proudly wore an expensive fedora up top and Florsheim wing tip shoes down below. “Let me have a couple of those Dollar cigars, there, Jasper.” Yes, this man would drive a Buick. And not a Roadmaster, either – that would just be flashy. This next-in-line Super model was plenty of Buick for him, and far enough up from the base Special to announce that he was no poser.
I didn’t see who was driving this Buick. I was sitting in a drive-thru line at a fast foodery one day this past summer, when I saw it in the parking lot of a nearby boat company. The car seats in the back tells me that today’s driver of this super Super would not fit the old stereotype. What lucky kids – they have no idea how good they have it. Will they ever be satisfied in the back of a Camry? Not likely. But is it right to waste all of this legroom on people who use child seats? Maybe the owner of this Buick and I should swap cars for a few years.
I realize that this post is getting a bit long, but you must understand that there were just so many fascinating details to photograph on this fabulous old sled. So, I guess I shall have to keep yammering on about this Flint Flyer until I have shown you all of its cool jewelry. Just in case you may have forgotten how fond Harley Earl was of Chrome in his final decade running GM styling, this Buick is here to remind us. The car’s many square yards of plated surfaces are simply dazzling on a bright summer day (although they gave the ol’ JPC DroidCam quite the challenge.)
In truth, I don’t know what kind of a car I might have chosen in 1952. I have lately been kind of enamored with the Chrysler FirePower V8 mated to a Fluid Torque tranny. But I have always been a little out of the mainstream. Actually, most people probably didn’t care that much about the guts of their cars. Then (as now) eight cylinders and an automatic transmission was probably as far as they got. What sold an upper price car was substance, quality and style. This Buick Super certainly gave its owner all that, plus a double helping of gravitas to go along with it.