Curbside Classic: 1958 Buick Special – Anything Worth Doing Is Worth Doing To Excess

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It is hard to believe that we here at CC have never gotten around to discussing one of the most polarizing cars of the entire 1950s.  But here we are: the 1958 Buick.  Is there really anything that can be added to these pictures?  Perhaps not, but let’s give it a try anyhow, shall we?  It may be the day after Thanksgiving, but there is always room for leftover turkey.

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So, where to start.  We have to start with the looks.  We just have to.  Is there a more over-styled, over-decorated car out there anywhere?  From a decade which specialized in over-styled and over-decorated, that is saying something.

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Buick was the cornerstone of General Motors.  Before there was Chevrolet, before there was Cadillac, there was Buick, from an era when a guy named Walter Chrysler ran it.  Cadillacs cost more and Chevrolets sold more, but Buick was always the golden child of the company, no more so than when Harlow Curtice, its Divisional General Manager of the 1930s and 40s, became GM’s President in 1953.

Add to Buick’s “Most Favored Division” status the fact that the U.S. was in a serious postwar boom, and a solid upper-middle priced car like Buick became more and more affordable to more and more people.  Buick moved from strength to strength in the first half of the ’50s as it brought us a never-ending parade of “new and improved” while selling us more and more cars.  By 1955, Buick had bumped Plymouth from its traditional number three sales rank by selling nearly 739,000 cars to proud folks all across the country, proof that they had achieved the American Dream.

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It was during the heady time of Buick’s 1955 success that the 1958 car was conceived.  Remember when you were a kid playing with your friends?  Everything would start out so innocently, but then one thing kind of led to another and before long, something got broken, someone got hurt and everyone got in trouble.  This is the automotive version of that all-too-common occurrence.  Well, this and the Edsel.

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From 1956 through 1958, a combination of a slowing economy, and the cars themselves, did a number on Buick.  The still-attractive 1956 model’s sales dropped to a still-healthy 572,000 cars, but divisional higher-ups were probably starting to worry when the all-new 1957 cars only sold 405,000.  Even before those sales numbers were in, it is clear that Buick had taken the themes that it had developed during the previous decade about as far as they could go.  The rounded shapes, the full wheel cutouts and that familiar Buick face did not come off so well on the ’57 (top), and the styling crew must have known it because the ’58 would receive an extensive restyling that would bear little resemblance to prior cars, although still using the same basic body shell.

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GM’s advertising people must have really liked air force bombers, because that was their go-to metaphor when a new, massive design came along.  The bold 1942 Oldsmobile had been the B-44 and this car would be the B-58.  And quite the bomb this one turned out to be, with Buick dropping to fifth place in sales (behind Oldsmobile) with fewer than 242,000 cars out the door.  This showing was not quite as bad as Chrysler’s 50% drop, but then Buick did not have the horrid reputation for quality that Chrysler had developed in 1957.  But 1958 Buick sales were down no less than 66% from their 1955 high. Perhaps the Divison’s downward trajectory was behind the thirty-six page sales brochure that is really quite spectacular.

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If massive is your thing, this is your car.  There are few cars that do massive like this one.  Even ignoring all of the brightwork (which is not something easily done), this car has a big, hulking bulked-up shape that makes it hard to tell that it is related to the prior year’s car.  But yes, let’s move on to the bling.

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“Too much?”  If anyone in Buick’s design studio had this question come to mind, it is not evident from looking at this car.  GM styling chief Harley Earl was nearing the end of a long and illustrious career that went back to the 1920s, and GM’s 1958 line reflected both his taste and his bold personality .  But times were changing.  A younger generation of stylists was coming who would champion a cleaner look with more sculpting and less brightwork.  Earl would retire in 1958 and his influence would linger into some aspects of GM’s 1961 cars, but this car would be the end of the line for the “GM look” that had existed since the dawn of the styled automobile.

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When I first saw this car, I expected that it was a mid range Super or Century model, given all of the chrome.  But no – this is the Special, Buick’s “value” model, which was as plain as you could get a Buick in 1958. This is the one thing that the ’58 Buick actually got right.  Chevrolet and Pontiac were there for the budget-minded, and anyone who wanted to save a few bucks would just have to settle for something less.  But this car was a Buick.  You want a Buick?  You will have to pay for a Buick.  And if you pay for a Buick, then you will get something that will prove to the neighbors that you had some real coin to spend.  Management, however, must have been traumatized by the Division’s poor sales because plain Jane strippo Buicks would start to appear by 1961 and by the late ’80s, Buicks would be considered little different from any other GM brand.

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Wow, we have spent all this time on the looks and have not even touched on the car’s innards.  I had no idea that Buick ever had a “B-12,000” engine.  Otherwise known as a 364 cubic inch “nailhead” V8.  But when you have the capability to measure the number of pounds of thrust behind each piston’s power stroke (who would have figured such a nice, round number?), who needs to know boring things like cubic inches?  Especially when all of the competition (including Oldsmobile) has more of them.  This Special with the 2 bbl carb was good for 250 horsepower, while the rest of the line (up to and including the Roadmaster and the Limited) got another fifty horses out of a 4 bbl premium gas version.

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Ever the contrarian, I have concluded that I sort of like this car.  I think that Buick carries the excessive jewelry better than did the nearly as overdecorated ’58 Oldsmobile.  Really, it’s hard to look at this car and decide what trim to take off.  The poor thing would just look naked without all of the brightwork (especially in this color.)  Speaking of color, I can’t say that I am really wowed by this car’s combination of Reef Coral paint and its gray and ivory interior trim.  But its condition is really nothing short of amazing for a car north of fifty five years old and found sitting in southwestern Michigan this past summer.

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OK, it’s not a real unicorn.  After all, the Special sedan made up maybe 20% of Buick’s sales that year.  It might have been more fun to find one of the two door sedans or one of the handful with the three-speed stick shift instead of one of the two optional versions of Dynaflow that this one has, but sometimes you just have to be happy with what you get.

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A few cars from the 1950s have become icons of the decade.  The ’57 Chevy (for its ubiquity) and the ’59 Cadillac (for its finny excess) come to mind.  Even in the category of ’50s failures, the Edsel hogged all of the (in)glory.  But only one gets the booby prize as the car that combines 1950s kitsch and gaudiness (to a fabulously wretched degree) while at the same time being unloved and almost obscure.  The 1958 Buick mated space-age flash to the conservatism of the Eisenhower years.  But the “Air-born B-58” made a hard landing in 1958, and remains mired in pretty much that same spot today, neither rehabilitated nor reviled in the popular imagination.

Personally, I really think that it could use some chrome portholes on the fenders.

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Further reading

1958 Oldsmobile (Laurence Jones)

1958 Oldsmobile (J P Cavanaugh)

1952 Buick Super (J P Cavanaugh)

1956 Buick Century (Paul Niedermeyer)

1956 Buick Roadmaster (Laurence Jones)