(Originally published 1/18/18) Although it has had a tough time of late, no American mid-priced brand has had the long term success of Buick. That the 1950s was Buick’s decade is well known. While the top three spots were locked up by perennial leaders Chevrolet, Ford and Plymouth (almost always in that order) the sales spots for number four on down were always hotly contested. Pontiac would rule that group in the 1960s and Oldsmobile would be its king of the ’70s. Both of those divisions, however, had trouble maintaining their status as king of the mid-priced hill for much longer than a decade. Only Buick could consider the spot of America’s top mid-priced brand as something nearing a birthright. This is a long way of saying that the 1940’s was just one in a series of stylish and successful decades for Buick. Our tour begins now, so please step this way.
When General Motors was formed in 1908, Buick was the young conglomerate’s keystone. Buick was the second-best selling car in America that year – coming within 1,400 units of outproducing Ford, which was then the leading brand. As late as 1910 (the third year of Model T production) only about 1,500 Fords separated Buick from the title for the largest volume auto manufacturer in the country. The point of this ancient history is that Buick’s pedigree and its market popularity go way, way back.
Buick remained a contender through the ’20s, mixing it up with Willys-Overland and Dodge. As late as the early Depression years of 1930 and ’31 Buick was America’s number three brand. As the Depression deepened, however, Buick seemed to lose its moxie. Buick production (which had topped a quarter million units as late as 1927) dropped to under 47,000 cars (and 6th place) by 1933.
Even though Buick got over 168,000 cars out the door by 1935, it still managed only a 7th place finish with Dodge, Oldsmobile and Pontiac displacing it among “medium price” brands. Perhaps a line of nothing but eight cylinder cars during a time of economic collapse was not the magic combination it had seemed to be in 1931, when prosperity was just around the corner. Buick would prove, however, that it still had something left in the tank.
1936 saw the beginnings of some new model names that would serve for many years (if not decades). Where older Buicks were identified by a Series number (40, 50, 60, 70 and 90) the ’36 models got names. The Special (Series 40), Century (Series 60) and Roadmaster (Series 70) would put some ooomph into the lineup. The Special got the smaller of the two straight eights and the middle line B body while the Roadmaster naturally got the big engine and the larger C body. This would remain a constant state of things for each of those cars through 1958. The 1936 Century would mate the Roadmaster’s big 320 cid (5.2L) straight eight with the Special’s B body, a car which became known as the banker’s hot rod.
The combination of a solid lineup of solid cars (and stylish ones, at that) worked back then just as it does today. Buick was back up to 278,000 units and 4th place by 1940. And as Al Jolson famously proclaimed in his 1927 film The Jazz Singer, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!”
The 1940’s would be Buick’s decade, and never more convincingly than in 1941. The economy was finally rolling and Americans were becoming concerned about the war in Europe, factors that made 1941 a post-Depression record year for auto production. Chevrolet built over a million cars for the first time since 1929 and Buick set a record by building over 374,000 cars – a record that would not be surpassed until 1949. And for comparison, Buick sold over half of what Ford sold that year.
The ’41 Buick was a honey of a car, and the Super convertible seen here may have been the best combination of quality, luxury, performance and style in the entire industry. Not content with three models (excluding the high end Series 90 Limited), Buick added the Series 50 Super for 1940. Think of the Super as the Century’s opposite, a car with the big Roadmaster’s C body and Special’s smaller 248 cid (4.1L) “Valve-In-Head” Fireball straight eight. Although the Special came as a convertible, the Super’s larger C body brought its “A game” as an upper middle priced convertible.
One thing the ’41 Buick was famous for was its “Compound Carburetion”. This twin carb setup was standard on all Buicks other than the base level Special. Where the Super with its dual downdrafts was rated at 125 bhp, the single-carb Special was at a ten horsepower disadvantage. Buick’s Compound Carburetion was a precursor to the more modern four-barrel carburetor. In this design both carbs worked at idle but the front, the only one with a choke, did most of the work up to about 50 mph. At higher speeds the rear carb would come online for added power. Once in service the dual carbs were often mis-adjusted and may have been the genesis of the old joke wherein the Buick owner bragged that his car could pass anything on the road but a gas station. Although this setup was on ’42 models as well, it did not make a comeback after the war, and many of these cars were converted to a single carburetor when gasoline was rationed during WWII.
All of the technical specifications, interesting as they might be, were nothing compared to the ’41 Buick’s style. Inside and out, Buick was a beauty. I ask you, for the person with some money in his pocket and the desire for a stylish convertible, was there a better choice to be had? You could save about $100 on the Special, but you got a noticeably shorter car. Buyers must have agreed because the Special convertible only sold about a third as many as did the Super. Or you could spend $200 more for a Roadmaster, but those sold fewer yet. Yes, the Super was the sweet spot for Buick convertibles in ’41.
What about the competition? The Lincoln Zephyr, while attractive, sold for Roadmaster money and was less powerful (not to mention less robust). The closest match might have been the Chrysler Windsor which, while a very good car and priced close to the Super, was less powerful with its flathead six. It was also nowhere near as stylish.
Not content to sit on its laurels, Buick introduced a newly restyled line in 1942, a model year that turned out to last only a few months. That car came back for 1946 and continued doing what Buicks had been doing in the years before the War.
The cars were still stylish (in a more modern way) and came with the advance of the new Dynaflow automatic transmission midway through the 1947 model year. As a pure torque converter (a low gear was available but only by manual selection and not used in normal operation) the transmission was exceptionally smooth but quite inefficient and Buick’s reputation as a gas hog continued.
What the discontinuation of Compound Carburetion giveth, the Dynaflow taketh away.
By 1947 the Century had been temporarily shelved, leaving the Special, Super and Roadmaster to satisfy customers. Buick again hit 4th place in production, this time just shy of 273,000 units. This figure may seem small but even during the labor and materials issues of the immediate postwar years Buick again achieved over 50% of Ford’s production that year.
There were only two convertible choices in the ’47 Buick line, which was virtually identical to this ’48 model. This Roadmaster listed at $2,324 and was far more popular than its 1941 counterpart, selling over 12,000 examples. The Super was again the convertible sales champion at over 28,000 sold, no doubt due to the roughly $300 cost savings.
The competition was not even in the ballpark for convertible sales. Both the eight cylinder Chrysler New Yorker and the six cylinder Studebaker Commander were priced in the gap between the two Buick ragtops and sold terribly, 3,000 exactly for the Chrysler and about 1,500 for the modern, stylish Stude. The six cylinder Chrysler Windsor was a bit cheaper at $1,861 and still sold fewer ragtops (11,200) than Buick’s much more expensive Roadmaster series. Did anyone else offer an a convertible that was even remotely as appealing as the elegant, stylish Buick?
I think it is fair to say that Buick in the 1940s was the “it car” of its time for the mid-upper income buyer, much as Lexus has been in recent years. And as an executive-level convertible, its good looks left the competition in far back in the dust. I knew this from listening to my mother’s stories from her youth. As a young nursing student in the early 1950s, she was friends with a well-off young man whose family owned a lake cottage and a sleek wooden speedboat. His car? A Buick convertible, of course. To hear her tell it, she felt like quite the queen heading for a day on the lake in that big open Buick.
How fitting it was to find both of these stunning examples at . . . a gas station. Knowing these cars’ reputation as problem drinkers I laughed out loud when I saw this scene. I immediately recovered and made a fast maneuver into the station to take some pictures. As I framed the opening shot of both cars fueling, the caption wrote itself in my mind: The secret to finding old Buicks in the wild is to know where they feed.
An even bigger coincidence was that both cars are owned by the same fellow who owns the 1954 Ford that I wrote up here last year. In fact, I shot these pictures only a few days after catching the trim little light green Ford. And what a contrast – from the austere stripper Ford tudor sedan of the early 1950s to the peak of swashbuckling style from the decade before. It is easy to see and appreciate the changes Buick made in the course of the decade when seeing the cars side by side. Of the two, I prefer the more classic look of the ’41 (and that color combo cannot be beat). I can see, however, where the more modern ’48 would have have had its appeal as the country began to look towards the fast-approaching 1950s.
This concludes our guided tour of Buick’s success in the 1940s. Buick has only recently made another try for the convertible dollar after not offering an open car for quite a few years. By all indications, the Cascada has been something of a flop. I am convinced that Buick could do a lot worse than to look to the 1940’s for inspiration should it make another try at the droptop market. Buick hit a sweet spot back then with power, quality, price and style (especially style). I remain convinced that what was a winning combination then remains so today. Or perhaps times really have changed and there is no longer a significant market for a grand touring convertible for the upper middle class buyer. I doubt that today’s Buick will be how we will find out.