(first posted 10/12/2011. I’m off to sunny California for a week, so there may be a few more re-runs than usual) So it’s 1955, and you aren’t necessarily a brand loyalist, yet still a General Motors loyalist. The all new for 1954 B-Body by Fisher cousins, the Oldsmobile 88/Super 88 and Buick Special/Century are pleasantly updated for 1955. While Buick actually ran away with the sales game in 1955 (all the way to #3), Oldsmobile held it’s own in the market (holding steady at #5). Which way would you fly in ’55?
Taillight to taillight, both cars alternate on being very similar, yet very different. Both represented a butching up of the Harley Earl school of curves design philosophy. They’re more boxy than everything that proceeded them for about 20 years. The Buick hardtop with the full radius wheel well openings at the rear plus the soon to be traditional Ventiports project more of a sporting flair.
The Olds is decidedly more of a lead sled. The rear wheels are (optionally) skirted in a fashion to mimic the flying color two toning frolicking on the side panels. And the 88 is a little less square shouldered (looking) compared to the Special/Century twins. A bit softer, more feminine and more international, right down to the Globe emblem front and rear. If you value brute masculinity, the Buick is your car in looks. If you like feminine refinement, there’s an Oldsmobile showroom for you.
The same can be said for the Olds face. A tad bit more glamorous, the name “staged” on a grille bar between two rocket intake dagmars.
The Buick is decidedly more forceful, from pointed dagmars to the mesh grille and squarer hood, the Buick means business. It also seems less overdone compared to Oldsmobile.
Then there’s the matter of the divisional V8s. The Special came out the door with the smaller displacement 264 cube Nailhead, rated at 188hp, 3 more than the base 324 in basic Eighty Eights. To up the ante, a Century could be had with with a blazing 236 horsepower 322 V8, compared to the 202 horsepower 4 barrel 324 available in the Super 88.
However the base Olds 324 developed more torque than the Special V8, the 4 barrel slightly more torque than the 322 Nailhead in the Century. With the flexibility of the 4 speed fluid-coupling Hydra-matic, the Oldsmobile family was no slouch. The Century might have been the first car Motor Trend tested to break the 10 second 0-60 barrier, but in the 10.5 Second 0-60 range, a Super Eighty Eight wasn’t exactly slow for the times. And more economical too. While Buicks pissed away a lot of fuel economy through their variable pitch Dynaflow and could maybe crack 13mpg in a steady 60mph cruise, A judiciously driven Super Eighty Eight could tickle the high teens in the same setting.
There were other differences, the Oldsmobile rode on firmer rear leaf springs to the Buick soft coils. The Special was $6 cheaper (and barely out of the reach of people considering Dodge and Pontiac wares) than the Eighty Eight ($2291 to $2297 base for comparable 2 door sedans), which was the first major assault on the Sloan pricing ladder.
When you sat down in the interior, you were more dazzled (well, more likely blinded) by contours of chrome in hypnotic circular patterns in the Oldsmobile. This was the last year Oldsmobile actually gave you a whole host of gauges until the early 1980s too. The 1956 dash features a more ovoid speedo and a gas gauge, and I think the hilarious “cold” light.
The B-Body Buick dash is far more harmonious and easy to decipher, with a metal dash applique instead of the yards of blinding chrome in the Oldsmobile. Also Buick held onto more gauges for longer (at least through 1959). I don’t know how either of them compared on fabric appointments, but they couldn’t have been significantly different in quality. This was a time where you got more for your money for stepping into the middle of the market.
So the question really becomes what made people choose one over the other. Beyond the obvious brand loyalties, each car had enough individual qualities to feel unique. The Oldsmobile looks softer, but in a lot of ways was the “firmer” experience. All the while the Buick projected a tower of strength attitude, but remained one big softie in the tradition of yacht like Buicks since, well it seems forever. The erosion of these subtle differences in feel started in the mid 1960s and continued until you really couldn’t tell the difference between a 307 equipped LeSabre and a 307 equipped Delta Eighty Eight 30 years later if you were blindfolded.
I don’t know if I’d be able to choose one over the other. Both have their equal merits, and the extra power in the Century would be more intoxicating. But the 4 speed Hydra-matic would feel more modern. So I turn the dilemma over to you, Curbside Commenters.
…or Chrysler Windsor