The General Motors B body provided the basis for some of the most popular cars the company ever built. Its long and proud history spans many model names, car Divisions and decades. But there was a brief period in the early postwar years where the B body went AWOL. Let us see if we can figure out where it went.
Have you ever had two pieces of conflicting information running on two parallel tracks in your mind so that they never meet? Exhibit A: the all-new postwar 1948-49 GM cars. We know that in 1948 and 1949 the Mighty GM let loose with a hugely successful lineup of new postwar designs that cemented the company’s market dominance. We also know that GM had, from the days of the great depression, used a system of three primary bodies to supply the various divisions with unique offerings. The A body was for Chevrolet and Pontiac, the B body was for Oldsmobile and Buick while the C body was for the Cadillac, big Buick and sometimes the big Oldsmobile. We also know that the 1948 Cadillac and “Futuramic” 98 used a brand new C body and that the original 1949 Olds 88 was on the Chevy A body. Which is why, with 303 cubic inches of V8 stuffed between its front fenders, the first 88 was a hot rodder’s dream.
So what’s the problem, you ask? I see two: First, where in all of these well-worn ruts of history is the 1949 GM B body? Second, by 1951 there was a clear B body, which makes me wonder just what was that thing that GM kind of called a B body in 1950? This second question will have to wait until tomorrow for an answer because, as we will discover, things at GM were not running as smoothly as might be assumed.
The General offered several different body styles in those years, so the simplest way to keep track of the bread-and-butter models (or our A-B-C’s, perhaps) is to restrict our examination to the basic four door sedans. So no coupes, no convertibles, no station wagons and no fastbacks, at least where fastbacks augmented the “regular” sedans, because these would just serve to messy our scorecards. For our purposes today we are also going to restrict ourselves to the more plebeian models and thus ignore the “C Special” (the lengthened C body that generally served the Cadillac Series 60 Fleetwood) as well as the D body, which was generally used only by the Cadillac Fleetwood 75 sedan and limousine.
1946-47 As Easy As A-B-C
In 1946-47 General Motors and Fisher Body kept everything easy. First there was the A body which, as we know, was mainly for Chevrolet. Although the Chevrolet Fleetline got a blind rear quarter version of this body, it was still an A body which dated from 1941 in its basic form and from 1942 with those long front fenders which shared real estate with the front doors. This workhorse A body was also the basis for the lower level Pontiac Torpedo and even the Oldsmobile 66. Their wheelbases were different (116 inches for Chevy, 119 for both the Pontiac and Oldsmobile) but they were all the same GM A body.
The 1946-47 pure fastback B body, which dated from 1941, was shared even more widely. From Pontiac’s high-level Streamliner (122 inch wheelbase) through the Olds 76/78 (125 inches), Buick Series 40 Special (121 inches) and even the Cadillac 61 (126 inches), it did the heavy lifting for the heart of the GM lineup as buyers tried their best to cajole new cars out of salesmen holding long, long waiting lists.
Finally there was the C body which, as we all know, was used for the Oldsmobile 98 (127 inch wheelbase), the Buick Super 50 (124 inches)/Roadmaster 70 (129 inches) and the Cadillac 62 (also 129 inches). This was the Big Dog in the GM body pecking order that had been newly introduced for 1942. Wait, do dogs have a pecking order? Or is that just chickens? Never mind, you get the idea that this body was reserved for the expensive end of the company’s model selection. So now we have shown the classic GM A-B-C body system in all its commonality and in all its variety, a system that endured for a long time. At least until things took a severe turn for 1959. Except . . . no.
1948 The Beginnings Of Change
1948 saw nothing new with the A body cars, each of which retained its interesting design which was halfway between a fastback and a bustle-butt. Aside from some minor trim changes each of them remained mostly the same, whether from Chevrolet, Pontiac or Oldsmobile.
The sleek 1948 B body lineup lost one member, though, as the Cadillac 61 rolled over and fell out of the B body bed. Or got promoted to the C body, actually. The Pontiac Streamliner, Olds 76/78 and Buick Special surely, however, provided more than enough variety on this structure. It is interesting to look at each Division’s car on the same body and note the different flavor that each of their styling studios was able to impart purely by using trim. It is also apparent from the long hoods that each of the three Divisions to use the B body needed to accommodate a lengthy straight eight engine.
The big news for 1948 was GM’s first all-new postwar cars. It should be no surprise that the high-end C body cars were the first in showrooms with a new look. Well almost all of them. The “Futuramic” Oldsmobile 98 (on its 125 inch wheelbase) and all Cadillacs (the Series 61 is shown here, which shared its 126 inch wheelbase with the Series 62) wowed well-heeled buyers with their modern good looks. Each of these cars lost two inches (Olds) and three inches (Cadillac) from their respective wheelbases on their new bodies. But wait – what about Buick?
Well, Buick was late in turning in its homework because the 1948 Super and Roadmaster had to wear last year’s suit for one more season, giving us the anomaly of two different C bodies being in production concurrently. According to David Temple in his book The Cars Of Harley Earl, Harlow Curtice decided that the first proposal for the new 1948 Buick was not “Buick” enough. The delay caused by going back to the drafting tables for a second try at a new front end resulted in no new C body Buick until 1949. Are you confused yet? Don’t worry, you will be.
1949 Where Is The B Body?
1949 was The Year. The year that GM was finally there with a new postwar lineup. Well, kind of. The A body was certainly new. Chevrolet and Pontiac were all in with the new body. Then there was Oldsmobile – instead of just the cheapest model (the 66 was gone and the 76 now anchored Olds lineup) using the A body, the new mid-level 88 used it as well. Wheelbases for the A body cars ranged from the Chevy’s 116 inches through the Pontiac’s 120 inches and back down to the Oldsmobile’s 119.5 inches.
It is interesting that the new A body styling looked very much like the C body that had come out the prior year. “Very much like” is actually something of an understatement as the new A body was a virtual “Mini Me” to the corporation’s senior cars . . .
. . . which looked like this. The Olds 98 and all Cadillac models were without many visual changes (although both contained brand new engines that would dominate their respective Divisions for decades). And Buick joined the C body crowd with its new 1949 Series 50 Super and Series 70 Roadmaster. Again, wheelbases varied fairly widely from Oldsmobile’s 125 inches through Buick’s 124 (Super) and 129 inches (Roadmaster) and to Cadillac’s 126 inches. Only the Fleetwood’s 133 inch wheelbase would stretch beyond that of the Roadmaster, but then the Fleetwood was technically a “C Special” body and not really part of this discussion.
Now, back to the 1949 B body. What 1949 B body you might ask? An excellent question, that. We (or at least I) have spent decades secure in the knowledge that Chrysler Corporation had been the last company to completely revamp its vehicle lineup following the war. Not only did Chrysler wait until 1949, its ’49 models were late so that there was a “First Series 1949” and a “Second Series” (true) 1949 line which came along in January of that year (which we compared here).
It turns out that I have been quite wrong because there was one major brand that was later to market with an all-new postwar line than Chrysler: Buick! The 1949 Buick Special, as it turns out, was the one and only vehicle which GM offered on a B body for 1949. But it was the old B body that dated back to 1941, and had been last used by everyone else in 1948. I could not use a brochure picture because the Special’s existence was not even acknowledged in the ’49 Buick brochure. “Buick Looks Fine For ’49” apparently only applied to Supers and Roadmasters. The pictured car was chosen because it is documented extensively online, including photos of the data plate which conclusively establish it as a ’49.
The ’49 Special was rarely seen, too. According to the Standard Catalog of Buick, the Series 40 Special was offered in only two body styles that year. The sedan (pictured) was the most popular of the two with 5,777 built, while only 4,631 copies of the two-door Sedanette made it out of the plant. This is apparently due to production of the ’49 Special ceasing late in December of 1948. For comparison’s sake Buick built around 25,000 1948 Specials.
The new “1949” Special came quite late in the model year (August 8th of 1949) and, according to the Standard Catalog of Buick, it was really an early 1950 model in all but name. One of the few differences is that the early version used an exterior hood release mechanism which used a key inserted into one of the portholes instead of the inside release used in the regular 1950 cars. Even then the new Special was only released in “Jetback” (fastback) form. The Special “Tourback” (notchback) Sedans would not appear until the rest of the 1950 line made its debut a few months later.
So now it can be said unequivocally that there really was no legitimate 1949 B body car from General Motors at all. We can see that Pontiac, Oldsmobile and Buick each made a different decision about how it would deal with the lack of a 1949 B body. Pontiac became an A Body-only car, simply choosing to drop its larger model. Olds moved its mid-range models down to the new A body while keeping its flagship on the big C body. Buick would not lower itself to be seen on an A body and instead soldiered on with the leftover ’48 body, and even then just barely by building very few of them in the last few months of calendar year 1948. Buick would then choose to go without its highest volume model (for eight months!) until a new body would be ready – which turned out to be late summer of 1949. And that replacement would be, in all actuality, a 1950 model.
But was that 1950 Buick Special actually built on a new B body? The second part of this mystery will be the subject for our next installment, and may not be quite so easily answered as this one was.
All brochure pictures are from the fabulous collection at OldCarBrochures.org
The Mystery Of The Missing B Body – Part 2 (1950-52) (J P Cavanaugh)
1941 Buick Super/1947 Buick Roadmaster – The Look Of Successs (J P Cavanaugh)
1949 Chevrolet Fleetline Special – Your Choice Of Fastback Or Notchback (Paul Niedermeyer)
1949 Oldsmobile 88 – Ghost Of The Future, Legend Of The Past (Bellinghamster)