Design History: Buick’s Fully-Open Rear Wheel Wells (1953 – 1957) – The Year-By-Year Opening

1954 Special

One of the most distinctive and readily-identifiable styling cues of the 1950s was Buick’s full rear-wheel openings. It sure made them easy to ID as a kid in the early ’60s, trying to make sense of all of the older cars still on the road. But of course, not all of the models had it during those years; it was a steady progression starting in 1953 and ending abruptly after 1957.

Whether it was a positive step and good design is of course a subjective issue. It can be a bit too much on certain body styles, and seems to work better on some models than others. Buick was trying to inject “The European look of wide-open rear wheel wells” (their words) despite their cars being as all-American as it got. And like so many styling affectations of the ’50s, it soon ran its course, to be replaced by the next styling fad.

It all started in 1952 with Buick’s Skylark concept, obviously an attempt to add some sports car zest to a very large convertible. It’s essential to remember that in the early ’50s, sports cars were the hot thing, and they had an outsize influence, for better or for worse.

And by far the most influential of those was the Jaguar XK-120, which arrived in 1948. And there’s a whole lot of it in that Skylark.

Somewhat ironically, the XK-120 was also quite commonly seen with rear wheel spats, but those were more commonly seen on the continent than in the US. Americans preferred the raw and power-exuding look of its rear wheels in the buff.

The full rear-wheel cutouts must have made a rather sudden appearance in the Buick studios in 1952, as Harley Earl’s beloved 1951 LeSabre concept, which he used as a daily driver, very much did not have them.

Nor did the 1951 XP-300 concept, which did predict future Buick front end styling more than the LeSabre.

Earl had the LeSabre updated in 1953 with larger rear wheel openings, although certainly not the full round ones as on the ’52 Skylark and the 1953 production Skylark.

Buick also had another concept in 1953, the Wildcat. It was essentially Buick’s take on the Corvette, with a fiberglass body. Its front end wasn’t exactly very sporty, but did predict future Buicks. And it had almost fully-covered rear wheels.

Until it didn’t. There’s a couple of shots of it that clearly show the Wildcat was remodeled by having its rear wheels cut open.

Yet the restored Wildcat I has the original enclosed rear wheels. In any case, it seems that the fully-exposed rear wheel treatment was competing against the covered one for some time still at Buick, but it soon became apparent who won.


The production 1953 Skylark was part of a trifecta of high-end showy, limited-production convertibles introduced by GM that year, along with the Olds 98 Fiesta and Cadillac Eldorado. In Buick’s case, it was as part of their 50th birthday; a gaudy cake for themselves, even if it didn’t have candles.

Building it required major re-doing of the Buick Roadmaster convertible, and very few body parts interchanged. Even the windshield was cut down, unlike on the ’52 concept. Lots of custom handwork and lead filler were involved, which helps explain its very lofty price of $5,000, or 50% more than the Roadmaster. That explains why only 1619 were built and sold.


In 1954, the Skylark reappeared on the new smaller B-Body, which rather blunted its appeal and sales, which shrank to 836. Its wheel openings were even more adventurous, though, now flashing some serious underbody skin, painted in a contrasting color to make sure it wasn’t missed.

It was also the end of the road for the Skylark, in its present incarnation. Too expensive, but not really exclusive enough.

And in 1954, the full rear wheel openings now also appeared on the rest of Buick’s hardtop coupes and convertibles, such as this C-Body Roadmaster Riviera.

And the B-Body Specials and Century.

It’s hard to overstate how popular Buicks were during this era. If one could afford something a bit nicer than the low-price three, a Buick was the thing to have. And in the mid ’50s, that was increasingly possible, especially since a Special wasn’t really much more expensive. This hardtop coupe cost all of 12% more than a Chevy Bel Air coupe, and came with a V8 engine to boot.

But the 1954 sedans and wagons still kept their rear wheels chastely covered.

That was certainly not so on Buick’s 1954 Wildcat II concept, which opened both front and rear fenders about as much as possible. The whole front end is pretty out there, but then this was GM in the mid-50s, trying to outdo the Italians and failing miserably, all-too often. This would be something out of Battista Farina’s bad dreams. In case it’s not obvious, it started out as a Corvette, which of course also proudly showed it rear wheels.

Next page: 1955 through 1957

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