At least that what Buick called it. The Roadmaster was “Custom Built by Buick.” Maybe not custom in the true pre-war sense, but when you look at the fine details of this car, you find all these wonderful little touches that make it a worthy contender in the luxury car field.
The Buick Roadmaster was like a Cadillac for people who didn’t want a Cadillac–“Too showy, too pretentious, overpriced!” they might say. Roadmasters and Cadillac 62s shared the same body; you can see it in the doors, windows, and roofline. And a Buick saleman was sure to point out that the Roadmaster possessed certain exclusive qualities that made it in fact superior to the lofty Cadillac!
So I found this example being sold on eBay by Gateway Motors of Crete (Chicago) IL, and I thought, “Wow, that’s a real ’50s car as they mostly were–not a ’57 Chevy with flames; not a chopped, leadsled Mercury, or a Corvette or a T-Bird–the cars that get all the pop-culture attention.” No . . . this is what most upwardly mobile, middle class, middle aged people (you know, the ones who actually run the country) aspired to and bought. It was their crazy kids who were tooling around in the hot rods! (Actually, not that many of them.)
Compare the Cadillac with the Buick. Same bodies, but the Caddy gives you a different grille with bigger “Dagmar” bullets; little fins instead of straight fenders; completely different V-8 engines and suspensions; Hydra-matic instead of Dynaflow; different starter switch location; and quite a bit more. Cadillac prices started at $3977 for the Series 62 sedan versus $3349 for the Roadmaster. That’s a $628 difference, which makes the Buick seem like a smashing good buy!
In those days, the cars of General Motors’ five divisions, even if they shared some components, each had distinct “personalities”. Buicks and Cadillacs, I have found, are at their best cruising the boulevards at low to moderate speeds, where they feel silky smooth and solid. A mid-’50s Chevy or Pontiac would be firmer and have a more “geared to the road” feel, with better handling in exchange for a little more harshness over bumps. So with the variety of engines, transmissions, suspensions, and body lengths (and–of course–looks), the GM car buyer had a broad selection of makes and models available to suit his particular preferences (and price point).
You walk around this car and you can see all the little things that set it apart from the “lesser” Buicks: the B U I C K and Roadmaster names, the gunsight hood ornament, and the heraldic Buick plaque–all rendered in gold; the unique 2-bar spinner wheelcovers; the graceful sweep-spear with four (not three) “Ventiports”. This is like the equivalent of getting dressed up with a suit and tie, but then adding cuff links, a jeweled tie clip, and a silk pocket square–little things can mean a lot!
Incidentally, portholes did not originate with Buick. The 1934 LaSalles had ’em first, and they had five!
Let’s have a look inside . . .
It’s beautiful on the inside too. Highly polished chrome surfaces, inverted silver “V’s” on the round gauges, engine-turned satin silver panel. I can now see where AMC got the idea for the speedometer design in their line of ’56 Hudsons (0 30 60 90 120 in big numerals).
P N D L R, and you line up the red dot. The salesman says, “You feel no shifting jerks in D–just smooth, flowing power. Even Cadillac doesn’t have that!”
All these futuristic-looking, flowing shapes–like you’re piloting an atomic-powered space ship or something . . .
Rear seat luxury–fold-down armrest, upholstered rope strung along the seat back, solidly-fashioned chrome ashtray.
So what happened to Roadmaster? Each successive model year, a freshly-designed edition came out, crafted to be even smoother, more powerful, sleeker, and more daring than ever before.
All-new bodies arrived in ’57, inches lower with more power, ball joint suspension, and hardtops all across the line.
Everything came to a crescendo in 1958. Roadmaster was upstaged by a new top-of-the-line model, the Limited–a longer, even more sumptuously trimmed car, priced in Cadillac territory. What were Roadmaster buyers to think, now that it was no longer the top Buick model? Where do we go from here . . . ?
. . . blasting off to another galaxy, or so it seemed. Now last year’s sparkly-new “Air Born B-58s” seem obsolete! These ’59s are so new, that the names had to be new, Buick claimed. The “Roadmaster” name is no more, the Limited (which sold poorly) has been dropped after just one year; now the top Buick model is “Electra 225”–named for its 225 gorgeous inches of overall length–and priced right around the traditional Roadmaster level. And that’s the way it would be for many years to come . . .
. . . until 1991, when it was decided that the Roadmaster name should be revived for a new flagship Buick model. Whereas the Roadmasters of Harley Earl’s day could be seen as trendy, upscale, and modern, this new version immediately comes across as geriatric and contrived. And the vaunted “Buick quality” largely wasn’t there, as this model had reliability problems, leaving their owners with lots of expensive repair bills. In the new Roadmaster’s defense, I will say that it lived up to the Buick heritage by being extremely smooth, powerful, and quiet. This would become truly the last Roadmaster, as the car was continued without significant change before being discontinued in 1996.
So what do you buy now if you want a luxury vehicle–a Roadmaster successor–priced just below Cadillac and Lincoln; and below Mercedes, Lexus, and so forth? How about a 2021 Buick Enclave Avenir–the most expensive Buick currently offered, with a base price of $55,000. If Buick buyers had trouble relating to LeSabre–Invicta–Electra in ’59, the current Encore–Envision–Enclave–Avenir lineup seems even harder to relate to and compare with anything familiar. Will anyone be impressed by the fact that you’re driving an Enclave rather than a lowly Encore? Maybe if they put three, four, or five portholes on each one, that would help . . .