Curbside Classic/Design Analysis: 1950 Buick Special Sedanet – The Full-Sized Fastback Problem

(first posted 9/5/2012)     Perfect timing: I was just about to write a piece on the challenges of the full-sized fastback, and how certain later ones in the sixties just didn’t work, like the ’66-’67 Dodge Charger and the Rambler Marlin. And what pops up at the CC Cohort this morning, but one of my favorite fastbacks ever, a 1950 Buick, shot by Charkle the 2nd (I should know who that is in CC-speak by now). And in my favorite color too: patina. Let’s savor this Buick and compare it to a few other big fastbacks to determine what works and what doesn’t, and why.

The 1950 is the successor to the 1948 Buick Special we examined a while back. GM embraced fastbacks in a big way during the 1941 – 1951 period, but they soon gave way to the more popular trunked sedans and coupes. It was a fad, essentially, harking back to the golden streamliner era of the thirties and the Tatras that ushered it in.

But the whole direction of car shape was changing: lower, longer, and most of all, much longer trunks. And therein lies the problem with the second big fastback revival of the mid sixties: the cars’ basic shape just didn’t lend themselves to fastbacks.

The trunks of cars in the sixties and seventies were absurdly long, and it changed the whole relationship of the passenger compartment to the overall car. The classic long-hood, setback passenger compartment and short trunk was tossed aside. Trunks were now as long as the hoods, if not more so. And of course, they were much lower too, exacerbating the challenge of turning them into fastbacks.

Not surprisingly, Bill Mitchell’s GM studios handled the problem much more deftly than the rest. How? By not trying to turn such a long car into a true fastback. The ’67 full-sized coupes. like this Buick Wildcat, have a long, flowing roof, and are often called “fastbacks”, but they’re not, really. Look at how much trunk is still sticking out behind the end of the roofline.

Buick took the 1968 A-Body coupes a bit further towards a true fastback, but it’s still far from what the Charger and Marlin were trying to do. GM understood the problem, perhaps from its past experience, or just better design competence.

Ford embraced fastbacks with a vengeance too; sometimes successfully, other times not. You won’t have to guess too hard about my feelings on this one. It’s not quite as bad as the Charger and Marlin, but it follows the same pattern: grafting a fastback roof unto a body that was never originally designed for one. Compare it to the red Wildcat for a bit of contrast.

The ’67 Mustang fastback worked so much better: “Look Ma! I’ve got a short trunk!” As well as a set-back passenger compartment (and not much rear leg room, of course).

The 1970 Camaro took that approach and spun it into gold. Even Pininfarina praised it. Yes, it worked on the pony cars, and other small hatchbacks soon to come, but it didn’t on full-sized cars, mostly.

So let’s enjoy the golden era of the big fastbacks, as embodied by this fine 1950 Buick Special. Its rear end shows another aspect of why it worked so well, since it doesn’t have to resolve itself into the high trunk lip-line of the existing bodies like all those other sixties’ fastbacks, but gets its own dedicated tapering tail.

Enough of tails. Needless to say, the Buick has quite the front end to contrast its smooth backside. It’s certainly one of the more memorable ones from that era, regardless of whether you love it or hate it.

A fish from the depths of the sea. And with a multi-hued color scheme. And those famous Buick reverse-dished wheels; might as well show them off.

This gives me a chance to remind all CC Cohort shooters to not try to shoot interior shots from the driver’s side window. It just doesn’t work, due to reflections. Hold the lens flat to the glass of the passenger side window, and it solves the problem.

The Special was Buick’s lowest cost line, and powered by the smallest version of the straight eight, a 248 incher with 115 hp. Dynaflow was optional, but this one apparently doesn’t have it. Just as well, as it really needed the big 320 inch eight to keep it from feeling like a tug boat pulling a barge.