This year has brought much-needed construction for a subway line to the streets around my office building. Mostly, the result has been streets that look busier, but take no longer to traverse. But sometimes, bottlenecks force me onto side streets. These detours usually end in wrath: speed bumps, misplaced trash or recycling bins, and impossible turns back to busy streets. But this side street leads to 1948, in some ways, the end of the automotive past.
Though proud of its spelled-out eight cylinders, the Super was not the Buick for those who cared about power. To make a Super, Buick put the 248-cubic-inch (4 litre), 110 hp straight-8 of the Special (upgraded by 5 horsepower) into the larger, heavier frame and body of the Roadmaster, a 144 hp car. At 4,020 pounds, the Super convertible should comfortably out-drag performers like the Mercedes-Benz 240D. Let’s just say, this is a car for parades and shoreline drives.
It’s Friday morning, just about time to get ready for weekend activities. Most likely, the car is fresh out of the garage, where the battery had been disconnected. Because the roof was open, I could hear the clock ticking like my grandfather’s old glow-in-the-dark alarm clock. But the time is not as indicated.
Buick’s Fireball 8-cylinder engine with Dynaflash combustion chamber design was part of a tradition of OHV Buick engines that went back to the turn of the twentieth century. Louis Chevrolet made his name in Buicks. In 1940, privateers Bill France and Joe Littlejohn (in No. 7) drove Buick Centurys to a 1-2 finish at the Daytona Beach race. For their efforts, the cars were banned, and the domination of Ford continued apace.
By the time this car was made, Buick had made a strong recovery from depression and war. This reflected the logistical acumen of president Harlow Curtice, and improvements to power and ride achieved by Bugatti-collecting engineer Charles Chayne. But most of all, perhaps, Buick’s success reflected the fact that Chayne and Curtice understood that Harley Earl could make cars beautiful, and marketable.
In my memory, Buicks were for church and bridge club, not likely professional athletes’ parking lots. But the first thing I thought about when I saw this car was an anecdote from Ted Williams:
Come to think of it, I did come pretty close to a fight with Jim Tabor when he was with the Red Sox in 1941….Tabor was from Alabama, a strong-built guy, about six foot two, with a trim waist. A lot stronger than I was. We were rookies together in 1939…. I liked him, actually. A sort of tough, rough-hewn guy. I remember we both got new Buicks that first year and when I came back to Boston the next season mine looked newer than when I bought it. The polish on it was thicker than the metal. But gee, you should have seen Tabor’s car. He’d bought a convertible and the top was ripped, there were dents in the fenders, the finish was dull and dirty, it looked like he had driven it through an air raid.
This car is 8 or 9 years newer than the Buick Ted Williams bought when he made it to the big leagues, but, as it turns out, 1948 was the last year for Buick’s prewar chassis. Oldsmobile and Cadillac adopted the new C-body that year, but Buick held out one more year. Nineteen forty-nine would bring venti-ports, hardtops, and fastback sedanets, the future as it was then.
I think the absence of a roof really shows off this design well. The line defining the passenger cabin is sharp and pleasant, like a canoe overturned, but ready to ply the asphalt river.
I’ve never had a car like this. Although its form is sculptural, it seems like a living thing. A sort of automotive dog that wants to go to the beach, or rest in a country club parking lot. I’d hate to disappoint a car like this with my ludicrous short game, or bore it with stops at the grocery store. It’d be like asking Ted Williams to bunt the runner over.