Curbside Classic: 1931 Buick 96 Country Club Coupe – The Eight As Buick Built It

(first posted 7/5/2012)      1931.  Just to say it out loud is almost like saying 1896 or 1744.  For most of us (though not for the eldest among us), 1931 lacks the kind of context that gives an era meaning in our modern lives.  So many things were in transition from an earlier era to a more modern one, and the transitions were often awkward and soon forgotten.  And this big Buick coupe is part of that short era that would serve as a bridge between the roaring ’20s and the years leading up to the Second World War.

Many parts of life were going through an awkward transition stage, much as a nine year old boy becomes a teenager.  Movies were just starting to talk, but most of the stars of the early talkies (like Marian Marsh) are now quite obscure, while several of the next generation are well known by many today.  Jazz bands were slowly feeling their way into a more standardized big band format, but the swing era had not yet arrived and almost nobody today listens to records from 1931.  Go a few years into the future, and the early records of Count Basie and Billie Holiday are parts of the jazz canon and are enjoyed by even young jazz fans today.

It is the same with the cars.  The Model T had caused a seismic shift in the design of the passenger car, but the changes had been quite evolutionary through the 1920s and for a few years beyond.  As the 1930s would further unfold, however, we would see many changes in function and style that would bring us up to and beyond World War II.

There are still some around who had some exposure to the Model A, just because there were so many of them peppered throughout American society.  But a car like this 1931 Buick is so foreign, almost to the point of being irrelevant to those of us inhabiting the world of 2012.  Such an attitude would be a mistake, I think, because cars like this one tell us a lot about their time.

In 1931, Herbert Hoover was still president.  The U. S. stock market had crashed in late 1929, and the economy had been deteriorating steadily ever since, and still had a year or two to go before things would hit bottom.  There were a lot of people out of work, but most people remained employed.  Even when the great depression was at its worst, for every worker who was without a job, there were three other people from a variety of social strata who continued to earn a living.  Many of those folks were in jobs that would later be called white collar.  Bankers, doctors, lawyers and business owners who were able to stay afloat in a bad economy still needed new cars.  If these folks felt secure enough to buy a new car in 1931, a Buick would certainly have been one of their top choices.

Buick had been one of the top sellers all through the 1920s, placing as high as 3rd in sales several times, including 1930 and 31.  Even in a disastrous economy, Buick handily outsold quite a few less expensive cars, including Dodge, Pontiac and Studebaker.  In the field of near-luxury cars of the early depression era, Buick was the gold standard.  The slogan “When better cars are built, Buick will build them” was taken as the gospel truth by a whole lot of the car buying public in those years.

Buick’s third place in sales in the awful year of 1931 is all the more notable because this was the year that Buick ditched the six.  For 1931, Buick would sell nothing but eight cylinder cars, which they would continue to do into the early 1960s.  The Buick Eight (three of them, actually) would be notable for its Valve-in-Head (overhead valve) design.  Quite unusual for the time, Buick and Chevrolet were among the very few players of the era (the Nash Ambassador was another) who dared to deviate from the flathead side valve design that was nearly universal until the late 1940s.

The Buick Eight ‘s overhead valve configuration actually followed the template of the Buick 6, that had been a valve-in-head design for quite a few years.  The 1931 eight was actually two different engines.  The smaller engine family was similar in design to the Chevrolet 6, and was a 220.7 cid version in the low-end 50 series, and a 272.6 cid version in the slightly larger 60 series.  But the real Buick eight was the much larger and heavier 344.8 cube version found in the larger 80 and 90 series cars, where it was good for 104 horses (or two and a half times the output of a Ford Model A).  The big engine would be slightly reduced in displacement to 320 cid in 1936, where it would remain under the hoods of upper-level Buicks through 1952.  Although Buick claimed four 8s (or is it 4 eights?) for 1931, every source I have looked at lists only three.  Perhaps there were some minor differences between the big engine as fitted in the 80 series cars as compared with that found in the bigger 90s.

The big straight eight in a big car would, of course, be fitted with some big brakes.  This was one luxury of really big wheels, that they can accommodate really big brake drums.  The mechanical binders did not seem to bother Buick customers in 1931, although hydraulics were making steady inroads into the market, and would be found in Buicks by 1932.  If you could not wait for a new car, however, you still got to take advantage of automatic spark advance and Syncromesh in second and third gears.  At least in some ways, the 1931 Buick was well on the way to operating like a modern car.

I found this big Buick in the parking lot of the country club where my daughter is working this summer.  The Buick seemed to be working too, although it was taking a break when I caught it.  It was in a challenging location to get some decent pictures, but I gave it my best shot.  After snapping pictures, I figured that the hard part was out of the way since the car was sporting vintage license plates that gave away the year.  But I was wrong.  The tough part turned out to be – identifying the model.  The internet was of only limited help, and it was time to blow the dust off of some books on a shelf in the basement.  After a lot of research, induction and deduction, I have concluded that we have hit the 1931 Buick Jackpot with one of the big 90 series cars.  Even more, this is one of only 2,990 Model 96S Country Club coupes built by Buick in 1931.

This is a long car.  Viewed in person, the car’s 132 inch wheelbase may be just a touch too long for the rumble seat coupe body style.  However, this car may offer the most legroom in a rumble seat of anything ever built. But just like today, if you are going to pay three or four times the cost of a new Ford, you want the car to be big enough so that it shows.  Another departure from modern practice, is that I counted twenty two combinations of model and body style offered by Buick in 1931.  This is a lot more variety than we have become used to.

I love the details on cars of this era.  Built right in the middle of the art deco period, the dash panel is simply lovely.  The clean and simple design of the interior oozes of quality.  Even though the car was parked with the windows down, I followed the rule of look but don’t touch. And that was really, really hard to do, for this interior just begs you to run your hand across the soft upholstery and the beautiful chromed handles.  These are the parts that they just don’t put in cars anymore.

I have also been long intrigued by the golf bag door that was commonly used in expensive coupes and roadsters.  You simply cannot ask your well-heeled customers to try to horse a golf bag into an open rumble seat.  But for passengers, it was ok?  Two steps and in.  So easy for a lady’s graceful entrance and exit.  What’s more, there was the thoughtful touch of a rear window that cranks down to allow for conversation between the insiders and the outsiders.  What could be more comfortable?  At least for those inside.  When, exactly, were rumble seats renamed from the earlier mother-in-law seats?  Alas, the rumble seat would soon be a thing of the past.  It seems that these outside accommodations are much more popular as a novelty today than they ever were when they were new.

Buick ran a lot of ads for these cars.  One in particular seems quite predictive of the future:  Youngsters like this one would one day fight in a World War, and would then come home and buy a whole lot of new Buicks, well into the 1990s and even beyond.  It helps to realize that it was cars like this one that lit and tended the flame in the hearts of so many of these young boys during their childhoods, as they rode in their fathers’ Buicks.  Or, more commonly, as they watched from outside as others rode in the Buicks that their own fathers could not afford.

A few things have not changed since 1931.  One is that then as now, Chevrolet, Buick and Cadillac were doing most of the heavy lifting at General Motors.  I wish I had more confidence that Buick’s youngest generation was equipped for its work as well as this one was in its day.

There is at least one other thing that has not changed since 1931.  It is not hard to imagine that eighty years ago, this would have been just the car to ferry an upper crust newlywed couple to their wedding reception at the country club. This old Buick is still doing just that in 2012, and with as much style as ever.  I suspect that there were several in the wedding party who were unable to get beyond “hey, cool car”.  If so, then I hope that there was someone there to explain just what a Buick Series 90 meant to people in 1931.  Cars of this long-ago era are a lot like our oldest living relatives and friends.  They have a lot of interesting things to say to us, if we will just take the time to sit and listen.