Curbside Classic: 1948 Buick Series 40 Special Sedanet – 72 Cubic Inches Short Of A GM’s Greatest Hit

(first posted 3/22/2012)

This Buick has so much going for it: a killer grin, a svelte long hood covering a genuine straight eight, a delicious aero-back tail, and the kind of delightful chrome details that can keep ADD eyeballs glued to it long enough to test the patience of even the most tolerant spouse who found it and led you to it. Buick’s 1942-1948 styling was generally as good as it got in the World of Tomorrow. But there’s just one thing missing here which would have elevated this car to true legendary status and a GM’s Greatest Hit.

One could well argue that the Buick division was GM’s Greatest Hit ever. Well, it was the origin of the whole company: all the other divisions came later. Buick really was the core of GM, and its consistent best seller after budget-brand Chevrolet. As such, it was only right that Olds and Pontiac took the axe; they were just johnny-come-latelies, mucking things up for Buick.

In 1936, Buick created one of the all-time most significant American cars ever, a highly-worthy Greatest Hit. By dropping the big-block 320 inch straight eight from the large and heavy Series 80 and 90 cars into the relatively lithe Series 40 body, Buick created the first American muscle car, using a formula that would be replicated so successfully with the 1964 GM mid-sized cars. It was given the name Century for a very good reason: it could readily hit and maintain that speed, something unheard of in a mass-produced and relatively affordable car.

Weighing a mere 3200 lbs and packing a solid 120 hp, the 1936 Century had a better power-to-weight ratio than all-too many cars from the seventies and early eighties, including Buicks. It was a brilliant idea, and enhanced Buick’s reputation further, as if it needed it.

A cornerstone of all Buicks was its strict adherence to overhead valve engines, at a time when flatheads were still typical, and the staple of Olds, Pontiac and even Cadillac. The Buick straight eights were already legends in their time.

With their much better breathing, Buick eights were some of the most popular engines in the early hot rod era. As it was, they made pretty good power in stock trim. The big 320 incher ended up with 170 hp in its last year, 1952. The modern Olds OHV topped out at 160 hp that same year with a four-barrel carb. No wonder Buick took its time with its own new V8, the legendary nailhead.

I’m getting all worked up about the big-block eight because it’s missing here. Of course it wouldn’t be in the actual Special, but for some reason, Buick dropped the big-block Century version after WW2. This is a 1941 version; it was still available as late as 1942, when it looked virtually identical to the 1948. But gone it was, starting with the 1946 model year.

In fact, Buick flipped their whole line-up. Instead of the Series 60 Century having the small GM B-Body and the big engine, now the mid-range Buick was called the Series 50 Super, using the big GM C-body, but the small 248 inch eight as in the Special. Where’s the fun in that? Kinda like a small-block Wildcat, instead of a Skylark GS 400.

The Century came back for 1954, with the new V8 in the smaller B-Body, and restored the rightful order of all things Buick. OK; you’re going to say it’s not the Special’s fault that there was no Century between 1946 and 1953. True, and yes; the Special was certainly a handsome and fine car.

But truth be told, the bigger C-Body Buicks really were better looking, with their fully faired-in front fenders and more flowing lines.

The differences between the B-Body Special and the A-Body Chevrolet are real, but take a bit of close examination to pinpoint. Some parts, like the front doors, look almost identical. Might they be? But the A-Body was shorter, meaning the roof had to be humpier to leave enough head room for the rear passengers. And the Chevy rear side window is bigger. And there’s a number of other minor but obvious other differences. And of course, the Buick sits on a longer 121 wheelbase, much of that being taken up by its long tapering nose. That all adds up to subtle but definite improvements in the Special’s proportions.

While we’re comparing the Special to the Chevy, let’s consider that the step up from it to Buick’s most affordable car was $300 then, or a 21% premium. The Special’s asking price was $1735, which inflation adjusted makes about $20k in 2021 dollars. Actually, I don’t put a lot of stock in inflation adjusted figures when going back that far, because so many other factors can skew it, most of all the change in real purchasing power during the fifties and sixties.

And what exactly did that 21% premium buy? Most of all (as usual) bragging rights: the Buick name, and that hungry mouth inspired by Harley Earl’s famous 1938 Y-Job, the mother of all GM dream cars. A slightly longer wheelbase too, and of course the straight eight engine, although in the case of the Special, it was the smaller 248 inch version, making 110 hp, versus the Chevy’s ohv six’ 90 hp.

And of course, Buick’s fine hood ornament, which certainly outclassed the Chevy’s.

But no portholes, though (that tapered spear on the hood is the release to open it, unless I’m mistaken). Those Buick trademarks were only one year away, appearing on the all-new 1949 bodies. Which reminds me: 1948 really was the end of the line for this generation of Buicks, both the Special and the big Super and Roadmaster. That was odd actually, because Cadillac had already switched to the all-new C-body for 1948. The dance of the divisions wasn’t anywhere nearly so well coordinated as they would be later in GM’s evolution.

Time to tear ourselves away from that most handsome of GM’s faces of the time. The back end of this aero-back Sedanet is of course appealing too, except in comparison to the even more seductive one of its big brothers. In fact, from here, one would have to be a bit of a GM expert of the times to readily tell which of the (non-Cadillac) divisions this car is from.

I’m sure if you were young in 1948, you’d have recognized the bright red Buick badge on the back. But what’s that just below it?

Dealer identification has come a long way from this custom made one from the St. Paul Buick Company to the license plate protectors of today, which I don’t even see very much anymore hereabouts. Tasty.

Let’s take in this rakish attitude one more time, and imagine what an eminently desirable car this would be with the big 150 hp engine under the hood. Although weight was up a bit since the original 1936 Century, this Special was listed at 3625 lbs. Add another hundred for the big block, and you’ve still got a very modern-ish power-to-weight ratio. This coulda’ been the bomb.

As long as it didn’t have the all-new for 1948 Dynaflow (“Dynaslush”), the true origin of the slushbox moniker. It wasn’t available on the Special or Super anyway, as their smaller engines would probably have been sapped too badly under the losses that the one-speed “transmission” imposed. We’ll do a more detailed look at it when we do a CC on a Dynaflow-equipped Buick. For now, imagine dropping the long shift lever into first, giving the big 320 inch compound-carburated eight some throttle, and stepping off the clutch briskly. An imaginary 1948 Century would have been by far the hottest American production car available; let’s call it the 1948 Buick GS 320.

And unlike the muscle cars of the sixties, there was no penalty for riding in them, especially the rear seat. That’s the benefit of that tall body, which would soon give way to the lower-is-better mania.

We’ve come full circle, of course. At the time I was shooting these pictures, I was annoyed at that new Subaru Outback next to it, but now I realize it’s a perfect example of how body height has come back to 1948 levels. They’re almost identically tall. Asa tall person, that’s the best thing that’s happened in decades.

“Just one more second, honey! Come check out these wipers!”  I’d forgotten about the pedestals these thing sit on. So how exactly does the wiper mechanism/linkage on these work? Sure looks awesome. It’s little details like this that can push a person into quitting writing about old cars and actually getting one.

Speaking of, this car was parked downtown by the city utility offices, and was obviously driven to work that day. And its interior looks mighty original, including that hole in the driver’s side door upholstery; someone’s elbow too long and pointy? Well, this is a holy car, no doubt about it. But just not quite enough to push it into Greatest Hits territory. That requires genuine sainthood, and without that big 320 inch motor under the hood, this Buick is merely…very Special.