Curbside Classic: 1952 Buick Special Convertible – Still Quite Special

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(first posted 6/8/2015)     Historically Buick always occupied a special place in GM’s collection of brands. Understandably so — William Durant turned Buick into a powerhouse in the early days of the industry, and used its success to snap up other lesser manufacturers and create General Motors. Rightfully, Buick was the heart of the company; and during the classic Sloan years, the other divisions were forced to line up below or above it. And it retained something of the favorite oldest child status at GM, and was given dispensations and bestowed certain favors, by Harley Earl, no less.

One of those dispensations was the Special, a model that first appeared in 1936 and priced well below what Buicks had been selling for. It began Buick’s long and persistent conquest into the mid-lower price ranges, one that eventually took it to the number three sales position and eventually debased the name in the process. But back in 1952, this lovely Special Convertible still lived fully up to its name, in the most positive sense of the word.

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The Special started out as way to keep Buick relevant in the Depression. But what it evolved into in the 40s and 50s was a way to increase production efficiencies and to spread fixed costs over a wider number of units. Or more succinctly, to build market share, largely at the expense of its GM sister divisions, This Special was a true Buick through and through, not some rebadged Chevy or such.

Buick 1952 engine br

It shared all the same basic Buick underpinnings except of course a smaller 120 hp 263.3 cubic inch version of Buick’s OHV in-line eight. A very fine engine, although it was getting to be a bit long in tooth compared to Oldsmobile’s brilliant OHV V8 from 1949, as well as Cadillac’s, of course.

That would change soon enough; in 1953, Buick’s new V8, soon dubbed the “Nailhead“, was available on the senior models in that year, and by 1954 the straight eight was gone from the Special too.

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This Special convertible was priced at $2634, or $500 more than a Chevy Bel Air convertible, and $220 less than Old’s cheapest 88 convertible. Of course, that $500 wasn’t exactly pocket change back then, but it bought a lot more car as well as prestige. The leather upholstery was standard on the Special, and the interior appointments were of a high level.

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This car has the optional Dynaflow automatic, which operated in one gear (except for “Emergency Low”), thanks to a torque converter with a wide range of torque multiplication. It made for a very smooth power train, and made a Buick sound more like a motorboat than a car. The distinctive thrum of its inline eight only added to that nautical effect. It was quite suitable to a convertible like this, which only enhanced the motorboat sensation anyway.

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The back seat looks inviting, as long as the top is up. Or the speed is kept way down.

Buick Y-Job 1

Harley Earl designed his beloved “Y Job” in 1938, had it built for his personal use, and drove it often to work for over a decade. It was in direct response to the 1934 Ford Speedster and other special-bodies cars built for Edsel Ford and designed by Bob Gregorie. How did the Y Job come to have a Buick badge on it? Buick GM Harlow Curtice hit it off with Earl, and saw an opportunity for a bit of internal one-upmanship. Curtice funded the Y-Job, and had it designed and built in his Buick studios. It became the first GM concept car, and the first of many to come. And it obviously influenced Buick’s styling for some years to come.

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Production Buick’s ended up with front ends a bit heavier-handed than the delicate Y Job, and that only got more so as the years went by.  At least the “baleen” teeth were now back in its maw, rather than hanging out over the bumper on the 1950 models. That was a step too far, but this is still anything but restrained.

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The script tattooed in red on the upper lip is a particularity nice touch.

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And the portholes back then were a lot more complex and interesting than in more recent years.

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The hood ornament makes for a nice sight from the front seat.

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And the world will know you gt the Dynaflow, as if they couldn’t already tell by the engine sound.

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The finlets are rather affected, and are obviously intended to help to disguise the fact that this body was getting near the end of its run, having first seen the light of day in 1949. As explained in VinceC’s superbly detailed post on GM’s C-B Bodies of the postwar years, Buick kept its pre-war bodies in 1948, while Cadillac showed off its new duds that year.  The Special’s B-Body was just a somewhat shorter version of the C-Body used by the senior Buicks.

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Needless to say, this Buick convertible caught my attention, parked here among lesser cars on this beautiful summer evening. I fell totally in love, and it reminded me why it makes such a desirable convertible: they’re meant for slow drives on a languid summer evening, and what better car to do it in than this one? It just needs its top down and a tree-lined Oregon forest road. I’m quite willing to take care of those details.


Related reading:

CC 1952 Buick Super – Hmm, Decisions, Decisions…  JPCavanaugh