(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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The back seat looks inviting, as long as the top is up. Or the speed is kept way down.
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.
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.
The script tattooed in red on the upper lip is a particularity nice touch.
And the portholes back then were a lot more complex and interesting than in more recent years.
The hood ornament makes for a nice sight from the front seat.
And the world will know you gt the Dynaflow, as if they couldn’t already tell by the engine sound.
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.
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.
CC 1952 Buick Super – Hmm, Decisions, Decisions… JPCavanaugh
Sweet car. Love the blackwalls.
I know this is a ’52 Special, and in the film it was a ’49 Roadmaster, but I can’t help but think of Rain Man when looking at this car.
If I’m not mistaken, this Buick has electric windows. The switches look almost the same as the one’s on my parents 67 Pontiac.
Actually they were electro-hydraulic in the early fifties. An electric pump under the hood charged a hydraulic reservoir that piped fluid under pressure to each window. I think the main reason it was done this way rather than going straight electric was that it was thought that the six volt electrical system would not support the demand placed on it by four separate electric window motors. The convertible top also used a similar system.
To be kind, this design was problematic. Those hydraulic lines became leak-prone as the cars aged and the fluid (I believe they used brake fluid) just ate paint. Our family had a ’53 Olds 98 with power windows and on a hot summer day the smell of the fumes from the leaks was overpowering.
In the mid 70s, my friend’s father had a 47 Lincoln sedan with hydraulic windows. Such a unique sensation – when the car was parked, the window went down in total silence. Press the “up” button and all you could hear was the distant whrrrr under the hood from the pump. He had owned several of these cars and told me what a leaky PITA they were, and how the old car smell was actually leaking hydraulic fluid.
Yeah, jp, that stench is unforgettable. I wonder how many brain cells I lost at that tender age from breathing that stuff. 😉
Thank you for the reminder. I heard stories of rainstorms and windows that would not go back up in my fathers Buick Roadmaster. That car did not stay in the driveway for long.
You’re welcome, T. BTW, the little four-eyed geek behind the wheel of the Olds is me at about age ten circa 1960.
Great photo, nice selection of cars and an interesting parking layout.
According to Collectible Automobile, the reason Buick didn’t get a new body for 1948 was because the rounded, bulbous front (yes, even more than the production ’49) planned for the ’48 car was rejected by management. The new body was held back for a year while stylists did a panic redesign.
A Buick of this body (a ’49) famously appeared in Tintin. Given that the album appeared in was serialised from late 1948 till early 1950, it must have been brand spanking new at the time (it’s in the later pages in the album).
I can tell where this is going. “Oh, what a lovely accident!”
Nice car, nice write up.
Love this car, especially the grille.
The cream/red combo also never fails to compliment.
Sweet car. This clearly illustrates why the “that’s not a Buick” ads are so dumb. More than any other car out there, you can see the family resemblance between this and what is rolling of the assembly line right now at Buick. I think the most successful ads make you want to be the guy in the ad. Buck’s ads don’t do that.
Nice car and nice writeup. The Roadmaster was built on a GM C-body and the Special on a B-body, so it’s not really a shorter Roadmaster. I always liked the special and the Cadillac Series 60 cars from this era–they had such nice proportions and overall size while being much more interesting than the Chevrolet.
The B Body then was a shortened C Body. Or the other way around, if you prefer.My point being, the B and C Bodies only differed in length; in width and many key areas/parts, they were effectively the same. So the it is essentially a shortened Roadmaster. Or the Roadmaster is a lengthened Special; it’s like the chicken and the egg, except both of them were designed at the same time.
And to confuse matters, there were more variations on the two. The Super model 52 had a longer 125.5″ wb; (121.5 other models) and the Roadmaster model 72R had a longer 130″ wb (126″ other models). The only thing that separated them all is that the Roadmaster had an elongated front end/clip. Otherwise, from the cowl back the bodies were all the same.
I have to disagree on this point, Paul. The Roadmasters/Supers had detachable rear fenders, while the Specials didn’t. In fact, if you look at a side profile view of a Super and a Special, you’ll notice that the bodylines don’t match at all.
In fact, the front end sheetmetal, like bumpers and grilles, although they look largely the same, are not interchangeable between the Roadmaster/Super and Special. I believe the C-Body was actually something like three inches wider than the B-Body, although I’d have to check my owner’s manual on that one.
I’m going to have to eat my words. Yumm 🙂
I didn’t look at these closely enough; instead I looked at the specs, and with the Special and Super having the exact same 121.5″ wheelbase, I made (erroneous) assumptions.
The front track on all three models is 59″, but the Super ans RM have a 62″ rear track, whereas the Special has a 59″ rear track. Which does support your point that the C Body was wider. And that the Super used a shorter version of the C Body.
This little game kept changing…the Century, which took over from the Super, did use the B Body in the next generation of Buicks, and that’s what I assumed here too.
The identical front track is one of the reasons I like the Special better than the Super/Roadmaster (although I am biased by ownership, of course). The front track is the same, but the C-Body is wider, making the wheels look excessively tucked in compared to the B-Body.
In ’54, the Super/Roadmaster continued to share a body, while the Century was reintroduced that year, sharing a body with the Special and an engine with the Roadmaster, creating quite a factory hot rod.
There were plenty of parts such as suspension that were common in both cars, much like the final RWD GM sleds.
Buick planned an all-new 1948 C-body along with Cadillac and Oldsmobile Ninety Eight but Buick chief Harlow Curtice cancelled it at the last minute purportedly because the front end was weak.
The new C-body Super and Roadmaster did appear as 1949 models but the Special continued on the pre-war B-body for a short model year until the all-new 1950 Special JetBack debuted early in August 1949, months ahead of the redesigned 1950 Super/Roadmaster which shared the same B/C body (the C-body sedan was a stretched B with a 4” longer wheelbase and 2” longer doors; Super and Roadmaster offered both variants, Roadmasters were 4″ longer than equivalent Supers with the extra length entirely in front of the firewall to accommodate Roadmaster’s larger straight eight).
For 1951 the Special was completely redesigned with integrated rear fenders, presumably in response to the 1949 Ford, using the new OB-body (Oldsmobile-Buick) shared with the Olds Super 88 while Super/Roadmaster continued on the carryover 1950 body which was no longer compatible with the Special despite their common styling cues.
All 1952 Buicks carried over 1951 exterior panels unchanged (even the ’51 and ’52 brochure artwork is identical) with the tack-on fins the only noticeable difference.
Paul: Thanks for the detailed explanation. So what I originally said was true for the 1949-1950 models, but changed for the ’51-’52s. I failed to notice the change to that O-B body in ’51 for the Special, but remember the earlier ones being essentially identical (except for length).
True for 1950 models, but as previously stated the 1949 Special was a short-year carryover of the pre-war B-body while the 1949 Super and Roadmaster are to my eye completely different from their 1950-53 successors.
When Buicks were Buicks, and that was a good thing. It is hard to find fault with any facet of the design, either in style or in the mechanical aspects. Gripe about the Dynaflow all you want, but it was the perfect setup for a car like a Buick. All the smoothness of Chrysler’s Fluid Drive, but without the need for a clutch pedal, like the Hydramatic. These cars were about presence and a drama-free driving experience. Near perfect marks on both aspects.
Good points, Jim. In those days, a smooth ride was everything. Men like my dad prided themselves how comfortably they could ferry their passengers. Cars had soft springs and shocks, but that’s what buyers wanted. Dyna-flow fitted that style perfectly, and nobody much worried about gasoline prices.
Except Dad. He obsessed about gas prices and often used this as an excuse to get a fun, small car. Come to think of it, I recently did the same.
Buick sort of lost it’s way when it starting offering relative strippers like the 1966 Special that Laurence Jones wrote about and was re-posted recently. But, this fact didn’t really catch up with Buick until the 1980’s when the wheels fell off in a number of respects.
Agreed, this Special lives up to the name.
In the Tom Cruise/Dustin Hoffman movie “RainMan” the distinctive Buick straight 8/Dynaflow exhaust sound can be heard quite clearly, several times. (Providing your home theatre system audio is up to par.)
It’s a great sound! I love driving through an underpass and hitting the gas in my ’53 Special, just to hear the sound bounce off the walls.
I DO understand!
I drive with the back windows down and “Goose the Gas” to hear my Town Car’s 4.6 engine & dual exhaust rumble.
A truly distinctive exhaust note. When I was a lot younger and these were just used cars, I was quite proud that I could tell the make of some cars with my eyes closed. I could distinguish between a Chevy, Pontiac, Buick and Olds by the sound they made alone. Oldsmobiles and Cadillacs were more difficult to tell apart this way. Later in life I discovered that this was not a particularly marketable skill.
Seems to me I could distinguish and sound out the difference between a VW and a Corvair using my lips and tongue. I often wondered what jobs would appreciate my ability to identify cars by their taillights and such trivial matters.
HA! I bet! These days, every time a Honda Valkyrie goes past my door, it makes me look up to see what kind of Corvair or Porsche 911 it is. 😉
Absolutely a beautiful car. I’ll take two please.
The chrome fins are dorky, but I like them a lot. With a tiny bit more design effort they could have been integrated seamlessly into the taillights…would have looked a lot better.
The “fins” were a cheap and easy way to update the tail end of the “new” 1952 model which was virtually identical to the ’51. These appear to be in relatively good condition. The substandard Korean War era plating on them often ended up pitted so badly that they looked like the surface of the moon after a few years.
That is a beautiful car. Great find!
Gorgeous car, in a wonderful color, and with so many gorgeous details. The portholes…all the chrome…the red accents on the wheels (you can never go wrong with red steelies with caps, except maybe if the car is orange). And the “Buick Eight” script etched into the grille shell is detail perfection.
The finlets are a little fussy but with so much to like about the rest of the car, I won’t complain too much!
Beautiful looking car. My favourite Buick years are the 1949, 1951, 1952, and 1956. My grandparents were Buick owners in the 50s.
The car has 3 Ventiports on ea. side despite the engine being an ⑧. I didn’t know Buick was inconsistent about this. Maybe it’s to remind folks that the owner’s a cheapskate for not getting the best engine option.
I remember some cartoonist, maybe in Punch or New Yorker, portrayed birds nesting in them.
Every Buick from 1931 to 1961 was an 8. But whether you got 3 portholes per side or 4 depended on how much you spent.
> I remember some cartoonist, maybe in Punch or New Yorker, portrayed birds nesting in them
I am sure that if I parked this Buick in my driveway, there’d be at least one cicada in the ventiports by tomorrow morning…
(a “repeat” from a Woodie thread a while back)
Guy Lombardo–perhaps a Long Island estate–in a 1949 photo. A cool bit of postwar optimism!
The pride of Flint. Great piece. Especially enjoyed the imagery at the end.
Great find. The last of that golden period for Buick for me. The very next year they got bags under their eyes.
I love the gun sight hood ornament.
Driving out to the lake in the movie “Pleasantville” perfectly captures the type of driving mood most appropriate for a yellow Buick 8 convertible.
Wrong aspect ratio somehow. When she turns the radio on there is a click indicating that it was off before she twisted the dial. It wouldn’t actually have come on for 10-20 seconds while the tubes warmed up.
> 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.
I had completely forgotten that mid-’70s colonnade Buicks could be not only a Century or Regal but also a Special, one of those curious separate names that some poverty-spec American cars wore around that time that were leftovers from a bygone era. I remember teenaged me wondering why, for example, the bottom-of-the-line Olds Omega wasn’t entitled to be called that and was instead badged F-85, as if they couldn’t sully the esteemed Omega name by putting it on a strippo car. The Special was one of these; Wikipedia informs me that it was officially a Century, but the car had no “Century” badging on it, just “Special” and was marketed as a separate model.
Great car. But back in the late 60’s I borrowed a friend’s 1953 Roadmaster, which was in excellent shape. I didn’t push it in any way, but just driving around the posted speed on a typically a bit uneven crowned gently curving suburban road I remember thinking that it was clearly the worse handling car I had ever driven.
Those toothy grills always ruined this era of Buick for me. The Chevy’s looked so much cleaner.