What should a Buick be? It should be serious but not severe, sober but not dour, undeniably upscale without drawing too much attention to itself. The kind of car a doctor or a judge or the pastor of a large church might drive. Mature, accomplished professionals want a mature, accomplished car that will propel them expeditiously and comfortably to their important destinations. A Buick communicates that they have carefully thought through their choice of conveyance just like they have every other choice in their lives.
At least that’s the traditional image. One could argue that having a strong image (or maybe stereotype) has sustained the brand to this day, even as all the other middle rungs of the GM ladder have been removed. It would be hard to imagine a better exemplar of the brand and its traditional qualities than this blue beauty I found resting curbside recently.
The car is a Roadmaster sedan, the flagship sedan in the lineup, though not quite the absolute flagship, as it was slightly outpriced by the Roadmaster hardtop coupe and convertible and seriously outpriced by the flashy Skylark convertible then in its second and final year. A hardtop sedan wouldn’t be a Roadmaster option for two more years.
I’ve recently been reading a book called LAPD ’53 by James Ellroy. It’s a film-noirish non-fiction look at the period by way of police crime scene photos. Though not about cars, plenty are seen in the photos. The author makes a distinction between the “humpback” cars of the 30’s and 40’s which still dominated the roads and “rocket ships” which were just starting to come out. Well, this Roadmaster introduced in late ’53 is certainly of the rocket ship variety, but a distinguished and dignified one.
There is probably no model name more associated with traditional Buicks than Roadmaster, which also has to be one of the all-time coolest names given to any car. Let’s look at some highlights.
The Roadmaster began as 1936 models, the first year Buick utilized model names in addition to series numbers. The cars were all-new that year, featuring many improvements including hydraulic brakes for the first time, revised suspensions, all-steel roofs, and most significantly, brand new engines. The 320.2 c.i. straight eight would be used in all Roadmasters through 1952.
The 1936 Buick Limited has some minor fame as the car bought by King Edward VIII of Great Britain, who at the same time also imported from Canada a 1936 Roadmaster for his paramour, American divorcee Wallis Simpson, shortly before abdicating the English throne in order to marry her. The Roadmaster reportedly went with them to France to be driven in their exile. The king could have had a Rolls-Royce, Bentley or any other car, but chose a Buick! I guess he had a thing for Americans…
From 1936-42, the Roadmaster was not actually the most senior Buick. It was slated below the Limited, which rode on a longer wheelbase and was available in limousine configuration.
1942 was a significant year for Buick, by my way of thinking at least, as it was the year that Buicks really started looking like Buicks by inaugurating a couple of the long-running styling cues that would come to define the Buick look. They gained the waterfall grill that they would have up to the mid 50’s and then again starting in the 80’s through the present. Roadmasters and Supers in convertible and 2-door styles had front fenders that flowed all the way into the rear fenders, a look that would be represented in later models by the trademark Sweepspear. Notably, these cars also lost even the suggestion of running boards, one of the first (but not the first) cars to do this.
The 1942 models, like all U.S. brands, lived in suspended animation for three years during WWII, then returned for three additional years of production from 46-48. The flowing front fender look extended to all body styles, but the cars were otherwise very little changed.
The brand-new 1949 model had body side styling similar to other GM divisions, while the 50-53 gained both distinctive fenders and sweapspears on all models. 1953 was Buick’s V8 year, when they finally jettisoned their old straight 8 in the Super and Roadmaster. These years look very “heavy” to me, which has its charm, but I much prefer the rocket ship styling soon to come.
1954 brought all-new B and C bodies for Buick, Olds and Cadillac. In proper Fifties fashion, the new models were longer, lower and wider and sported wraparound windshields. The 1954 also sprouted raised tail fins that emphasized its rocket ship status.
A happier Fifties face it would be hard to find, even if it is slightly pouty. 1954 was the penultimate year for the waterfall grille (1957 was last after skipping 55-56) until it made its return in the 80’s.
As mentioned above, 1954 was the sophomore year for Buick’s V8. Buick called it the Fireball, but it has always been lovingly known to gearheads as the Nailhead, due to its unusual small and vertical valve setup. You can find an excellent history of this engine that Paul Niedermeyer wrote here.
Buick engineers wrote at the time that their goals for the engine were smoothness, quietness, durability, ease of service, light weight, compact dimensions and minimal manufacturing cost (in a January 1953 S.A.E. paper by V.P. Mathews and Joe Turlay). Interestingly, they don’t mention power as a criteria but surely that was a major goal judging by the fact that it had the highest compression ratio on the market in 1953 (8.5:1 in the RM) and one of the highest power and torque ratings (behind only Cadillac and Lincoln). The Nailhead is also known for having a surprisingly aggressive cam profile to compensate for its small-sized valves to get good power levels.
Buick was an early adopter of the 12 volt electrical system in 1953, a good two or three years before much of the industry. This car was equipped by the owner with a trick battery power cut-off switch, which is a handy feature to prevent power drain for a hobby car that can sit for long periods between drives.
We can tell Buick took the engineering goal of quietness seriously by the unique huge intake air silencer mounted on the oil bath air cleaner.
Interior is classic 50’s, including the large steering wheel with horn ring and chest-impaling column, wrap-around dash, and band speedometer with oil, amp and temp gauges. Lap seat belts have been added to at least give a modicum of safety. Also vintage 50’s, the steering wheel hub and the brake pedal announce the power steering and the power brakes.
Plenty of room in the back seat! A rear center armrest was a sure sign in the 50’s that you were in a luxury car. What I’ve always found odd was that many, if not all of, the cars back then that had rear center armrests didn’t have them in the front seat, where one would think the most important occupants sat. Were carmakers seeking to portray their cars as luxury items just trying to be suggestive of limousines, where the most important occupants were in the back seat? Was it a manual transmission thing? Was it simply that no one thought to put one in front yet? Things to ponder…
Sharp-eyed readers will have already noticed in previous photos that this Buick has the most extravagant luxury option available in 1954: air conditioning. How extravagant was it? At approximately $600, it was 18% of the base price of the car, or approximately $5800 in 2020 dollars. Today, the lowliest economy cars come with it standard, at least in the United States. The price kept it from being installed in very many cars, yet it’s interesting that the current owner bought the car out of Canada. He doesn’t know if it was originally sold there, but if so, there couldn’t have been more than a handful of the refreshingly refrigerated Roadmasters sold there.
Tom Halter wrote a great CC series on the history of automotive air conditioning, which I recommend reading (links at the end). In a nutshell, the first systems were installed in Packards, Cadillacs and Chryslers briefly just prior to WWII, but didn’t immediately return postwar. Buick, Cadillac and Olds only started offering them the year before this car, in 1953. The evaporator assembly was so bulky it couldn’t be mounted in the cowl or dash, so it was mounted in the trunk under the package shelf, with the cold air directed through the transparent plexiglass tubes into the roof and onto the passengers from vents in the ceiling (as seen above and below).
I’m curious how well that works. Today we are so used to having air coming out of the dash and blasting our face and chest, I wonder if it would be nearly as refreshing hitting one on the head and side. Many newer vehicles have roof mounted vents for the back seats, including our family’s Highlander, and it seems to work pretty well. The backseat passengers in these early AC cars were lucky because when the systems moved to be completely cowl and dash mounted in a few years, it would be a long time before back seat dwellers got their own vents again. I’m not aware of any cars that had rear seat AC vents in the period of the 60’s to the 80’s, but someone please correct me if I’m wrong about that.
As I mentioned earlier, the Roadmaster is one of the most famous Buick nameplates. I think that if you did a survey of “non-buffs-but-still-car-aware” and asked who made the Roadmaster, more would answer correctly than would if you asked them who makes current products like the Enclave or Encore. Considering that fame, it’s surprising that the name was only originally used for 20 model years. The ‘Master would reach the end of the road with the upsized, lavishly chromed and now-controversially styled 1958 models (personally I like ’em, especially in coupe form, but that’s just me). There was also the brief return as a B-body in the 90’s, but I wouldn’t consider that to be related to the original models at all beyond in spirit (and I like those too, in fact, I own one). The car became the Electra for 1959 and later the Park Avenue and continued to serve Buick and its owners well for many decades.
One of the things I really like about cars from the 50’s is the detailing. They lavished a lot of attention on badges and emblems. Why have a simple circular emblem when you can conjure ideas of flight with giant wings?
Buick actually dropped the front coat-of-arms-style emblem they had been using for several years for 1954 and simply had BUICK in art deco-ish script. I would have thought 1954 would be beyond the art deco era. They kept some continuity from 1953 with a very similar gunsight-style hood ornament.
Being an all-new platform for 1954, the styling was modern and contemporary while still somehow looking conservative in a Buick-appropriate way. With an up-to-date chassis, one of the newest and most powerful V8’s on the road and cutting edge options like air conditioning, it really was a master. It quietly dominated the road (at least until a Cadillac came along) and put the world on notice that its owner would dominate wherever he was going to. It was a rocket ship for sure, but a distinguished, respectable one, of course.
P.S. I pictured TV’s Marcus Welby, MD driving a Buick like this. However, my research showed I was way off base since the part of his life documented on TV was well after the Roadmaster era. In fact, he drove full-size Chryslers (300’s until they were discontinued, then other models). Well, maybe I wasn’t far off in spirit. I can still imagine that before he got on TV and had cars provided to him by the Chrysler Corporation like nearly everyone else in TV land, the good doctor probably drove Buicks!
photographed in Houston, TX 10/12/2020
Cold Comfort: History of Automotive Air Conditioning, Part 1 – Pre-World War II – early systems referred to in article
Cold Comfort: History of Automotive Air Conditioning, Part 3 – Post-World War II – covering the 50’s
Cold Comfort: 1955 Cadillac Series Sixty Fleetwood – The Cadillac of Early Air Conditioning Systems – details the system very similar to the 1954 Buick’s
Automotive History: The Legendary Buick Nailhead V8 – And The Source Of Its Unusual Valve Arrangement by PN, just updated and rerun a couple weeks ago