Curbside Classic: 1956 Buick Century Riviera Four-Door Hardtop – See And Be Seen

(first posted 3/18/2011)    Four door hardtops make no sense, but what’s that ever had to do with cars? They were a status symbol: “No, I don’t drive no stinking sedan, even if I do have a family to schlepp around”. And in an era when air conditioning was as common as color tvs, and computers were the size of a barn, riding around in one of these with all the windows down on a hot summer evening was the mobile equivalent of sitting on the front porch of the nicest house on the block. It was done to see and be seen; the Facebook of its time. And this Buick would certainly up your friend count better than most.

One of the pillars of American automotive design is the pillarless hardtop. The two door version first arrived on the 1949 Cadillac Coupe de Ville (the origin of that storied name), Buick Roadmaster and Olds 98. But GM was not content to rest on its retracted windows. In 1955 Buick and Olds unveiled the first four-door pillarless hardtops, a very radical concept indeed, that is, until the pillarless hardtop wagons came along the next year.

What’s next? Wagons without even a C-pillar? I’m truly disappointed GM never took that obvious next step.

The four-door hardtops foreshadowed a trend that has recently engulfed the market since Mercedes unleashed its CLS: four door coupes. Well, here’s the granddaddy of them all. Crossing the prestige and flair of the two door hardtop with a utilitarian sedan was quite the stroke. And just like everyone else in the industry had to scramble after the ’49 two door hardtops, so this latest salvo from GM once again brought out the cutting torches.

Not that anyone who was smitten by the charms of hardtops cared, but they never were quite as quiet, dry and draft free as the dumb old sedans. And don’t ever be caught closing the door by pushing on the glass, although Stephanie has been doing that on her frameless Subaru without harm (so far) for eleven years. Why didn’t Subaru ever make a hardtop Forester? I need to get out my SawzAll and start a new trend.

By 1956, the four door hardtop was even available on lowly Chevys. Ford and Chrysler quickly joined the party, not wanting to be un-friended. Their popularity probably peaked in the mid sixties. By the mid seventies, they were mostly gone, the result of the arrival of the first personal computers. The last four door hardtop was the 1978 Chrysler New Yorker. That was the same year the Apple II appeared and Al Gore invented the internet. No mere coincidence.

The mid fifties were a great time to be a Buick dealer; no shortage of friends there. It was the number three seller in the land, behind Chevy and Ford, thanks in part to its very reasonably priced Special. The inter-divisional wars at GM were just heating up, and the Special was a major weapon. Buick prestige and style for a just a few bucks a month more than a dumb old Ford. Now that was a brilliant way to win new friends, even if it was at the expense of your premium brand reputation. Who cares; we all know that the race is to have the most friends, not necessarily the highest quality friends.

Buicks came in two sizes back then: big and bigger. The Special and Century were the former, and rode on a 122″ wheelbase. The “senior” Buicks had 127″ between the wheels. The Century was where it was at: the best of both. The big Buick’s 255 hp 322 cubic inch “nailhead” V8 in the lighter body, but with the upscale trimmings. It was the formula that made the original 1936 Century a winner and gave it its name: one hundred miles per hour; not one hundred friends. But that was the thirties; by the gregarious fifties, the focus was on social amenities, not raw speed.

The V8’s ample output always sounded like it was pushing a Chris Craft motorboat, thanks to Buick’s Dynaflow automatic, the true source of the name “slushbox”. Essentially a one-speed, its torque converter had a wide enough range to convert enough torque into very seamless forward thrust, gear reduction be damned. Perfect for absolutely smooth take-offs with a carload of friends spilling out the opened windows on the way to the Dairy Queen.

Didn’t do much for fuel efficiency either. If you really had to have one, a three-speed column-shifted manual was still available. But not cool, on a Buick. Unless you your circle of friends was very one-pointed. Although by 1956, there were cheaper ways to go really fast, like a 225 hp small-block Chevy.

Buick style in 1956 meant plenty of ornamentation, including a badge on the trunk that spelled out its model year to all prospective friends. Only works well for one year, though. Nevertheless, that’s an idea that needs to come back. It would sure make my life a lot easier, instead of having to perpetually rely on the help of my friends.

All the chrome and detailing still do their designated jobs, although within a couple of years that would blow up in outrageous excess. The ventiports were of course the Buick trademark, and this Century sports four per side, unlike the three of the lowly Special. Less ventiports = fewer friends.

I would love to see someone add another one, or two. And these are as close to the real thing as possible, not a piece of plastic slapped on the assembly line or the Pep Boys parking lot.

And that steering wheel! Old wheels like that alone slay me, with their little slogans and crests: POWER STEERING. Believe me, you didn’t need to be reminded one way or the other as to whether this big boat had power steering or not. Perhaps it was there to warn off the week-chested before they even tried to drive a non-PS ’56 Buick.

Not true; when a prospective friend leaned in your open driver’s window, that wheel nub was about the first thing their eyes would fall on. Well, maybe the second thing; possibly the third. Regardless of the order, it was instant status. More Friends. Preferably the kind that would sidle up real close, and you so now you didn’t have to worry about needing two hands to turn the wheel. Power steering was the friendliest of all of Detroit’s great inventions of the times; bucket seats and floor shifters the least so.

Ultimately, faces are what cars and Facebook is all about. Who doesn’t put their best face forward in the quest for more friends? The Buick certainly put its big smile out there for all to see; three blocks away even. Plenty of time for prospective friends to sashay innocently down to the curb before it arrived, all four of its windows down, ready to make more friends.



Buick’s Legendary Nailhead V8 And The Possible Source Of Its Unusual Valve Arrangement