Curbside Classic: 1956 Buick Roadmaster Sedan – The Big Boola Boola

(first posted 9/27/2012)    Some cars never let you escape the gravitational pull they have on your life. It might surprise you that this big, black, buxom beauty and I go a long way back; in fact, you might say it’s an old family friend. It’s appropriate that we met again in a grocery store parking lot, but before I go further, here’s a little backstory on why a Roadmaster is a big deal in the first place.

Twenty years before our subject car was built, the Buick Roadmaster made its debut, augmenting the Series 80 designation that had identified earlier Buick models.  From the start, it was a big, bodacious, brawny bargain. The thrilling straight-eight delivered 120 hp–comparable with Cadillac–and had heft and length to spare. It was, however, significantly less costly than a comparable LaSalle or Cadillac. And surely as America loves things big, it was a big hit: Just over 16,000 were sold, even in the midst of the depression.

The Roadmaster became Buick’s reliable, go-to, “Speak softly and carry a big stick” alternative to a Cadillac. In a number of ways it provided a completely different experience than its C-Body siblings. Roadmasters cultivated a wafting-land-yacht aura long before either Cadillac or Oldsmobile (which still strived for a pretense of athleticism), offering seamless, slushy Dynaflow shifting and the comparatively curious Nailhead V8 in the horsepower race.

But the big deal about the Roadmaster is the subtle yet powerful significance it brought to the entire Buick line. The Roadmaster’s image of power-by-the-pound domination of the roadway helped spur sales of the more cavalier Century and the sprightly Special–so much, in fact, that Buick’s 1954 sales volume surpassed Plymouth’s. Only name recognition kept the Roadmaster from being renamed Road King.

Its quiet, discreet dominance of the luxury class peaked in the hullabaloo that was the 1955 selling season. Nineteen fifty-five was a record sales year, for Buick and the industry in general. But the pressure to get the cars out the door resulted in quality deficiencies that many regular buyers of Flint’s usually peerless products found off-putting. The quality lapse likely affected more of the Specials and Centuries that represented most of the sales tally, but nevertheless tarnished the whole family.

Twenty years in the same career role makes a harsh mistress, especially following a consistently good run. Still, one slip can prove fatal. In 1958, Buick attempted to hide the Roadmaster’s weight with unduly harsh plastic surgery that finally forced the former king of the road to clean out its desk.

In truth, the King actually shared the stage with the Emperor-in-exile during the last year of its reign, as the Series 90 Limited returned after a 15-year absence. Priced halfway between comparable 62-Series and DeVille Cadillacs, its return proved to be an act poisonous to both it and the Roadmaster. For 1959, the whole royal family was sent packing and replaced by a new cast of Buicks–in musical terms, it was the Clyde McPhatter-led Drifters becoming the Ben E. King-led Drifters.

But two years before the show was over, this particular unsinkable ocean liner was produced. Few cars possess the presence of a mid-1950s Roadmaster, including its C-Body siblings. The Ninety Eight, which had been demoted to a “Super B-Body” in 1954, was restrained to the point of embarrassment trying to hide its true weight and size. Comparable Cadillacs looked like they’d hit the gym and muscled up after consuming too many bon bons  between 1950 and 1953.

The Roadmaster looks every pound of its girth. From subtle creases to totally unnecessary parking lamps and  then-traditional ventiports, you got a lot of detail for every dollar you spent. Adjusted for inflation, a Roadmaster would cost between $35,000 and $40,000 today. At that price range, it was not only obtainable by upper-middle class buyers in 1956, but in fact a relative bargain for what it was: a full-boot luxury sedan.

The Variable Pitch Dynaflow helped liven things up a bit, but the rest of the driving experience was pretty soggy. That was par for the course in 1956, as even Oldsmobile softened spring rates and found ways to control the unruliness of its Hydramatic. At least (and thankfully), we were still a few years away from the horrible Flight Pitch Dynaflow.

Now, just how do I know this buxom beast? It belongs to my Uncle Albert’s neighbor, a Real Estate agent who works in my hometown and who attended high school with my mother. In fact, you’re looking at the very car that saw him through college, early marriage, and his fledgling Real Estate career in early-80s San Mateo County.

It’s been used pretty much as a whimsical third car since the early ’90s, sometimes as a draw at open houses, other times as a grocery-getter when the mood strikes. I’m pretty sure it has seen only routine maintenance or a rebuild here and there, and it was no surprise to see it in Berkeley at the Bowl (a little beyond home turf). I actually saw it pull into the lot while I was in the checkout line, and I caught these shots in the September sun.

Now, nearly 57 years later, we still have this particular master of the road. It was great to see you the other day. Continue to ride softly but carry a big stick, old friend.