(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.
It’s great to see you back, Laurence. I love this car. These 1950s Buicks just screamed “important.” Even moreso when it was a 4-holer like this one. Whenever I see a car like this, I think of a large guy wearing a hat and chewing a cigar while barking “Fillerup!” to a gas station attendant.
Roadmaster is one of the great model names. It is a good thing that nobody at GM ever got the chance to smack this nameplate on a 4 cylinder variant of the X body (as happened with its old nemesis the New Yorker).
You mean you haven’t hear about the Geo Metro-based Roadmaster? We’ll have to do a story on that…
Don’t. Even. Think. About. It.
Oh yeah, you mean when GM tried a new improved version of the Cadette!
Welcome back, Laurence! I always enjoy your writing style. Great old car.
You wrote “…Buick’s 1954 sales volume surpassed Plymouth’s. Only name recognition kept the Roadmaster from being renamed Road King.”
Well, that and maybe someone in marketing was old enough to remember the late 1930’s Plymouth Road King, which was a bottom-line car with one-inch bigger wheels, the better to navigate unpaved back roads.
I like the story. It’s many a moon since I’ve seen a Roadmaster like this.
Yes, good to hear from you Laurence. I think ’56 is my favorite year for Buicks of that decade, as it maintains that signature profile sweep of earlier cars but cheers up the sad-catfish-face grille.
I’ve always enjoyed Buicks (of course, given that my early forays into the antique car hobby was completely consumed by them), and have always been taken with the image differences within the Buick line during the mid-50’s. Your picture of that ’58 Limited hardtop only hints at it, but somehow GM styling managed to make any model of Buick two or four door hardtop look very stylish, while the pillared four door sedan was stodgy incarnate.
It was like there were two lines of Buicks: The hardtops were there to appeal to a 50’s kid 40-something father, while the four door sedan was something that you’d expect his 70-something grandfather to be driving.
And the 56’s were the best looking of the bunch, 54’s probably came in second, while the 58’s were far and away the worst.
Seems like Buick was the most independent and uppity of the GM divisions back then, taking on everyone from Chevrolet to Cadillac, never mind Ford and Chrysler. I guess it goes back to it being the first, and the backbone of GM, and not giving that up easily.
Success breeds independence. Beating Plymouth in sales was a big deal.
Also the fact that GM’s President from 1953-58 was Harlow Curtice, formerly the longtime head of (drum roll . . . . ) Buick Division (1933-48). And from 1948-53 he was President Charlie Wilson’s right hand man. I think it is fair to say that Buick had a man on the inside.
Although that didn’t necessarily always work to Buick’s advantage. Former Buick execs told Terry Dunham and Lawrence Gustin that Curtice was still sometimes called the shots, which put the subsequent general managers in an awkward position. Once Curtice retired, Ed Ragsdale, who was general manager during this period, ended up being blamed for Buick’s sudden decline, even though not all of that had actually been his decision.
The big help was that the basic Special was not that much more than a car from the low priced 3, if you could swing the difference, buying a Buick Special put you in firm middle class territory, upwardly mobile for the 50’s.
Bingo. Not only did the Special retail around the same price as a mid-line Dodge or Pontiac (probably all of $100-$200 more than a Bel-Air), but all Specials from ’54 to ’56 I believe undercut the basic Olds 88.
Although for ’54 and ’55 the Special ran a lower horsepower/smaller Nailhead (the 264) with 150-164 horsepower to a Basic 88’s 324 Rocket with 170-185hp. So content-wise it did fit in more with the “just out of the low price 3” in drivetrain, but you got all that Buick prestige for Dodge money.
Yes, I was seven at the time, and our black, white top four door hardtop Special truly felt a cut above. Was the name”Riviera” used in referring to the hardtop as opposed to the sedan? It didn’t officially appear on the car, to my recollection. I recall wondering why the lower models Special and Century actually had more chrome around the taillights than the deluxe Supers and Roadmasters. Shows how kids think…Thanks, Laurence for a wonderful story.
“it is fair to say that Buick had a man on the inside” Too bad he let Ivan Wiles run it into the ground
> Continue to ride softly but carry a big stick, old friend.
Hear, hear! I wonder if the new, new, newest GM is hearing it for Buick…
Buick used to be the serious luxury car for seriously rich folk who didn’t want to flaunt their wealth (too much). The market that Lexus &c. have captured now, just as the flashy market has been taken over by BMW and Mercedes-Benz (unfortunately).
neighbor had one of these that was sort of a lavender and white. Drove it for quite a long time. I always liked it better than other years of buick. Maybe the Nailhead gave it something a teen wanted. I’m lucky I didn’t kill myself wanting that something. I did kill my share of old cars.
Being of a younger generation when I hear Roadmaster I think of the 91-96 B-body Buick, especially the 94-96 LT1 cars. Those were real Roadmasters in their day.
Cars like this are a big reason people like me are so hard on the GM of the 70s-90s. Their cars of the 50s were the best you could buy in that day.
Amen, brother. You may have found competitive cars with advantages here or there over the GM stuff, but when considering the entire package of quality, style, features and general appeal, it was awfully tough to out-do the General.
Very enjoyable story! Your writing has as much style at that Roadmaster.
Laurence! Where have you been?
It is great to read your words again and to see your gorgeous photo’s with their brownish hue. (?)
They appear to have been colorized black and whites…kind of appropriate to the subject.
I may be wrong, but I think Lawrence is doing a form of Lomo photography,
Though these don’t look quite the same, almost more their natural colorings, but tinted in a more mild manner than usual.
Great story and GM did build a very quality product in the 50s. My 52 Special is solid and over engineered. If one screw would suffice, they put in three. The dynaflow is a leisurely experience, but the radio still works after all those years……
Yup, back in the days when people bought GM cars because they honestly thought they were better. They were good enough to keep that vibe going for three more decades before poor quality and stronger competition caught up to them.
My grandparents were Buick owners. I don’t know just how many Buicks they’ve owned in their lifetime. I’ve seen pictures of them with 1956 Buick. I remember them driving a 1968 Buick Wildcat. I remember my grandmother driving a 1971 LeSabre two door. I remember them driving other vehicles, but Buicks were their favourites.
My maternal grandfather made a late in life career change and became an itinerant preacher. He never had a church of his own but travelled widely throughout western Kentucky, western Tennessee, northern Mississippi and with occasional forays into Arkansas and Missouri. Once a year or so he would get the call to preach at a church in my hometown and he, my grandmother and my maiden aunt would all stay with us. All of this travelling was before the days of Interstate highways and, like salesmen and others who spent a lot of time on the two lanes, Grandpa was partial to big American iron. He especially liked Buick Roadmasters and owned several over the years. These cars were all well used by the time he got them and I doubt that any of them ever lasted more than a year before needing to be replaced. One of my mom’s brothers was a professional mechanic and his job was to be on the lookout for a suitable vehicle for Grandpa, inspect said vehicle and make any minor repairs needed, and then repeat as required.
Was this Olds built on the Chevy chassis of the time? It and the Pontiac look huge compared to it but the roof line is similar.
Nice to see a piece by Laurence, even if it is a re-run.
‘Gravitational pull’ is a great phrase to describe the attraction of the 1956-57 Buick. I’m more partial to the 1957 facelift, but these cars have always been among my favourites from the 1950’s.
As chance would have it I came across this extended commercial on YouTube this week, incorporated into an episode of ‘The Honeymooners’, which projects a unusually focussed and subtle image. One could almost imagine Buick was thinking about seceding from GM.
A friend’s father had one of these in the early 60s. He was a carpenter and kept the trunk loaded with his tools. I remember 3 things about riding in the back seat with a group of kids:
1) What a great place to wrestle. So much room and no seat belts.
2) Aged soft springs, lots of weight in the trunk and boys wrestling usually resulted in someone getting car sick on longer trips.
3) You had to rush to the passenger side rear window to puke because the driver side power window no longer worked.
The car was aptly nicknamed the Roadmonster.
Great write up Lawrence!! beautiful car!! would love to see the interior of that brute.
Very similar to my Dad’s ’55 Super Model 52 Riviera sedan. While the Buick line was face-lifted in both ’55 and ’56, the main appearance difference in the ’56 Buick was the full rear-wheel cutout on four-door sedans and two-door sedans, giving them a bit of extra flair. The ’56 Super and Roadmaster four-door hardtops were particularly sporty for very large cars. It’s very true that a Buick Roadmaster had a lot of prestige, something that an Electra 225 never could achieve. Perhaps the homogenization of the GM lineup in 1959 had something to do with it. It might also be the history dating back to the Depression, when the Roadmaster was apparently considered to be a bargain-basement Cadillac. I have fond memories of all these old Buicks, 1949 through 1958. They may not all have been gorgeous, but they commanded respect wherever they appeared.
I never understood the infatuation with the Tri-five Chevys. The 55-57 Buicks are just so much more beautiful and poised by comparison.
They also had more character than the Oldsmobiles, more glamour than the Pontiacs and were more tasteful than Cadillacs.
Best GM design of the period by a mile.
The infatuation with tri-five Chevys is not about how they looked so much as how they went. A V8 tri-five with a manual transmission was like a speedboat compared to the HMS Queen Mary. Or more like a coal barge.
They were totally different in character, performance and handling.
And the tri-fives were infinitely common and profoundly easy to modify. That was the appeal of the tri-fives. Nobody ever used Buicks as a performance car. It’s V8 ended up in some hot rods, but the car was too big and heavy, and the Dynaflow just added to its non-performance qualities.
Having said that, I find the ’55 Chevy a very attractive and successful design for the times.
As the saying went…
“The only thing that’ll knock a Roadmaster off the road is another Roadmaster”.
Concerning the Dynaflow. Was it the only mass produced transmission that had a front AND rear pump? Info on transmissions of other varieties often lists a “front” pump. Like there’s a rear pump?
Welcome back Laurence!
The 4 speed Jetaway Hydra Matic of 1956-64 still used a rear pump. It allowed for push starting and low speed towing. I think early Torqueflites used a rear pump in addition to a front pump as well.
My grandfather almost always had big Buicks beginning in 1918 and ending with a ’56 black sedan just like this one, with a red and black interior, bought just before he died. Grandma switched to black Cadillacs in ’64, and sold the Buick to his brother. She and Dad had been mortified by him selling their 1930 Buick for a ’37 Plymouth.
I drove it once in the early 80’s. It was a completely different experience from the ’56 Olds Holiday 88 we’d driven in HS in the 70’s. That was plenty fast but not terribly agile and had belonged to my other great uncle. Dad finally sold it for $50 in 1992.