(first posted 6/28/2011)
If you’re going to do something wrong, do it big (Jayne Mansfield)
When Bigger Cars Are Built, Buick Will Build Them
If you’ve got it, flaunt it: 225. Or 40-21-35. Inches, that is. In both cases, they’re the vital statistics that the big Buick and Jayne Mansfield blatantly flouted and capitalized upon. Where else but in the America of the times would a car proclaim its length as part of its very name? And where Jayne’s bust size was a household number? If the two of them didn’t have enough in common already, it turns out that Mansfield was killed in an Electra 225 in 1967, something I didn’t know at the time I decided to pair the two up for this article. But how could I resist forging ahead with this obvious pairing, even though it might be a stretch to write much about this overstuffed Buick other than describe its obvious assets. Like Jayne, it was meant to be looked at, not analyzed.
That was by Jayne’s own admission. She was acknowledged to be intelligent (she claimed her IQ was 163), spoke five languages, and was a classically trained pianist and violinist. Mansfield admitted her public didn’t care about her brains. “They’re more interested in 40-21-35″. And that first number eventually swelled to 46.
The Electra flaunted its size too, perhaps even more blatantly than Jayne. The Electra 225 first appeared in 1959, with the surname a handy reminder to the public of how just long it was, in inches. That would be like Mansfield changing her name to Jayne 40-21-35. Ironically, the ’67 is an inch shorter, at 224 inches. Buick obviously didn’t see fit to change its numbering; can’t have that, it would be like Jayne having breast reduction surgery and advertising it. For what it’s worth though, the original ’59 Electra 225 would have been an even more fitting memorial to Jayne.
Vera Jayne Palmer was born in 1933, in Pennsylvania. Aged sixteen, she secretly married Paul Mansfield, and they moved to Austin, Texas where she studied dramatics at the University. She won several beauty contests there, with titles that included “Miss Photoflash,” “Miss Magnesium Lamp” and “Miss Fire Prevention Week.” The only title she ever turned down was “Miss Roquefort Cheese,” because she believed that it “just didn’t sound right.” A few years later, they moved to LA, of course.
I don’t know of any beauty titles the Buicks were winning, but they were mighty handsome in this period. Whereas the big Pontiacs were hard to beat up through 1966, by 1967 the Buicks were giving them a serious run for the beauty gold. In my book, this particular model year stands out as perhaps one of the best of the whole classic big car genre: huge and excessive, yes; but with just enough restraint to keep it from winning any “Cheesy Big Car” awards.
Jayne’s career was a mixed bag, kick-started by an endless stream of publicity stunts that all centered on exposing her mammaries to one degree or another. In a period of 18 months in ’56 and ’57, she appeared in 2500 newspaper photos and had some 122k lines of copy written about her breasts. There were numerous “accidents”, which made Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe failure” look like child’s play. She was smart enough to know which of her assets to leverage, given the times.
Unlike for Jayne, I do have SFW shots of the Buick’s ample rear. This would have made a perfect car for her to plant her tush on the rear deck for a parade: “Miss Magnesium Lamp”.
It wasn’t only men that checked out Jayne’s assets. These two pics are the proof: Sophia Loren taking stock of the competition; looks like she’s finally more than met her match. Nothing subtle here; neither Loren’s gaze nor Mansfield’s dress. This incident was actually another publicity stunt designed to upstage Loren at a dinner party in her honor.
But then some things never change.
Drop the top all the way on the Electra, and there’s two big cushy seats to run your hands over. Looks to me like these are vinyl though, not genuine mammal skins. And if you really feel like cozying up, just flip up that center arm rest, and snuggle away. There’s plenty of room for two to have fun, preferably if the car isn’t actually moving. Just the thing to park at the lake on a warm and starry summer night. What else is a big convertible good for?
This shot appears to prove that Jayne really did play the violin (here right before her second marriage in 1958). But look at this simple fenced-in back yard pool and patio; it looks so middle class. It’s easy to forget how actually modestly paid the stars of the fifties were compared to today, and the impact a 90% top incremental tax bracket had in the fifties. Although Jayne’s house in LA was a bit less modest than this weekend retreat in Palm Springs.
The Electra Convertible wasn’t exactly the most common middle class fare either, but then it wouldn’t have been that much of a stretch. Its list price of $4421 ($30k adjusted) was quite a chunk less than the next step up in GM’s convertible hierarchy, the De Ville, which went for $5600. For that extra $2200 one got the same basic car under the skin, but the Caddy name, prestige and a bit nicer interior. Performance wise, there was probably no real difference; Buck’s new 430 CID V8 Wildcat 475 (another big number, as in its torque) was a 360 hp gem, and every bit as smooth and silent as the Caddy. Money well saved.
The times they were a changing, for both Jayne and big convertibles like the Buick. Their heyday was the fifties; by the mid sixties they were both anachronisms. The platinum bombshell days were over in Hollywood, and Mansfield’s career steadily declined, until she had to resort to doing cheap magazine covers and playing nightclubs, and getting to them in a Buick Electra.
On June 28th, 1967, late at night near Biloxi, Mississippi, she met her grisly fate riding in a 1966 Electra 225 sedan driven by a twenty year old. He plowed into the back end of a stopped chemical tanker, shearing off the top of the Buick and part of Mansfield’s upper head (I really didn’t know this when I picked the convertible). The since-mandated low bars attached to the back of all trailer trucks designed to prevent such an accident are commonly called Mansfield bars.
The big Buick convertibles, like the rest of GM’s big rag tops, were nearing the end of the line too. Less than 6k of these ’67s were made and within a few more years exposing one’s large private spaces in public became passé. Air conditioning and changing social values made folks want to ride inside, not outside; sitting out on front porches after supper went the same way too. But the joy of floating along in a big open-top deuce and a quarter is still as timeless as certain female attributes, as this owner will tell you. And if I’ve made a mistake co-mingling Jayne with this Buick, at least it was a big one.