I’ve long described my beloved ’53 Buick Special as the most modern ’30s car one could drive, but for a little extra money, one could drive Buick’s future in a similar package. The Super and Special looked so similar, in fact, that when I bought my Special in 2005, I was surprised it was labeled in the classified as as a Special; for the two years I had ogled it in a local driveway, I had thought it was a Super. To the trained eye, however, it’s clear that the Super and Special had less in common than one would think.
General Motors’ body-sharing schemes in the early 1950s were about as easy to understand as nuclear physics to a liberal arts major. The 1953 Special (mine is picture above) shared a body with the 1953 Oldsmobile Super 88, and as far as I can gather, nothing else. Over the years, I’ve learned to appreciate the slimmer body of the Special.
Notice how much farther inward the wheels and tires of the Super are tucked. Partially because of that extra width, little is shared between the Special and Super, regardless of how similar they look.
From the rear, one can see the Super’s detachable quarter panels and heavier “door break.” I’ve long felt that this and the wider body gave the Super a much more monolithic appearance, which is certainly what Buick was looking for. The Super shared its body with the other upscale brands, including Oldsmobile and Cadillac.
The Special’s quarters are welded to the body as a unit, which would have made replacement far more difficult. Also notice that the backup lamps are incorporated into the bumper of the Super, whereas they’re a part of the tail panel on the Special. Even the tailpipe is located on the opposite side, because the Special was the recipient of many “lasts” in the Buick line.
The Special was the last of the straight-eight Buicks; with 263 cubic inches and 130 horsepower (with Dynaflow), the Special also used up the last of the six-volt electrical parts lying around the shop. The Super and Roadmaster introduced the new “Nailhead” V8; with 322 cubic inches, the Super gave the buyer 40 more horsepower and a 12-volt electrical system standard.
The Super’s dashboard was almost completely different, as well. Notice the large central speedometer flanked by smaller gauge clusters with an ammeter, fuel gauge, engine temperature gauge, and oil pressure gauge.
Meanwhile, the Special’s gauges were slightly less ornate, in keeping with the money one would save in buying the bottom-of-the-line nameplate.
Although the Super was wider than the Special, it was surprisingly similar in length: At 207.6 inches, the Super Riviera was a mere 1.7 inches longer than the Special Riviera, and that was most likely attributed to the backup lights protruding from the rear bumper. Notice that the Super and the Special both share three portholes. In 1953, only the Roadmaster earned four; however, the Roadmaster was the same length as the Super in 1953. In earlier years, the Roadmaster’s nose was several inches longer to account for the 320 straight eight’s additional length. With the introduction of the Nailhead, that was no longer necessary, so the Roadmaster came one step closer to the lesser nameplates in 1953. In later years, other models such as the Super also received four portholes, further diluting the Roadmaster’s prestige, but that was still a few years away in 1953.
As might be expected given their similar length, all Buicks in 1953 shared a 121.5 inch wheelbase (aside from the Super and Roadmaster Riviera sedans).
From this angle, one can see the more horizontal door break on the Special, and how much less distance there is between the door handle and the bodyline itself compared to the Super (also see the picture below). As I said earlier, the Special looks somewhat lighter than the Super, even though the factory shipping weights were within 150 pounds of each other. As someone who has extracted a straight eight from the gaping mouth of a ’53 Special, I must imagine the additional weight of the Super was a result of its wider body and not its drivetrain.*
*I checked this: According to the manuals on teambuick.com, the 263 weighs 746 pounds dry, and the Nailhead is said to weigh somewhere in the range of 650-700 pounds (I assume with all accessories attached).
I wasn’t able to talk to the owner of this Super, but my guess is that its color is Glacier Blue, which was a Spring 1953 addition to the color palette. This is something I know because my car was originally painted Glacier Blue with a dark blue roof, but when I bought it, it had already been resprayed in a lighter color. When I had mine repainted back in 2010, I stuck with the lighter color so I wouldn’t have to worry about the trunk and dashboard. In retrospect, however, the slightly more subtle Glacier Blue would have been an attractive option.
The Super’s new engine and more imposing presence may have been two of the reasons that 91,298 Super Riviera hardtops were sold compared to 58,780 Special Rivieras in 1953, even though the Super cost over 350 dollars more (which is about 16 percent). Both were among the best sellers in Buick’s lineup that year, but a V8 future was calling, and the sales charts clearly reflected that.
The next year would bring brand new bodies to both the Special and Super lines, and the differentiation was arguably greater this time. This is the 1954 Super. The new driveline earned a modern silhouette that was perhaps more in line with the jet age.
This is the 1954 Special, equally modern but sharing few body panels with its larger linemate. Notice how the ’53 model’s towering hood was lowered to be more nearly level with the fenders for ’54. Harley Earl had always liked domed hoods because they indicated power, but selling cars was more important, and times change.
Therefore, to me the ’53 was the last of the “old school” Buicks. It wouldn’t have mattered much to me if mine had actually been a Super with its new 322 V8 (indeed, it would have been a less dicey freeway ride with the extra power), but I’m happy I ended up with the last of the classic Buick straight eights. It’s not much of a bragging point these days, but listening to that burbling idle is reward enough, even if it was a step down on the ladder of nameplates.