Buick Performance — A Brief History
Jim Radigan -jradiga9-2@idt.net
Premium American Motorcar or Performance Machine ?

As the Buick automobile approaches its centennial, most people have very little knowledge of any of its history, either as a "Premium American Motorcar" or as a performance machine. This article will define the latter, and show how it is intertwined with the former.

In The Beginning
From the beginning, the Buick had a (for its day) high-performance engine. Its valve-in-head design was new to the American market, and performed much better than the then-conventional flathead design. But then, if not for this engine, the Buick would have disappeared before the 20th century was a decade old. By 1904, the company was teetering on the brink of dissolution, and its one hope was Billy Durant. He was not particularly interested in the "horseless carriage", but borrowed a Buick for several weeks to try out. If not for the car’s performance (including power, ride and durability), Durant would not have backed the company (actually taking it over), and history as we know it would have been quite different.

Early Racing
Once Durant got the company on its feet, he set about to promote it. In that era, the easiest way to promote was to race. (The "win on Sunday, drive on Monday" notion dates to the earliest days.) As he assembled the General Motors Company, he recruited several of the best drivers of the day to make up his Buick racing team. These men included "Wild" Bob Berman and the three Chevrolet brothers (Louis, Arthur and Gaston). In the 1910’s, the Buick racing team was quite successful. However, Durant over-extended himself, and a consortium of New York financiers took over GM. Once they ousted Durant, they dissolved the entire racing effort. Instead, efforts were put into making the Buick the elite car of the medium-price range. This was done successfully, up until the stock market crash.

First Medium-Price "Muscle Car"
Once the Great Depression was well underway, Buick had a horrible dilemma. While Buicks were a substantial part of the medium-price range, the entire class was being squeezed out. In the early 30’s, rumors were circulating that the Buick nameplate was about to cease. However, Harlow Curtice (the new Buick general manager) saw otherwise. In May of 1934, he introduced the Series 40, which was essentially a Chevrolet body mounted on a Buick straight-8 chassis. This car accomplished two major goals. Its phenomenal sales assured the continuation of the Buick name and it became the springboard for the hottest-performing car in the medium-price class.

With the Series 40, Buick had 2 overhead-valve straight-8 engines. The Series 90 had a 344 c.i.d. engine, the Series 60 used a 278 c.i.d. engine, the Series 50 used a 235 c.i.d. engine and the Series 40 used a 233 c.i.d. engine. In 1935, the series were given names. The Series 40 became the Special, the Series 50 became the Super, the Series 60 became the Century and the Series 90 became the Limited. In 1936, the three larger engines were all replaced by a 320 c.i.d. unit that would be the mainstay of Buick engines until 1953. Also, the Super series was renamed Roadmaster. With this engine consolidation, the Century became the hot ticket, and the series earned its name. It could hold a steady 100 mph, a feat that few cars of this price class could duplicate. As time went on, this engine went from 120 hp in 1936 to 165 hp in 1941. With the engine upgrades, the Century line was always at the head of its class for performance, right up to the cessation of auto production for World War II.

Postwar Recovery
After the war, the Century line disappeared, as Buick filled the demand with the larger (and more profitable) Supers and Roadmasters. In 1953, the 322 c.i.d. nailhead V-8 was introduced. In 1954, the Century returned, using the same idea as had been developed in the ‘30’s. The new Century was again essentially a Special with a Roadmaster engine dropped in. However, performance was hindered by the inclusion of the first-generation Dynaflow transmission, which was grossly inefficient. Buick reworked the transmission for 1955, with the result that the entire fleet of pursuit cars purchased by the California Highway Patrol for 1955 had a common nameplate: Century.

The ‘60’s — Horsepower With a Vengeance
The Century line was essentially carried over into 1956, as was the entire Buick line. However, in 1957, the tide shifted to heavier, softer cars and away from performance as a goal in itself. It was in this era that the Buick reputation for a soft ride with less-than-crisp handling was started. Buicks were still powerful, just more subdued. The 1960’s brought a reawakening.

First, there were the Wildcats. Introduced in mid-year 1962, the Wildcat coupe was Buick’s entry into the high-performance field. Competing with the Impala Super Sport, and Pontiac Grand Prix, it gave Buick bottom-end punch to this burgeoning field.

Next were the Gran Sports. Introduced at the start of the 1965 model run on the Riviera, the package included, among other things, a 425 c.i.d. engine with dual-quad carbs and a firmer suspension. This was followed by inclusion of similar packages on the Skylark (in mid-year 1965) and the Wildcat (in 1966). In 1967, the Skylark Gran Sport became the GS series. This part of Buick’s history is well-told in a number of other places.

In Summary
So, it seems, Buick power has been a factor throughout the history of the auto industry. In fact, the concept of "Go fast with class" has been a watchword of the Buick clan from the outset.

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