|Buick Performance A Brief History
|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.
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 cars 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.
|In The Beginning
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
1910s, 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.
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 30s, 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.
|First Medium-Price "Muscle Car"
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.
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 30s. 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 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 1960s brought
|The 60s Horsepower With a Vengeance
First, there were the Wildcats.
Introduced in mid-year 1962, the Wildcat coupe was Buicks 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 Buicks history is well-told in a number of other
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.