The Beauty of Speed: Harlow Curtice and the Buick Century

While the Pontiac GTO is often considered the first muscle car, 25 years earlier it was Buick, not Oldsmobile, that set the pace as America’s leading purveyor of speed and style, offering the fastest production sedan in America: the 1936-1942 Buick Century. This is its story.

1937 Buick 8 grille badge

BUICK BEFORE GM

David Dunbar Buick began building gasoline-powered cars in 1899, but the Buick Motor Co. was not formally incorporated until 1903. Originally based in Detroit, the ailing company was purchased by Flint Wagon Works in September 1903 and reincorporated in Flint, Michigan in January 1904.

Buick was rescued from near-bankruptcy by entrepreneur William (Billy) Crapo Durant, who became Buicks general manager and then president. Although Durant was no engineer and by some accounts had no great love of automobiles, he quickly revitalized Buick’s fortunes. By 1908, it was America’s leading automaker, selling some 8,820 cars that year.

Billy Durant was nothing if not ambitious, and not long after becoming Buick president, he was already exploring the possibility of mergers with other automakers. After being rebuffed by Oldsmobile and REO, he created a holding company called General Motors in September 1908, and began selling stock. With the proceeds from that stock sale, he purchased Oldsmobile, followed in 1909 by Cadillac, Oakland, and a host of others. By 1910, GM controlled more than 30 companies, although it had accumulated so much debt that Durant was soon forced out by a bankers’ trust.

Buick, now a division of GM, remained one of the corporation’s most successful and profitable brands. Its cars were relatively expensive, what today would be called near-luxury models. When Alfred P. Sloan became president of GM in the 1920s, he set Buick on the second-highest rung of GM’s price hierarchy, just below Cadillac in price and prestige. Buick sold well during the booming years of the Jazz Age. By 1923 it consistently moved more than 150,000 cars a year, third-best in the industry, with handsome profit margins.

THE PREGNANT BUICK

The division ran into trouble in 1929. The first problem was unpopular new styling that earned the ’29 model the unflattering sobriquet of “Pregnant Buick.” It was a slap in the face for Harley Earl’s new Art & Colour division, which had been established to style all GM cars. Earl blamed Fisher Body Division, which actually built the cars; Fisher draftsmen altered the dimensions and proportions of Earl’s final designs prior to production. In any case, the result was dismal sales, dropping more than 25% from 1928. Then, in October 1929, the stock market crashed, taking with it much of the market for expensive cars.

1937 Buick Century sidemount
This 1937 Buick Century’s side-mounted spare wheels were popular with conservative buyers in the late 1930s, just as padded vinyl tops would be four decades later. They cost extra on Buicks of this vintage. Stylists abhorred them; the body-colored covers were a grudging attempt to marry the sidemounts (which dealers often demanded) with the vogue for streamlining. Sidemount wheels are often a nightmare for restorers because their wells accumulate water and promote disastrous levels of corrosion.

No high-priced cars fared well during the early years of the Great Depression, but Buick was hit particularly hard. After 1929, it was seldom a reflection of the virtues of the cars themselves, which were attractive, well-built, and modern. The 1931 cars had a new line of straight-eight engines, better brakes, and a much-improved clutch design. The 1932 Buicks had lovely if conservative new styling and came in a wide assortment of body styles, in four different sizes. It also added GM’s new Synchro-Mesh transmission, which allowed clash-free shifting into second and third gears — a highly useful innovation.

None of this helped: sales were down more than 25% for 1931, and a further 53% for 1932. Sales for 1933 were only 40,620, Buick’s worst year since 1914. As sales dropped, Buick dealers began to jump ship. The number of exclusive Buick dealerships plummeted, dropping from more than 2,500 before the Crash to fewer than 70 by 1934. What had once been GM’s most profitable division suddenly looked terminal. GM management talked seriously about liquidation.

HARLOW CURTICE

Buick’s salvation came in the form of a dynamic new general manager named Harlow “Red” Curtice, previously the head of GM’s AC Spark Plug division. Curtice was 39 when he took over Buick in October 1933, young for GM, and he was, in the vernacular of the time, a real live wire. Curtice was determined to turn Buick around and Sloan gave him a great deal of latitude to try.

Curtice’s first salvo was a new short-wheelbase Buick called the Series 40, introduced in May 1934. With starting prices as low as $795, the Series 40 was about 20% cheaper than the least-expensive 1933 Buick. Customers responded; although 1934′s total sales were still unimpressive, compared to its 1920s heights, they were up 93% from 1933.

Although buyers in hard times tend to gravitate towards smaller, more economical cars, the most reliable selling points tend to be the three Ss: speed, style, and snobbery. The Buick name still carried considerable snob value in those days; it was a highly respectable car, the kind a successful doctor or banker might drive. Curtice set to work on speed and style.

1937 Buick Century front 3q
Restyled by Frank Hershey, the 1937 Buicks were several inches longer and hundreds of pounds heavier than their ’36 counterparts. This 1937 Buick Century stretches about 203 inches (5,156 mm) long on a 126-inch (3,200mm) wheelbase with a curb weight of around 3,900 pounds (1,770 kg). Base price of this model and body style was $1,233 and 21,140 were built, accounting for more than half of Century sales for 1937. Note the front and rear “Venti-Plane” vent windows, which GM had just introduced with fanfare in 1933.

While some GM managers were suspicious of Harley Earl, Curtice actively courted the mercurial styling chief. One of Curtice’s first acts after becoming Buick president was to call on Earl and ask him for a tour of the Art & Colour section and a crash course in automotive design. Curtice and Earl soon became friends and Earl favored Buick with some of his stylists’ slickest work. The first result was the 1936 line, whose development began shortly after Curtice came to Buick. Curtice had asked Earl for a design that would have the flair of a Cadillac, but be instantly recognizable as a Buick. Earl delivered, and the sleek, streamlined ’36s were among the industry’s best-looking cars.

The new Buicks were improved under the skin as well. For 1934, Buick got independent front suspension, with coil springs instead of leaf springs, giving much-improved handling and ride quality. For 1936, mechanically operated brakes gave way to modern hydraulics and a new, smoother, lighter synchromesh transmission was added. The ’36 cars also had “Turret Top” construction, finally abandoning the wood-and-steel composite structures to which GM had stubbornly clung in favor of all-steel bodies. Under the hood, Curtice consolidated the previous assortment of engines down to two. Both were overhead-valve straight-eights, one making 93 horsepower (69 kW) from 235 cubic inches (3,857 cc), the other producing 120 hp (90 kW) from 320 cubic inches (5,247 cc).

THE 1936 BUICK CENTURY

The new Buicks were stylish and modern, but Curtice also wanted them to be fast. The usual automotive practice is to put small engines in small cars and big engines in big cars, but interesting results may be had from putting a big engine in a smaller car.

In 1936, Buicks came in four basic sizes: the short-wheelbase Special, the medium-size Century, the big Roadmaster, and the even bigger Limited. The Special used Buick’s small eight, but the Buick Century came standard with the same engine as the big Roadmaster and Limited. Since it was at least 9 inches (229 mm) shorter and more than 300 pounds (136 kg) lighter than its larger siblings, the mid-size Century became a rather hot number.

Prestigious, pretty, and fast, the 1936 Buicks were a hit. Sales climbed to almost 180,000, up over 65% from 1935, and more than four times the dismal 1932-1933 totals.

1937 Buick Century rear 3q
This 1937 Buick Century is a four-door “Touring Sedan,” the most popular Century body style; other choices included the two-door Touring Sedan, standard two- and four-door sedans, a convertible coupe, a sport coupe, and a five-passenger convertible phaeton. The ungainly-looking “trunkback” is not nearly as sleek as the sport coupe or standard two-door sedan, but it was somewhat more useful. Stylist (and future GM styling chief) Bill Mitchell, who worked on some details of this car, felt that it looked top-heavy; Fisher body insisted on an exaggerated crown to the roof, an effort to prevent drumming in the new all-steel “Turret Top” body.

The Buick line was extensively restyled for 1937, the year of our photo car. The new design, largely the work of Frank Hershey (who would later become a leading stylist for Ford), was longer, lower, and wider than the 1936 Buicks — Harley Earl’s standard formula — but was still sharp-looking and modern. The big straight-eight was raised 10 hp to 130, meaning that the 1937 Buick Century remained a fast car despite its considerable extra girth. Unofficial reports showed the Century to be capable of 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in about 16 seconds, and while it couldn’t quite crack the century mark, it was of the fastest stock cars sold in America. Sales for ’37 were up a further 25% over 1936. One GM executive remarked to Curtice that Buick was no longer on relief.

1937 Buick Century front
Other than the greater length and more prominent fenders, the most obvious feature of the 1937 Buick Century is the divided grille with its horizontal chrome bars, replacing 1936′s “fencer’s mask” design. The pod-mounted headlamps were a point of contention within GM at this time. Harley Earl felt they were becoming dated and wanted flush, fender-mounted headlights (which the Chrysler Airflow and Lincoln Zephyr already had), but Bill Knudsen, who became president of GM in 1937, felt they were impractical. GM production cars wouldn’t have flush headlamps until 1940.

Harlow Curtice wasn’t satisfied with being only one of the fastest. He charged Charles Chayne, Buick’s new chief engineer, with wringing more power out of the big engine. For 1938, the 320, renamed Dynaflash 8, got new combustion chambers, relocated valves and spark plugs, and a higher compression ratio, boosting it from 130 to 141 horsepower (97 to 105 kW). The new Buick Century could reach 60 mph (97 km/h) in a little over 13 seconds and hit speeds of up to 103 mph (165 km/h). The supercharged Cord 810 could give it a run for its money, but the only stock cars of the time that could decisively outrun a Century were a handful of rare and expensive European exotics like the Bugatti Type 57, Alfa Romeo 8C 2900, and Jaguar SS 100.

COMPOUND CARBURETION

Curtice and Chayne had an even hotter Century up their sleeves. For 1941, larger Buicks got a redesigned “Fireball 8,” with a higher compression ratio, new, smaller spark plugs, and “Compound Carburetion,” a pair of dual-throat carburetors with a progressive linkage. The engine operated on the front carb in normal driving, but when the throttle was pressed down, the rear carb would cut in as well, for a significant improvement in power.

With Compound Carburetion, the big Fireball 8 made 165 gross horsepower (123 kW) and 278 lb-ft (376 N-m) of torque. Since Cadillac and Packard had dropped their big multicylinder (V-12 and V-16) engines the previous year, the 1941 Buick Century was now America’s most powerful car, beating Packard by 5 hp (3 kW) and Cadillac by 15 (11 kW). GM testing claimed the 1941 Buick Century could reach 60 mph (97 km/h) in about 12 seconds and had a top speed of 101 mph (162 km/h). To put that in perspective, such speed made the Century every bit as quick as the Oldsmobile Eighty-Eight and Hudson Hornets that tore up the stock car circuit in the late forties and early fifties — racy performance, indeed.

Alas, Compound Carburetion was short-lived, offered only in 1941 and the truncated 1942 model year. The engine’s 7.0:1 compression ratio was really too high for the octane rating of contemporary gasoline, the smaller spark plugs were prone to oil leaks, and keeping the dual carburetors properly tuned was troublesome. Drivers also found that using the ample power had an alarming effect on fuel economy. During the war, when most drivers were rationed to three to five gallons (11.4 to 18.9 liters) of gasoline a week, many dealers converted customers’ cars back to single carburetors. In 1945, when civilian auto production resumed, Buicks reverted to a single, dual-throat carburetor and a slightly lower compression ratio, cutting power to 150 hp (112 kW). The dual-carb engine was impressive, but it had proved a bridge too far.

So, too, did another of Curtice’s efforts. Hoping to boost Buick’s image even further, he had made a deal with the coachbuilder Brunn & Company in Buffalo, New York to offer custom-built bodies on the big Limited chassis. Only a handful were sold, and Curtice was warned that he was treading too much on Cadillac’s toes, so they were discontinued by 1940.

Despite those minor missteps, Curtice’s revival of Buick was an overwhelming success. By 1938, the division had climbed from seventh place in the industry to fourth, just behind Chevrolet, Ford, and Plymouth. It would remain in fourth place for much of the next two decades, occasionally reaching as high as third. Even better, Curtice’s efforts had restored the faith of Buick dealers — the number of franchises grew from 67 in 1934 to almost 3,000 in 1941. Each of those dealers enjoyed higher average sales than any other make sold in the United States. The division’s fortunes were further swelled by a lucrative series of wartime contracts, including aircraft engines and the M18 Hellcat tank destroyer (whose transmission provided the basis of the postwar Dynaflow automatic).

AFTERMATH

In 1948, Curtice was rewarded for his efforts with a promotion to executive vice president, leaving Buick in the hands of Ivan Wiles, his former comptroller. In 1953 Curtice became president of General Motors, a post he held until his retirement in 1958. He died in the fall of 1962.

Buick’s fortunes would rise and fall over the subsequent decades, reaching its greatest success in the early 1980s. (Its best year was 1985, the only year the division’s sales ever topped one million.) Although it could never seem to shake its stolid, middle-class image, Buick made several other stabs at high performance, including the formidable Gran Sports, the turbocharged Grand Nationals of 1984-1987, and the fearsome limited-production 1987 GNX.


The rare 400 cu. in. (6,544 cc) Stage 1 engine, seen here in a 1969 Buick GS400. This dealer-installed option, which included forged pistons, a hotter camshaft, and higher-compression heads, was ostensibly good for a five-horsepower boost over the standard 400-4V engine, but it was certainly stronger than that. It was followed in 1970 by the monstrous 455 cu. in. (7,468 cc) Stage 1, which was conservatively rated at 360 horsepower and 510 lb-ft of torque.

By the 21st century, Buick had fallen on hard times. Its 2007 sales were down to about 186,000, the lowest since 1946, and only 90 exclusive Buick dealerships remain. Although Buicks are also sold through more than 2,700 multiple-franchise dealers, the average vendor moves only three Buick cars a month.

At the time this article was originally written, it looked like Buick was bleeding to death, sustained only by the brand’s popularity in China. With the demise of Pontiac and Saturn, however, it has become GM’s sole midsize brand, and it is now receiving new products, intended to position it as an American alternative to Lexus and Infiniti. It’s too soon to say how well that strategy will work, but it appears that GM’s oldest brand may enjoy at least one more renaissance — including some surprisingly sporty sedans. We find that heartening; Buick’s ignominious demise would have been a sad ending for the automaker that was the foundation of General Motors — and that once made some of the fastest cars on the road.

# # #

NOTES ON SOURCES

Our sources for this article included the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, Encyclopedia of American Cars: Over 65 Years of Automotive History, (Lincolnwood, IL: Publications International, 1996); Terry B. Dunham and Lawrence R. Gustin, The Buick: A Complete History (An Automobile Quarterly Magnificent Marque Book) (Kurtztown, PA: Automobile Quarterly, 1980); Jim Dunne and Jan P. Norbye, Buick 1946-1978: The Classic Postwar Years, Second Edition (Osceola, WI: MBI, Inc./Motorbooks International, 1993); Dave Holls and Michael Lamm, A Century of Automotive Style: 100 Years of American Car Design (Stockton, CA: Lamm-Morada Publishing Co. Inc., 1997), pp. 84-118; Beverly Rae Kimes, ed., Standard Catalog of American Cars 1805-1942, Second Edition (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, Inc., 1989); and Josiah Work, “Depression-Bred Beauty: 1932 Buick 60,” Special Interest Autos #128, March-April 1992; Tim Howley, “SIA comparisonReport: 1938 Buick vs. 1938 LaSalle,” Special Interest Autos #126 (November-December 1991); and Michael Lamm, “driveReport: 1941 Buick Phaeton,” Special Interest Autos #6 (July-August 1971), both of which are reprinted in The Hemmings Book of Buicks: driveReports from Special Interest Autos magazine, ed. Terry Ehrich (Bennington, VT: Hemmings Motor News, 2001).

This article’s title was suggested by the song “Beauty of Speed,” written and performed by Tori Amos. It appeared on her 2007 album American Doll Posse.


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6 Comments

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  1. Hello again Aaron,
    Thoroughly enjoyed this article on the the early(and later)Buicks. I have a question for you about a caption on the picture of the Stage 1 400 engine. Your line,” It was followed in 1970 by the monstrous 455 (7.5L) Stage 1, which was [b]conservatively[/b] rated 360 horsepower and 510 lb-ft of torque.”

    Most of what I have read over the years has led me to believe that horsepower ratings of that era were not only “gross” figures, but in many cases overstated as well.

    Could you expand on your statement? Not argueing the point at all, just curious.

    Regards
    Joe

    1. This is one of those “all of the above” questions. Yes, most American cars prior to 1972 (including the early Buick Stage 1 engines) were rated in the old SAE gross system, which measure the engine’s maximum power on a test stand, with open exhaust and no accessories (water pump, fan belt, etc.), rather than in as-installed condition, with stock exhaust and accessories. As a result, the gross rating was considerably higher than the DIN or SAE net figures used on modern cars. (See http://ateupwithmotor.com/automotive-terms/47-gross-versus-net-horsepower.html for more.)

      If we consider the 455 Stage 1′s rated power compared to its likely output in the modern SAE net system, it was at least a little overstated. However, almost [i]all[/i] American cars of that period were rated using the gross system; if we compare the 455 Stage 1 to the gross ratings of other contemporary engines, it was probably understated a fair bit. It was certainly more powerful than the previous year’s 400 cu. in. Stage 1, which carried the same horsepower rating. (It’s worth noting that the 455 Stage 1′s gross torque rating was actually 20 lb-ft higher than a 426 Hemi, which was rated 425 gross horsepower and, toward the end, something like 375 net.

      Aside from the vagaries of gross and net ratings, Buick, like Pontiac in the same period, was bound by a corporate policy that limited GM cars (except the Corvette) to no more than one advertised horsepower per 10 pounds of base curb weight. (There were a couple of occasions where one or another of the divisions violated this rule, but those were the exception.) The upshot of that was that the ratings of some of the hotter GM engines, like the later Pontiac Ram Air III and IV, were understated to comply with at least the letter of the corporate policy. Pontiac executives said as much to the press on a number of occasions, although Buick was a little more circumspect.

      So, it was entirely possible for an engine of that period to be simultaneously overstated and understated. Fun, huh?

  2. Thanks for this article. This gives me an understanding of my now deceased father-in-law’s love of Buicks. He was born in 1922 and was loyal to the Buick nameplate his entire life owning along the way interesting Buicks including a 1964 Riveria, a Boattail Riv, and his near favorite, the front wheel drive 1982 Riv. His favorite however was his first car, a 1938 Century, bought after the Second World War. Now I understand the beginning of a lifetime passion.

  3. I found this a really interesting article, I always knew they were an under appreciated performance brand. What drives me crazy is the missed opportunity with the current Buicks. I look around and see a sea of BMWs, Mercedes, Lexus IS’s and Chrysler 300s, and all GM can muster is a Cadillac CTS with styling that isn’t to everyones taste. Buick should have a RWD car to compete in this class. It should also have a V8, to compete with the Chrysler LX cars. It is too bad they dropped the smaller Northstar V8. They don’t need a corvette V8, just small V8 is all that is necessary to be competitive. Its to bad they couldn’t put their current LaCrosse on the CTS frame and be a real competitor with BMW et all.

  4. I own a 2007 Buick Lucerne CX with the 3.8L V6.
    I have had absolutely zero problems with this car since I’ve owned it, proving that an American company like Buick can still make a quality car.
    I think that Buick made a huge mistake, dropping the Lucerne and not replacing it with a similar rear drive car to compete with the likes of Lexus and Chrysler 300. All the Lucerne needed was a V6 engine with more horsepower and a six speed automatic transmission. China has a Park Ave., why doesn’t America have one? Buick is no
    longer the prestiege marque it once was, the
    LaCrosse is not a luxury car.

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