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.
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 Buick’s general manager and then its 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 a whopping 8,820 cars that year.
Billy Durant was nothing if not ambitious, so 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 — then as now, what we would today call 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, and boasted 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 and had tinkered with the proportions prior to production. In any case, the result was dismal sales that fell by more than 25% from 1928. Then, in October 1929, the stock market crashed, taking with it much of the market for expensive cars.
No high-priced cars fared well during the early years of the Great Depression, but Buick was hit particularly hard. After 1929, this was due mostly to the economy rather than any failings 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, offered 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. The 1933 total was only 40,620, Buick’s worst year since 1914. As sales dropped, Buick dealers began to jump ship; by 1934, there were fewer than 70 exclusive Buick franchises, compared to more than 2,500 before the Crash. What had once been GM’s most profitable division suddenly looked terminal. GM management talked seriously about liquidation.
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 the division’s 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.
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 ask Earl 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, trading leaf springs for coils and providing 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, the 1936 Buick retained overhead-valve straight eights, but the earlier 235 cu. in. (3,857 cc) and 278 cu. in. (4,588 cc) engines were dropped, leaving the base 233 cu. in. (3,819 cc) edition, with 93 hp (69 kW), and a new 320 cu. in. (5,247 cc) engine with 120 hp (90 kW).
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.
The Buick line was extensively restyled for 1937. 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 still sharp-looking and modern. The Special’s smaller eight got a longer stroke, taking it to 248 cu. in. (4,065 cc) and 100 hp (75 kW), while the bigger 320 cu. in. (5,247 cc) engine on senior cars was up 10 hp (7.5 kW) to 130 hp (97 kW).
With the more powerful engine, the 1937 Buick Century remained a fast car despite its additional 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 1937 were up a further 25% over 1936. Buick’s previously failing fortunes had undergone a major turnaround.
Harlow Curtice wasn’t satisfied with being only one of the fastest and asked Charles Chayne, Buick’s new chief engineer, to see if more power could be extracted from the big engine. For 1938, the 320 cu. in. (5,247 cc) version, renamed “Dynaflash 8,” got new combustion chambers, relocated valves and spark plugs, and a higher compression ratio that boosted advertised output 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 812 could give the Buick 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.
Curtice and Chayne had an even hotter Century up their sleeves. For 1941, larger Buicks got a redesigned “Fireball 8” with a higher 7.0:1 compression ratio, 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, giving 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 hp (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 Rocket 88s 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 new spark plugs created oil-sealing problems, the compression ratio demanded a higher octane rating than most contemporary gasoline could offer, and mechanics found that keeping the dual carburetors properly tuned was troublesome. Worse, drivers who regularly took advantage of the dual carburetors paid the price in fuel economy. During the war, most civilian drivers were limited to at most 5 gallons (18.9 liters) of fuel a week, prompting Buick owners and dealers to convert Compound Carburetion engines back to single carburetors and taking measures to reduce the compression ratio, which trimmed power to 150 hp (112 kW).
Another impressive effort that proved a bridge too far was the Buick Limited. Hoping to further boost Buick’s image, Curtice had contracted with the coachbuilder Brunn & Company in Buffalo, New York to offer custom-built bodies for Buick’s largest chassis. Cadillac management complained that Buick was overstepping its bounds and the custom-built Limited was dropped in 1941 after only a handful had been sold.
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).
In 1948, Curtice was rewarded for his efforts with a promotion to corporate 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 1 million units.) 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.
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 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); William C. Anderson, “Charles A. Chayne: Buick’s Unsung Hero,” The Buick Bugle September 2003, pp. 3-6; 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); Franklin Q. Hershey with J.M. Fenster, “Glory Days! My 35 Years as an Automobile Designer,” Automobile Quarterly Vol. 27 No. 1 (1987), pp. 14-31; 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); 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); Wilfred Leland, Master of Precision (Great Lakes Books Publication) (Chicago, IL: Wayne State University Press, 1996); 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), reprinted in The Hemmings Book of Buicks.